From distilling to marketing, providing investment advice to setting up new distilleries, there isn’t much that David Robertson hasn’t achieved in the whisky world. But what’s next for this restless spirit? SMWS ambassador Lee ‘Connas’ Connor caught up with him to find out
David Robertson was born and raised in the Highlands at Royal Brackla, where his father was assistant manager. However, it wasn’t long before the family moved south to Aberfeldy, where his dad held his first distillery manager role. Growing up in Aberfeldy, David spent much of his childhood wandering through the distillery on his way to school or to meet visiting friends, an upbringing that fostered his deep interest in the whisky world.
Although he saw the industry undergo some turbulence in the 1980s, David continued his whisky journey after leaving home. “I went away to do Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh,” he says. “That was a great time, I managed to get a bursary from Diageo for my last year. I think I must have been the only guy who went for it who knew anything about distilling!
“It was about £2,000, at the time it seemed like an absolute fortune. It made me very popular with my pals. Still, I managed to graduate, which is nice.”
FEET ON THE FACTORY FLOOR
His studies set him in good stead for a career in distilling, and after graduating he was taken on by DCL, forerunner of Diageo, at Benrinnes distillery on Speyside. “I knew nothing about anything back then,” admits David. “But it was great to be in a team of folks who would help me learn, not to mention hide my cockups!”
Said cockups didn’t seem to slow David down, and before long he was given a process support role, allowing him to work across more than 30 of the company’s single malt distilleries. He’d hop between Talisker one week, Clynelish the next, followed by Cardhu and then maybe Lagavulin or Glenkinchie.
However, the work didn’t come without bumps in the road, and he experienced some distilleries struggle. David adds: “I was lucky enough to work at Rosebank before it was closed. At the time I was there, it was poorly invested in. Looking back, I can see why they had to close it down, there were so many issues with the water works, and getting rid of effluent and so forth. It would be great if [current owners] Ian Macleod can do it justice.”
“Someone at Highland Distillers must have realised I knew how to turn the lights on and off or something. I was very lucky, I got to travel the world representing Macallan, I was involved in the marketing of some of their most iconic bottlings.”
A FORK IN THE ROAD
David’s thirst for new challenges led him to a production manager role at Cardhu distillery. But his head was turned in 1994 after spotting a small advert in the newspaper from Macallan, who were hiring a new distillery manager.
“After discussing it with my wife I decided to bang out a letter to them, and I was staggered when they wrote back. In short, I got my dream job. I’m a huge Macallan fan, it was my go-to style of whisky. I was chuffed to bits!” David says.
But challenging times were never too far away, when in 1996 Macallan changed hands which led to most senior members of staff being let go. Thankfully, David managed to keep his role, and it was here he began to explore the commercial side of the business.
David says: “Someone at Highland Distillers must have realised I knew how to turn the lights on and off or something. I was very lucky, I got to travel the world representing Macallan, I was involved in the marketing of some of their most iconic bottlings.”
David developed a solid foundation across all the industry’s disciplines as a result of his extensive experience and in 2006 joined Whyte & Mackay to help the Dalmore brand. “I worked as innovation director at Whyte & Mackay up until 2012. I think it’s fair to say that both they and Macallan are still doing okay, so I’ve not managed to wreck anything so far!”
Having accomplished so much in his career as an employee, David decided to go out on his own as an independent consultant, which has led to a whole new range of projects.
CONSUMER IS KING
“I set up [whisky investment and insights company] Rare Whisky 101 with Andy Simpson in 2014, and we’ve had a good run,” says David. “It’s been interesting to see how the markets have evolved in the past few years. Part of the challenge now, as I’m sure some of your members will appreciate, it’s become a bit of a gold rush. Some of the new wave of cask brokers are promising inordinate returns on cask investments and they’re using data gleaned from Rare Whisky 101, which is based on bottle sales! It’s misleading, and it’s resulting in casks being sold at crazy prices. Sadly, this is contributing to a rise in the cost of bottles. It’s unfair to the drinkers out there.”
Despite this, David remains positive and passionate about the modern whisky landscape. “Customers have never had so much diversity, range and choice when it comes to whisky,” he says. “The quality overall is much higher than it has ever been and there are some exciting new distilleries appearing too, so the outlook is encouraging.”
MODERN SPIRIT IN THE MAKING
Encouraged by the wave of innovation, David even helped mould Edinburgh’s most modern distillery. He says: “I’ve been involved with some of that side of things with Holyrood distillery. [The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s] Rob and Kelly Carpenter invited me to help develop their idea and design of the distillery. In essence, what we’ve done is build a small yet flexible distillery with the aim of producing small batches of individual styles of spirit.
“It’s a cool little plaything. The downstairs is where most of the hard work has happened. The middle floor is the pretty part that the customers see. It’s a bit like a swan, all graceful above water, but paddling like hell below water!”
He continues: “It’s great to see that new distilleries are maybe taking some inspiration from the craft beer movement and are being a little more experimental. Whether it’s with different yeast, fermentation times, heritage barley, what the barley is dried with, or cut points, the whole thing seems to be a huge pot of innovation – which wasn’t maybe the case 10 or 20 years ago.”
Things are far from slowing down for David, with new ventures presenting themselves apace. “I can’t say too much about who, but I’ve spoken to various folks to explore the concept of me doing some kind of takeover of their distillery to do something interesting. I’m having positive conversations with a good range of distilleries from all over Scotland who are willing to experiment, so watch this space!”
So, there you have it, a veritable master of all trades in the whisky world, still driven with a passion passed down from his father. Whatever David has in store for us in the future, you can bet it won’t be boring!