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Interview. Dràm Mòr – Independent Whisky Bottlers

2021-01-30

One of the most memorable times I spend with Dràm Mòr was a warm August night in our garden last year. It was one of these magic nights in the West Coast of Scotland when there was no wind or a single cloud in the sky. Sitting five of us underneath the dome of stars, wrapped in the peaty smoke coming from the nearby Bowmore distillery and listening to the sound of sea, and the soothing sound of whisky making. Sipping some incredible Islay malts, remembering forgotten memories and places. I think all of us were breath-taken by the purity of that moment.

This special night has evoked Kenny’s memories, that of home. He spend a decent amount of time at his  grandparents in the Isle of Lewis in the North West Coast of Scotland. At home they used to use peat to burn the fire. For this the scent of smoke was inseparable from their home. So as the world of whisky. Kenny’s grandfather worked as a foreman in Inverleven Distillery, the Lowland malt distillery situated within the Dumbarton grain distillery complex, which is also the original home of Ballantine’s, and Kenny himself took up his first role behind the bar at a local bar in his home town of Helensburgh when he was 19 years old. Over the years, he developed an incredible passion for all things Scotch whisky. At one point in his life he started working for the UK Governments Food Standard Agency, but (luckily!) the opportunity to volunteer for voluntary redundancy came his way. This gave Kenny the chance to turn a passion into a business and for the last 8 years he has worked to build his name and reputation in the industry from someone that nobody knew to being one of the most recognisable faces on the European whisky festival circuit.

Viktorija also came to the whisky industry from the Lithuanian public sector, where she worked in European Commission prior to Lithuania joining the EU and then worked on a number of European projects after Lithuanian joined EU. She received an award for Entrepreneurship in Public Sector from Prince Philip in 2006 during the Royal family visit to Lithuania to mark her achievements driving projects between Lithuania and Scotland. Whilst in Lithuania, Viktorija was involved in the organisation of Robert Burns Suppers in collaboration with the British Chamber of Commerce and the British Embassy, which instigated her interested in Scotch whisky as part of fundraising for the event. The first bottle of single malt she ever received as a gift was a bottle of an old Littlemill 12yo, which got he to fall in love with Scotch and the rare releases of which she collects to date. The first peated whisky she ever tried was Caol Ila and this distillery remains her absolute favourite distillery on Islay.

I have a huge pleasure to interview one of the most charismatic persona in Scotch whisky industry, one of the founder member of Dràm Mòr brand, Kenny MacDonald.

Hello Kenny. First of all could you tell us what is Dràm Mòr?

Dràm Mòr is the brain child of husband and wife team Viktorija and Kenny Macdonald. The business started as a training and whisky events business as well as working to open new markets around the world for Independent Scotch whisky producers working with companies such as Ian MacLeod Distillers, Arran, Wemyss Malts, Douglas Laing, Speyside Distillers, Borders Distillery, as well as Scottish gin producers such as Port Of Leith Distillery (Lind&Lamp; Lime Gin) and North Uist Distillery (Downpour Gin).

Following the success of this, I was offered the chance to work with Ian MacLeod Distillers as a freelance Brand Ambassador working in numerous markets throughout the world.

What about your brand? How the brand ‘Dràm Mòr’ was born?

So the brand and name was down to me originally, as it was important for me to have a Gaelic name to represent my Hebridean bloodline, as well as my love for whisky. Dràm Mòr in Scottish Gaelic means “Big Whisky”.

However, the brand itself has been altered to become more professional and this has been achieved with a massive amount of input by a wonderful young Lithuanian artist, Iveta Šmidtaitė, who has created our original mountain logo, and as time goes by we look to perfect the look of how we portray ourselves and with the help of Joanne Smith who has brought her excellent marketing and design experience to the project we are really starting to look the part.

What made you want to become independent whisky bottlers?

After building on all of the experiences over the years the next logical step was to start to work for ourselves and this saw the creation of Dràm Mòr single cask, cask strength bottlings being released at the end of 2019. This year has seen the business grow and my eldest son Ruaraidh join the team as our Cask Manager. Recently, we managed to secure an Australian /New Zealand representative to join our team, Khi Leonard, who looks after this territory for cask sales and Dràm Mòr on-and-off trade promotion. Khi was the winner of Diageo Reserve Brands World Class Bartender of the Year 2009 in Classic Cocktail Challenge, and his ability to create perfect whisky cocktails is second to none.

Over the years, we have worked with people from through the industry and have formed some very special and long lasting friendships. From distillers to brand ambassadors and independent bottlers to distributors we have been able to call on advice and tap into the experience of some of the best people in the industry and, when you have so much experience, it would be crazy not to use the help that’s been offered.

How do you choose ‘the right’ cask? Would you be able to tell us more about how you select and purchase casks?

When it comes to what casks to buy that is very much down to experience of whiskies and knowing which distilleries that you can trust to provide you with top quality spirit every time. One of the most consistent one is of course the one which is called “Mr. Consistent”, i.e. Caol Ila Distillery.

People always assume that we can sit and look at numerous samples before choosing which cask to buy, but nothing could be further from the truth as for the vast majority of casks there are no samples available. The key is that if you have good spirit but weak oak, you can always change the cask, which happens all the time.

When we are looking for casks, we will talk to numerous brokers, private sellers and in some cases, distilleries directly to find the perfect casks although it may well be that the cask in question may not be ready for some years. Once the casks are good to go, it’s just a case of letting our bottling line and our printers know that we’re good to go and once the labels are ready, then so are we.

How do you decide the best maturation method for the whiskies you have selected?

This is a process that has no direct, straight forward answer as every cask has its own signature flavour and character so we need to look at each cask as a bespoke project in its own right.

There are certain spirits which have a very gentle and subtle personality which could so easily be overwhelmed by a powerful 1st fill cask. Other spirits that have fully body and base flavour can easily cope with the introduction of these big first fill cask which carry a massive amount of both flavour and colour. Gentle spirit would normally be better suited to perhaps a first refill cask with a stronger leaning towards a former bourbon cask. If we were dealing with a big heavy Highland whisky (for example let’s take a Ben Nevis) this spirit can easily stand up to heavy first fill sherries and port woods.

Is it harder to buy whisky these days now when whisky industry is booming?

On approaching distilleries, you find that although, say ten years ago just about every distillery were happy to deal with anyone looking to invest in a cask, nowadays we are on very different ground and the number of distilleries offering casks has dried up to next to nothing. You will find some of the new distilleries selling small barrels for crazy prices such as £6,000 and that is a price that would be very prohibitive to anyone who wished to bottle that cask. We are lucky, however, that we do have some direct supply from a few distilleries and this offers great spirit at superb prices.

Do you have any good stories that happened during your time as independent bottler?

On my travels as a Brand Ambassador I have seen some great cities, meet some wonderful people and had more than a few adventures. Most of the fun and games that we have when we’re away is normal harmless fun normally coming from that “one dram too many” but the tale I wish to share is one that not only was rather embarrassing but happened when stone cold sober!

For this story, we must jump on our imaginary plane and head to the beautiful sun kissed city of Tel Aviv in Israel in the summer of 2019. For anyone who has met me at whisky festivals, you will know that I very seldom go anywhere without my kilt and as this was my first trip to Israel, it was only right that I was dressed to impress. Now for anyone who has ever worn the kilt they can tell you that not only is it very comfortable but it can get pretty warm. It is after all pretty heavy pure wool topped off with long wooden hose (socks) and a fairly weighty waistcoat. Like many folk, I was aware that Tel Aviv might be a little bit on the warm side in late May, and I was not to be disappointed with a rather toasty 36C greeting me on arrival.

This is certainly not kilt weather, but Tel Aviv being a very well off city, I was comfortable in my knowledge that the hall we would be in would have the best of air conditioning, so on day one of the show I set off in full highland regalia to the festival. We arrived at the venue to find that it was a very high end shopping maul and were told the show was on the top floor. “Nice” I thought. There must be a big entertainment venue at the top, so we happily boarded the lift and up we went only to discover as the doors opened that we were not in a nice big airconditioned hall at all but were instead on the roof. Yes, the actually roof! The roof that was bathed in the 36C sunshine that seemed less dangerous on the street bellow.

Throughout the day the only chance of getting any kind of relief was to nip over to the glass sided edge of the building where I couldn’t be seen where I would take the chance to waft my kilt up and down a bit with hope of getting things a little cooler under there and being a traditional Scotsman everything was able to feel the relief of a wee bit of fresh air. This went well all day and I was happy to nip away every half hour the air the goods knowing that nobody could see me. There was an office block across from us but as it was the weekend I was pretty sure I was safe. Safe until the young lady who was working with me pointed out that throughout the day I had in fact been flashing the headquarters of the Israeli security service, Mossad! From what I have been told not only were the offices not quite as empty as I had hoped, but were in fact full with me being the highlight of a boring day with my unaware unveiling on the hour and half hour through the day. On the plus side, I didn’t get arrested, but now I know why I got some funny looks at the airport on the way home.

Is there any competition between you and other independent bottlers?

As we all know there have over the last few years seen a large increase in the amount of single bottlers bringing whisky to the market place and it is understandable to think that this might cause some issues amongst these different companies, but if I’m honest, there’s no issues between the vast majorities of independent bottlers.

I think in general most of us are very respectful to each other and realize that there is a very large market out there and there is plenty for all of us. We will buy and sell to deferent bottlers, so it’s very much becoming an industry in its own right. The good thing for us is that we can see what everyone is doing and at what level they are producing product, but we are able to look at some more established Indy bottlers, who have set a very high standard and that is what we in turn would aspire towards. Like any industry there are a very small few, who we would not wish to work with or aspire to, but that’s just life.

Does this mean that you buy bottles released by other independent bottlers?

Yes, we certainly do. The latest would be an Old Dumbarton from Alistair Walker and in the past we have bought Adelphi, Gordon&MacPhail and Cadenhead’s bottlings as well as being members of SMWS, the biggest independent bottler of all.

Why should people buy from independent bottlers and not distillery bottlings?

Firstly, can I just say that for people to get the best out of enjoying whisky, they should absolutely get to know the flavour profiles offered by distillery core ranges.

Remember that without these wonderful distilleries there would be no independent bottlers. For me the role of an independent bottler sits more with the experienced whisky connoisseurs who already know what to expect from distillery core range drams and who are looking for something more experimental both with flavour profiles and with strength.

You have started you journey just over 1 years ago and I know that you already have quite an incredible amount of fans of your product (over 3.5k followers on the Instagram alone!) How do you think you succeeded in achieving this?

We have been very fortunate to build up a really good following in the last year and this has been helped by some of the wonderful reviews that we have received from greats of the industry such as Dave Broom, Serge Valentin, Angus McRaid, Billy Abbot, Neil Murphy, Andy Flatt, Rod Morrison, Mennor Griet, Shamini Charlie T and Thomas Ohrbom and many more.

We were also lucky enough to just squeeze into the last whisky festival just before lockdown, which was held in Ghent, Belgium. This gave us a wonderful platform to engage with customers who have been incredibly loyal to us ever since. It has also been important to work closely and as much as we can with on line tastings for distributors and whisky clubs. I think, when we show that we want to get directly engaged with the customers, it is very much reciprocated.

What is the most important thing you want to deliver to Dràm Mòr fans?

The first and the most important thing for us is quality. Every drop that we bottle needs to be of the highest quality so that when someone opens a bottle of Dràm Mòr not only are they getting a great taste experience but a taste that showcases the distillery who produced the spirit to the very best that we can. This is important as we are so fortunate to be given the opportunity to work with the spirit from these distilleries and as custodian of their spirit there is a responsibility to show it in its best light.

The second and perhaps the most obvious is cost. There are a plethora of casks that we would love to buy and bottle, but if that then makes the bottles so expensive that most people can’t afford to buy them, then we are letting our customers down. We are of the firm belief that good whisky should be available to everyone and not just the very wealthy.

Finally, let’s dream a bit. If money wasn’t an issue is there any specific cask you would like to get your hands on?

Oh where to start! This is like leaving a little kid in a sweet shop!

There are so many casks that I would love to bottle at some stage but that are near impossible to get your hands on or if you can, from time to time find one or two random casks the prices are so eye watering that you could never afford to bottle it due to the eventual bottle cost.

On my wish list (yes, I have a ready-made wish list) I would love to get a hold of Glengoyne, Springbank, Glen Scotia, Kilchoman, Macallan (if only to sell on to someone else) Glenfarclas and Glendronach, but if I can only allowed one then I would need to go to some of the lost distilleries and of these there are two that spring to mind. Rosebank and Littlemill. As Rosebank is coming back to us soon thanks to Ian Macleod Distillers Ltd., I’m am going to plump for the sadly departed local distillery of ours that used to nestle in the sleepy little village of Bowling just outside Dumbarton. This wonderfull wee distillery that at the time of closure was Scotland’s oldest distillery, fell victim to the massive over production of the 1980’s with it being mothballed in 1989, fully stripped out and dismantled in 1997 and finally to ensure that there would be no return of this great wee place, destroyed in a fire in 2004.

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Working in single malt distilleries for almost 10 years made me a bit skeptical about independent whisky bottlers. And it actually was Viktorija and Kenny who has proved me totally wrong. Living in my own single distillery bubble I have missed a whole world of some beautiful drams and… people. Viktorija and Kenny didn’t have to convince me about the quality of work they do. I just have to sit back, take my wee dram and enjoy their story. Their passion and respect for whisky told the story itself.

Thank you, Dràm Mòr, for a great chat and for opening the doors to a wonderful world of independent bottlers. I want to wish you all the best in the future and I want to wish your customers many special moments inspired by the whisky you sell. Hope some of them will be as special as the one we have all experienced that very special night in my garden filled with the heavenly smell of peaty whisky.

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