Brian Watts An Appreciation
Brian Watts, master distiller and general manager of Great Northern Distillery (GND) in Ireland, died suddenly and unexpectedly on 13 October 2022 at the age of just 60 years. Stuart McNamara pays tribute to a remarkable Scotsman who contributed so much to the development of the Irish whiskey scene
The shock within the Irish whiskey world on hearing of the untimely death of Brian Watts has been immense and none more so than among the many small Irish whiskey and other spirits brands that Brian supported with his knowledge, experience and kindness.
Born and raised in Scotland, Brian Watts graduated from Dundee College of Technology in 1986 with an Honours Degree in Science and Mechanical Engineering. As a young graduate, he worked with Scottish Power on safety case arguments for major power stations, before moving to William Grant & Sons in 1992 to commence his career in whisky. He worked in a variety of project management and asset management-related engineering roles until 1995. He then took up a new role as a shift manager at the North British Grain Distillery before being promoted to production manager with responsibility for a plant and team producing over 68 million litres of alcohol annually.
From 2012 Brian gained experience in the food packaging and agri-food sector before he came to Ireland in June 2017 to take up the role of general manager and master distiller of the Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk. This is Ireland’s largest independent distillery. In this key leadership role in the Irish whiskey sector, he excelled as a mentor and friend to a great number of emerging small brands and start-ups that flowed from the Irish whiskey renaissance.
I first met Brian in May 2018 at a meeting between our start-up whiskey brand, John Teeling and the senior management team at GND. Little did we know then that this tall, genial Scotsman would become a valued friend and mentor. His experience, kindness and encouragement would guide us from laying down our first single cask of whiskey (and by single, I mean just one first cask), to building our brand, our own distillery and our visitor centre.
Our experience of working with Brian was not unique. Speaking with industry friends and colleagues in recent weeks, it is obvious that a great many new and small Irish whiskey and spirits brands owe their growth and success to Brian and his team. A common thread in conversation was that each of these brand owners was made to feel as if they were GND’s most important customer when they visited Ireland’s largest independent distillery, no matter how big or small their project. He cared a lot about his entrepreneurial clients and their crazy dreams, and he kept the fun in whiskey and industry alive.
His experience, kindness and encouragement would guide us from laying down our first single cask of whiskey (and by single, I mean just one first cask), to building our brand, our own distillery and our visitor centre
The establishment and growth of this dynamic new tribe of small Irish whiskey brands encouraged and mentored by Brian has added colour, innovation and diversity to the Irish drinks sector. This will be a large part of Brian’s professional legacy. Of note also is the talented and creative team he built and developed at GND, imbued with his own ethos of kindness and decency. In the words of John Teeling:
“Not alone is Brian’s legacy the hundreds of brands he has helped create but the fine young team he has developed to continue the development of Irish whiskey.”
PICTURED: Brain (far left) with Stuart McNamara on the far right
My favourite and most enduring memories of Brian will always be the many great conversations we enjoyed on everything from nuclear power stations to college days and ‘Pinot des Charentes’
My personal memories of Brian are many, but my favourites would include his enthusiasm and joy in sharing a test-sip of new-make spirit from the still. Or his warm welcome when I had a family member accompany me on a drop in visit; meeting Brian’s son on the same visit, and sharing a glass of a metallic-tasting 200-year-old plus Irish whiskey in his office from a case of handblown dark bottles he had acquired. But my favourite and most enduring memories of Brian will always be the many great conversations we enjoyed on everything from nuclear power stations to college days and ‘Pinot des Charentes’, steam engineering and of course whiskey as we walked across the yard of GND in ‘Brian time’. Brian walked at a pace that was about two thirds that of the rest of us. It reflected his own calm demeanour, and the calm was infectious and even therapeutic as we dropped our pace to fall in step with him. Brian didn’t just take time to talk with you, he made time to talk with you.
We offer our sincere and deepest sympathy to Brian’s family in Scotland, his wife Karen, his sons Andrew and Euan and to his relatives, colleagues and friends at GND, in Ireland, Scotland and around the world. Brian Watts played a key role in developing the Irish whiskey sector. He was also one of the kindest and most generous people in the whiskey world. We will all miss him greatly and will do our best to honour his memory and legacy in all we do in the future. Rest in peace, Brian.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal.
Stuart McNamara is chair of the Irish Craft and Artisan Distilleries Association (ICADA) and is a founder-director of Portmagee Whiskey in Ireland