Q & A with Martin McAdam – CEO of Ardgowan Distillery

Q & A with Martin McAdam – CEO of Ardgowan Distillery

Martin McAdam takes time out from his busy schedule to meet with communications manager Neil Davidson and answer some questions on how the Ardgowan Distillery is progressing.

Neil: Martin, it’s been pretty quiet on the distillery front of late, what been happening?

Martin McAdam: Well, it may have been quiet, but we have been very busy! As well as continuing to fundraise for the project our core team has been working with our civil engineers and architects to pin down the final distillery design – which is now substantially completed. We also need to think about a myriad of other things, such as forward purchasing barley and malt and the design of our copper stills.

Neil:  So, is it still on track then?

Martin McAdam: Yes absolutely. Our plan is still to commence construction this year and aim to start distilling next year.

Neil:  It’s a pretty big distillery – a million litres per annum initially with the potential to double this. Why are you starting so big?

Martin McAdam: When you are building a distillery, you need to plan for the long term. All of the trends that we see, with continued growth in new global markets, gives us confidence that there will be strong demand for premium single malt – which is exactly where we are aiming.

Neil: How big is the team now and have you made all your immediate key hires?

Martin McAdam: Nearly all of our strategic roles have been filled and we have brought on board some real expertise across a range of disciplines – including our Mission Controller Jessica Skelton who is an astrophysicist! As she says, it’s not rocket science.

Neil:  There has been a lot of local excitement in Inverclyde about the business. When are there likely to be some local jobs?

Martin McAdam: We are just about to announce a very important role which has gone to an Inverkip local.  In our planning submission we estimated there would be 30 jobs during the construction phase and over a 5-year period we will build up to 25 to 30 jobs at the distillery once the visitor centre is up and running. We would like to see as many of these positions being filled by local people.

Neil: There are some terrific links with the Ardgowan Estate. How do you see this panning out in the future?

Martin McAdam: We have a great relationship with estate and Sir Ludo Shaw Stewart and are collaborating to make the distillery and Ardgowan House a real draw for visitors to the area. Every year dozens of cruise ships dock in Greenock and we would like to give them the chance to have a great experience locally.

Our choice of Ardgowan was related to the place. Ardgowan has everything – micro climate, history, legend, atmosphere and of course the fantastic Estate House and the landscape.

Neil: What have you found the most challenging aspect of developing a new distillery from scratch.

Martin McAdam: Well, funding is always a challenge – it is tough to get people to commit capital to a project which will not show a return for many years, but we have a great shareholder base and we are well on our way. The Brexit uncertainty has certainly dissuaded some overseas investors from making a decision about investing in the UK.

The other area is the complex customs and excise regulations around making and selling whisky! It is (quite rightly) a highly regulated industry and it has taken us some time to get to grips with it all.

Neil:      A lot of distilleries are producing gin before they actually start distilling. Is this something you plan, or do you have other ideas?

Martin McAdam: We are in the fortunate position to have built up some private stock of some really fantastic single malt barrels with the wise advice of our chairman Willie Philip (ex MD of the Macallan). This means that in the years ahead we will be able to issue a number of releases – including single and blended malts – so customers can get a real sense of what Ardgowan Whisky will be like. As part of our planning permission we did include a gin still. It is something that we are seriously looking at and we have brought on board one of the most renowned gin designers in the country.

Neil:     There are nothing but new distilleries cropping up around Scotland. Do you think there is room for them all?

Martin McAdam: The industry is clearly doing well at the moment. I think we need to stay nimble and seek out new markets across the globe. The lessons we have learned from our chairman Willie Phillips is that we need to focus on quality. There is always a market for a quality product. The industry is also changing – the single malt component is continuing to grow.  

Neil:      You have a background in renewables, and so does your business partner Alan Baker – how did you two meet, and when did you decide to open up a distillery? Was it over a dram!?

Martin McAdam: Well we met when we were both working in the renewable energy industry. Twenty years ago, the wind industry was a frontier – being creative and entrepreneurial and responsive meant that you could get a great position in the industry in a short period of time. The changes in government support and the emergence of big players in the renewable industry changed the nature of the business. 

I was involved in a couple of distillery projects previously and indeed I was one of the founding shareholders in the Kingsbarns distillery in Fife. We needed a change from the energy business and the whisky industry looked attractive. There is a place for independents, some of the oldest registered brands in the world belong to the whisky industry. It is also fascinating – with electricity you have to sell the product as soon as you make it, with whisky, you cannot sell it for at least three years and its better if you don’t sell it until it is much older.

Neil:      Does this mean you will be incorporating green energy or eco measures in the distillery?

Martin McAdam: Yes indeed. Everywhere we can we will conserve heat and water and over time we hope to evolve the distillery to include even more renewable energy projects and hopefully start generating our own electricity on site.

Neil:      Have you always had an interest in whisky? And was your first dram Irish whiskey??

Martin McAdam: I was a very early convert to whisky. When at university and all my friends were drinking beer – I was a whisky man. It was purely medicinal: I had an allergic reaction to beer and whisky became my thing. Thankfully this reaction has disappeared over the years and while I am still a dedicated whisky drinker – I do love a beer. My background is in engineering and I worked in countries all around the world. In many places, whisky was a point of interest to discuss with colleagues and new friends. I had my first single malt – Glenfiddich, when I was working in Germany and that started the path of discovery for single malt.

Neil:      Where do you see the market for whisky developing in the years ahead?

Martin McAdam: Well we see the market is changing. In the mature markets like the USA and France – we see overall volumes of Scotch Whisky slightly dropping but the market for single malt is actually growing. So, people are drinking less but seeking out a different sensory experience in the single malt category. Obviously, Asia is a key market with Singapore and China becoming increasingly important.