Earlier this year, Robert Fleming celebrated 30 years as the Master Distiller at Tomintoul Distillery in Speyside, Scotland. He was kind enough to spare some time to talk to Inside the Cask.
Inside the Cask: Hi Robert, you are the Distilleries Director for Angus Dundee Distillers, Master Distiller at Tomintoul in Speyside and you have completed an incredible 30 years at the same distillery back in April 2020. However how did it all start for you? Where did the interest in whisky initially come from?
I grew up at a distillery. My father, grandfather and great grandfather all worked at The Glenlivet Distillery and from a very early age I used to accompany my dad to the distillery.
I was fascinated by the plant and process and decided this was going to be my career. I started full time employment there over 46 years ago in June 1974.
Inside the Cask: Most people will have no idea of the work involved in producing whiskies, so what does the job of Distilleries Director entail on a day to day basis?
As Distilleries Director you wear many hats, getting involved in all aspects from raw materials purchasing, spirit production, warehousing and blending, project work, health and safety, environmental, Revenue and Customs, HR, distillery admin, customer visits and promotional work. It is all encompassing and as you can imagine every day is different getting involved in a variety of tasks and problem solving when issues arise.
Inside the Cask: Angus Dundee Distillers took over Tomintoul back in 2000. What was the major change brought about (if any) and what is the company approach to whisky making? Was Tomintoul Distillery silent for a period of time prior to the take over?
There have been a few changes since Angus Dundee Distillers took over in 2000. Although production capacity has remained the same at 3.4M litres of pure alcohol, for the past 20 years we have been working at maximum capacity 24/7. Warehousing capacity has increased and in 2003 we built the blending facility to be as independent as possible by making the blends and exporting to our worldwide customers rather than have this done at third party locations. This has meant that our workforce has doubled since Angus Dundee Distillers took over to cope with the additional work. Increasing the workforce by such a large amount has been beneficial for the local community.
Production hasn’t changed in that we are still making the same high quality spirit now as we did prior to being taken over. This spirit was highly sought after by other companies for their blends therefore Angus Dundee Distillers wanted this to continue. Making such a high quality spirit means we can exchange with other companies and we get their different styles of spirit in return which when matured will go into our blends. Only change to this is that for a few weeks of the year we produce a heavily peated spirit which we use in our own blends and also bottle as single malt expressions of various ages.
One major change has been the introduction of a range of Tomintoul single malts to satisfy different tastes and markets. Under the previous owners they didn’t concentrate on promoting Tomintoul as a single malt as most of the production went for blending as mentioned above but Angus Dundee Distillers realised we had exceptional whiskies maturing which were up there with the best and gradually introduced these to market. They range from the non age introductory single malt right through to the older expressions, special editions and single cask bottlings. These are continually being developed and this has meant recruiting an in house marketing team and brand ambassadors to spread the word on the range of whiskies.
Inside the cask: What attributes would you suggest someone would need to have to become a whisky distiller?
Quite simply – Passion and dedication. Being specialised in one area such as chemical engineering, biochemistry etc can be beneficial but is not essential as you can call in such expertise as and when required. Having some business acumen also helps.
Inside the Cask: Can you tell us more about Tomintoul single malts and what makes it special? What is unique about it?
The Tomintoul range are affectionately called ‘ The Gentle Dram ‘ and for good reason. Our core range of single malts are mild and mellow to taste.
Our production process and type of plant used – mainly the high stills and contact with copper – attribute to this. Careful selection of the casks used for maturation also plays a part. The first fill bourbon and subsequent second and third fills plus the various sherry and port casks used for finishing are all very important factors.
Inside the Cask: Glencadam Distillery started in 1825 and for a time there were 8 distilleries in operation on the East Coast between Aberdeen and Dundee. Following the downturn for Scotch whisky in the mid 1980s, only two survived (Glencadam and Fettercairn) although the number has increased since with Arbikie opened in 2014. What type of single malts are you producing at Glencadam? Is the visitor centre opened yet?
We have developed an extensive range of single malts at Glencadam since Angus Dundee Distillers taking over the distillery in 2003 from the non age Origin through to the older 25yo single malts and the various special edition single cask bottlings, including sherry and port finishes. The Glencadam spirit is not as light as Tomintoul and has a creamy texture on the palate. Again, the selection of casks plays an important role and we select the casks from same suppliers for Glencadam as Tomintoul. There are three main points worth noting for nearly all of the Glencadam single malt range – higher bottling strength at 46% abv, unchillfiltered and no caramel addition.
Regarding the new Visitor Centre, we have had plans approved and are busy working on design and content for it, however the recent situation with Covid19 has delayed us a bit. Stay tuned on our social media and we’ll keep everyone up-to-date on the development on this exciting project.
Inside the Cask: Which one is your favourite dram and why? How are you (and the company if applicable) planning to celebrate your 30 years at Tomintoul?
My favourite drams are the Tomintoul 16yo and Glencadam 10yo. I like my whiskies to be mild and mellow. However as I have been going to Jerez in Spain to select the sherry casks for the past 15 years, I have also enjoyed tasting the various sherry expressions from both distilleries, especially the Glencadam 19yo. The Tomintoul Portwood range is also a favourite. Peated whiskies have for me been an acquired taste and not my ‘go to ‘ whiskies however if the location and ambience is right, they can be enjoyable.
Inside the Cask: Can you tell us more about your personal background? What else are you passionate about?
Having grown up within a distilling family and community, all aspects of whisky industry production and history have been my passion. I have over the years amassed a sizeable collection of books and ephemera relating to whisky and other distilled spirits which one day I might get round to archiving.
Outside of work, I love visiting my grandchildren. I also like to travel and play golf although I haven’t played much these past few years but promise myself each year I am going to play more.
Inside the Cask: What would be your advice for anyone else wanting to work in the drinks industry?
Go for it. It is a fascinating industry to be in. Once in the industry the majority of people don’t want to leave.
There are many areas of the industry which would provide satisfaction and would depend which area you are interested in or have an aptitude for. It could be production, warehousing, blending, quality control, sales, marketing, brand ambassador, research and development, health and safety, environmental – the list goes on. The industry also has various learning opportunities and qualifications specific to production, warehousing and bottling.
Once inside the industry, there may be opportunities to cross over into another discipline which is of interest. I was lucky in that I grew up in a production environment and also had experience of warehousing. Over the past 20 years I have become more involved in the blending side which has proved interesting and enjoyable. I also enjoy traveling to many parts of the world promoting our whiskies and it gives me a great sense of pride when you see our whiskies being enjoyed in some far off country and you can reflect that it was made by our dedicated small distillery teams in a remote part of Scotland.
If I had to start all over again I would still want to be an all rounder rather than in a specialised area but that is just my preference. I once said that “ I know a little about a lot “ and that makes the job more interesting. Even after 46 years I am still learning something new every day.
Inside the Cask: What is the favourite part of your job? Anything that you would like to share that not many people would know about you?
Production and warehousing is still my main interest and has been for the past 46 years but I am also involved in blending where we create bespoke blends mainly for foreign customers.
Note from Inside the Cask: You can meet Robert Fleming in a video on Tomintoul’s website and take a look at the https://www.tomintoulwhisky.com/robertflemingwith him: