David Robertson is the co-founder of Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh and also Rare Whisky 101. He has been around the Scotch whisky industry from a young age…
David was kind enough to spare some time to talk to us and share his vast amount of experience.
Inside the Cask: Hi David, I am quite impressed with the sheer amount of experience in the Scotch Whisky Industry that you have. From what I can tell, you have been a Master Distiller, Distillery Manager, Rare Whisky Director, founding partner of Jon, Mark and Robbo’s Whisky Company and also Rare Whisky 101 and most recently, co-founder of Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh. How did it all start and where did the interest in drinks come from in the first place?
Indeed, a fun 30 years or so. I was lucky to be born and bred at distilleries – my father worked for Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD) and I arrived when he was Asst Manager at Royal Brackla in Nairn.
He was then promoted to Manager at Aberfeldy where I lived an idyllic childhood from 1970 – 1983 and used to walk through the distillery and warehouse to and from school most days. In 1983 he was promoted to Glendullan distillery and we relocated to Speyside and it was at that time my interest in science and whisky really grew. I recall him asking in 1984 what I wanted to do so I glibly said – same as you – you get a free house, tons of whisky and are on the golf course at 17:30 every day – what’s not too like.
He clipped me round the ear for being cheeky but it helped me focus on what I wanted to do and how to get there. I spotted the Brewing & Distilling course at Heriot-Watt, worked hard on my highers and scraped in and started at Uni in 1985, graduating in 1990 with a 2:1 Hons. Phew!
Inside the Cask: You worked as the Master Distiller for an iconic brand, The Macallan. How did this come about for you in the first place? What was the job like and what are your best memories from your time at Edrington?
Macallan was an incredible experience. However, it all came about given my Uni degree and the 4 years I spent at United Distillers (now Diageo) where I worked at Benrinnes Distillery for 1 1/2 years as trainee manager and then as a trouble shooter in the process support team travelling to all 30 malt distilleries around Scotland seeking to resolve spirit quality challenges, efficiency and yield problems, effluent consent failures, etc.
I saw the job advert at Macallan in spring 1994 and popped my CV in the post, never expecting to get a response. At the same time I was then offered the Production Manager role at Cardhu. Low and behold Macallan did get in touch and after a rigours series of interviews they decided to take me on and work under a great man – Frank Newlands – to learn the ropes.
Macallan was a good sized distillery, well regarded but had a reputation for employing the wild men of Speyside – a tough gig for a young 26 year old wet behind the ears lad. I started on 1st Aug 1994 and quickly moved to live on site and truly learn the ropes. Frank kindly gave me huge autonomy and I had 2 hugely experienced assistants or brewers to lean on. We used to have Friday afternoon prayers – to review the week past and the week coming – and during one of these Frank asked if I could nose. Luckily I had been on the nosing panel at United Distillers and after a bit of training Frank invited me to select and create my first Mac 12 yo vatting…heaven! And so exciting.
I was then invited to take a much more active role supporting Frank in the sample room and worked on the full range – which at that time was 7 yo (for Italy), 10 yo, 10 yo cask strength, 18 yo, 25 yo. In 1996 we were taken over by Highland Distillers (now part of Edrington) and I was kept on as I knew how to switch the lights on and off for the new owners…this was the saddest of times and all the people that recruited me were made redundant.
It was an awful time at Easter Elchies. However, what Highlands Distillers did well was to invest behind the distillery, brand and business and I was invited to develop some new whiskies – great fun – starting with a blank sheet or paper, a bit of stock knowledge and then starting the creative process of making something new and different.
My proudest Macallan creations are the Gran Reserva (1979), 30 year old blue box, Millennium Decanter 1949 and the Fine & Rare range.
Inside the Cask: Can you tell us more about your personal background? What else are you passionate about?
I am lucky to have a wonderful wife, Susan and 2 kids who have just finished University at Glasgow in Law and Aeronautical Engineering – makes me so proud – and thank goodness they get the brains from their mum! We have a couple of pooches (Barley and Blossom) and love camper van travel, beaches, BBQs and bracing walks. I have a dark secret as an old prog rocker. I enjoy craft beers, wines and, unsurprisingly, whisky – predominantly scotch malt but also love old blends bottled pre 1980!
Inside the Cask: I still recall the Jon, Mark & Robbo’s whiskies from a few years back and actually ended up working with Mark (Mark Geary) during my time at Edrington. As the name suggests, you were one of the three people involved in this project as ‘Robbo’ (from David ‘Robertson’). How did it come about and what did you take away from this experience?
It was a fun project. We were seeking to develop a way to reach consumers who were put off by the, at that time, stuffiness around malt in the market. Quirky labels, packs, adding people and personality and naming the range based on flavour certainly created cut through and PR impact and drove tons of trade and consumer interest.
However, on reflection I think it was ahead of its time. You look now at Compass Box (who do great things), the Douglas Laing ranges, Monkey Shoulder, etc there is a lovely range of quirkier malts that don’t rely on distillery of origin or age to excite many consumers.
Inside the Cask: There is a growing interest in investing in Scotch whisky given the potential returns and you are involved with Rare Whisky 101. Can you tell us more about it and how you see the future for investment in drinks?
Sure. I had seen at Macallan the passion collectors and connoisseurs had for the brand, its new releases and its back catalogue. But it has been in recent times we have seen an explosion in demand and the increase in auction houses and brokers seeking to satisfy the opportunity. I am continually amazed at the growth in both the number of bottles coming to auction and the prices paid. It is truly staggering. Proof, if yet more proof was needed, of the enduring interest in (mainly) single malt.
Andy, my business partner and co-founder at RW101, has been tracking the market since around 2003 so we have an incredible database of over 50,000 different bottle types and 525,000 price records – the largest and most detailed price database anywhere.
We have a team of people who track all the UK auctions and collect price data daily and update our database. It gives us huge insight to the market and we publish and update our sector leading indices monthly and produce a half year and full year report that can be downloaded free from the website www.rarewhisky101.com
For Reference – Inside the Cask blog post: Rare Scotch whisky demand breaks the 100k barrier
Inside the Cask: Holyrood Distillery opened its doors to the public in July 2019, bringing back to the centre of Edinburgh a Single Malt Distillery for the first time since 1925. What was it like to resurrect single malt distilling to the capital of Scotland as one of its founders? Where and how did the idea first come about?
Hugely exciting, challenging and frustrating all at the same time! Until you have done it you can’t imagine all the twists and turns. We have had so many highs and lows along the way. This is a whole other article. Suffice to say I have the bruises and scars to prove I have been in the fight alongside the founders Rob & Kelly Carpenter, our investors and a hugely talented team that have got us through the pain and we are now open! (pictured below far left with Holyrood Distillery team)
I can claim no credit for the idea – Rob & Kelly were the originators – I was just lucky to be invited along for the ride! They fell in love with Edinburgh back in 2004 and hankered after finding a way to create a business in the city and an idea developed about resurrecting single malt whisky distilling!
For Reference – Inside the Cask blog post: How to Buy a Cask of Scotch Whisky from…Holyrood Distillery
Inside the Cask: What would be your advice for anyone else wanting to work in the drinks industry?
Really challenge yourself as to why, what area/field, etc. Seek out opportunities to do holiday jobs.
I started as a car park attendant at Glenfiddich. Worked as a labourer at Forsyths building and refurbishing copper stills. A lab technician at a maltings. All to try and understand the sector, where I wanted to work and why and eventually I decided on malt distilling production.
However since then I have broadened in to marketing, sales, PR etc. The industry has a huge range of opportunities and you need to be clear on what you want to do, why and how you can get there. I believe much of my summer jobs helped demonstrate to an employer my commitment….and the rest as they say is history!
All you want to do is a get a foot in the door in the sector you desire with the company that excites you. The internet has made it so much easier now to research brands, companies and distilleries. The explosion in craft distilling has also created a raft of opportunities. At Holyrood we have taken on 3 fantastic young distillers – 2 graduates with no prior experience and 1 with tons of practical brewing and distilling experience. They make a fab team.
Inside the Cask: What surprised you most about working in the drinks industry?
The great people who are passionate, committed and do their very best every day to make, market and sell the worlds most diverse spirit!
Inside the Cask: What is the favourite part of your job?
Seeing our younger team develop and the great feedback on trip advisor for Holyrood. At RW101 seeing the delight on customers faces when we find the liquid gold they desire!
Anything that you would like to share that not many people would know about you?
Yes. I got kicked out of Uni for a year for doing so poorly in my biochemistry. Embarrassing. Frustrating. But I came back stronger. Knuckled down. Got back in and nailed it.