Autumn 2024 Banquet

Retirement From The Industry

  • Gavin Smith
  • December 14 2023

Is it the end of the road when you retire from the whisky industry? Not at all, discovers Gavin Smith, who speaks to five legends who are enjoying life to the full.


I found out retirement means playing golf, or I don’t know what the hell it means. But to me, retirement means doing what you have fun doing.” American entertainer Dick Van Dyke.

As he is now 97 years old, it seems reasonable to assume that Van Dyke has had lots of fun in his retirement, and the notion of endless days on the golf course resonates with many people in the Scotch Whisky industry as they reach the stage of life where careers with major companies lead towards the obligatory gold watch and farewell handshakes.

Not all retirees opt for the game with the small balls and tees, however, with an encouraging number feeling they have a great deal of expertise to share, and a burning desire to share it.

Here we explore the paths taken by five ‘big beasts’ of the whisky industry since they handed back their metaphorical keys to the executive bathroom.

THE KEEPER - Ian MacMillan at Bladnoch15-1Ian MacMillan’s career in the industry started at Glengoyne distillery back in 1973, and he ultimately graduated to the role of Master Blender with Burn Stewart Distillers. He then spent three years as Master Distiller and Blender at Bladnoch in south west Scotland, playing a key part in reviving its fortunes under the ownership of Australian entrepreneur David Prior.

As MacMillan says: “Bladnoch was a wonderful challenge, and I thrive on that sort of project – transforming a sad, run-down old distillery into something beautiful and efficient. But, after three years, I felt I’d achieved all that I wanted to do there. Bladnoch gave me the desire to be challenged again. I got my enthusiasm back.

“I left in January 2019 and set up MacMillan Whisky Consulting Ltd. I’ve now spent 50 years in the whisky industry. I’ve learned from some of the greats over that time, and it’s only right I pass it on, to give continuity of the traditional aspects of Scotch Whisky. I was once told there’s lots of experience wandering around golf courses – and I don’t have time to play golf!”

One of MacMillan Whisky Consulting Ltd’s first engagements was with Church of Oak distillery at Monasterevin in County Kildare, Ireland. “The remit was to create a malt and grain facility which could produce several styles of whiskey in one place,” says Ian. “This was exciting for me.”

Closer to his home in Stirling, Ian is one of several high-profile whisky industry figures involved with the ongoing Wolfcraig distillery project. At present, he and former Whyte & Mackay Master Blender Richard Paterson have collaborated to create what Ian Macmillan calls: “Some lovely blends, bottled under the Wolfcraig label, including a 30-year-old. It’s great to work with an old friend like Richard. We bought some nice parcels of whisky at just the right time and we’re very strict on quality. We’ve got over a century of experience between us!”

Musing on his move into self-employment, Ian MacMillan declares: “It was a really good decision I made to set out on my own. It’s great to be able pretty much to work at your own pace. I probably should have made the move earlier, as this is a great industry to work in.”

Max McFarlane photoAnother figure relishing his independence is Max McFarlane, who joined Lang Brothers in Glasgow during 1974 and latterly acted as lead whisky maker for Edrington. He has more than 40 years of experience in the Scotch Whisky industry. Having retired from Edrington in 2018, Max has been able to devote more time to numerous charitable ventures close to his heart.

Like Ian MacMillan, golf doesn’t figure in his itinerary either, but he is a keen follower of horse racing, and, as he explains: “I also referee rugby matches most weekends at my son’s school or Greenock Wanderers. I played rugby for Glasgow at 19 and I’m now 69 and still refereeing.”

In professional terms, Max serves as Master Whisky Maker to the Ardgowan distillery venture at Inverkip on the Clyde coast. As Max says: “When I left Edrington, I’d heard about a new distillery at Inverkip, where I live. They approached me and asked me to source whisky and blend it for them. They wanted six years’ worth of really good whisky that could be bottled under the ‘Clydebuilt’ label while the Ardgowan whisky matures.

“With my work with Highland Park in particular, I had a reputation with Edrington and they let us have lots of first-fill sherry cask-matured malts and some grain. Ardgowan distillery will be built by the end of next year, so it will be 2030 before Ardgowan’s own whisky is five years old and ready for the first bottling.

“When the distillery is up and running, I will nose all the new spirit and I will nose casks when they come in from Spain. The distillery will have an initial capacity of 1mlpa litres, and one advantage compared to the Edrington job is that I only live a mile away!”

Max is also associated with several other whisky-related projects, including Caledonian Cask Partnership with ex British Lion, Ryan Grant. Additionally, he acts as consultant and brand ambassador for Birkentree Highland Birchwater, which he describes as: “Ideal to accompany whisky. It’s silver birch sap, and I nose the sap, trying to match each batch to the last.”

He adds: “I enjoy the creative freedom I have now, spending part of each week with my partner in Glasgow and part at Inverkip. I have a city life and a ‘doon the watter’ life, and I enjoy it all hugely.”

Ken Grier - 006 2Along with Max McFarlane, another ‘big beast’ leaving Edrington in 2018 was Ken Grier, who latterly held the title of Creative Director of The Macallan and played a major role in the creation of the ‘new’ Macallan distillery.

Having exited Edrington, Grier established De-Still Creative, declaring: “I wanted to help other people, and the idea was to focus on liquor, luxury and photography. Innovation is my passion and I wanted people to be brave and accept long-term strategies.”

In common with Ian MacMillan and Max McFarlane, Ken feels his hard-won experience should be put to good use, saying: “There’s a lot of knowledge and talent in the Scotch Whisky industry, and I get frustrated when people with talent just retire. I urge people to think about how they spend time after leaving the industry.”

Ken jokes: “I now have the freedom to work six days a week,” adding:“It’s scary when you step off the corporate ladder. Finance, IT, HR and so on are all your responsibility. I’m spinning several plates –you’re only as good as your last job – and I have to kill to eat!”

Ken does admit to squeezing in the occasional game of golf, but his main sporting passion is following the fortunes of Queen of the South football team, based in his home town of Dumfries.

In terms of De-Still projects, Ken says: “The work I’ve done since leaving Edrington has expanded my mind. I’ve worked with Beam Suntory – including on the Aston Martin collaboration and others – Bowmore is a brand I’ve come to love.”

Other whisky companies to have benefited from the De-Still input on brand strategy and innovation include International Beverage Holdings (IBH), Glenturret, and Cotswold distillery in England, of which Ken is a Director. De-Still’s activities also extend to Camus cognac, Dictador Colombian rum and Mezcal Amaras, to name but a few.

Away from the world of spirits, Ken Grier’s great passion is photography, and he explains: “I love the Leica brand more than anything and I’ve helped Leica launch their own mobile phone in Japan.”

Musing on his life post-Edrington, Ken explains: “I get great satisfaction from the success of others. Life has been rich and dynamic and I believe you should pass on some of the luck you’ve had to other people.”

ann miller 03 copy 2Another whisky industry figure passing on her ‘luck’ to other people is Ann Miller – aka The Dram Queen. Miller lives near Aberlour on Speyside and worked for Chivas Brothers for more than 24 years, latterly acting as International Brand Ambassador, before retiring in the summer of 2020.

As she notes: “I retired during lockdown, so my departure was a non-event! With Chivas, I was responsible for promoting all Scotch Whisky brands in the portfolio, all over the world and I was involved with new product launches, training programmes and hosting people coming to Scotland to visit our distilleries.”

In her new role as ‘The Dram Queen’, Ann offers tutored tastings and whisky-themed tours, while also serving as the Edinburgh Whisky Academy’s Approved Course Provider in Scotland. “I had been self-employed as a Blue Badge guide before I got into the whisky industry, when our children were young,” she explains, “and I was keen to go back to being self-employed, to have more independence. I can pick and choose what I do. I enjoy welcoming people into the world of Scotch Whisky.

“You always have to tell the agreed story about your brands with a big company, but now I’m free to sample whiskies from an independent viewpoint. I really enjoy exploring any whiskies I like. I now look at Chivas whiskies in a different context and they regularly feature in my work. What I do contrasts with what you get at a distillery. It’s not just vertical tastings. We offer themes such as Speyside in sherry casks or take a historical approach.

“I’ve also been developing French and Spanish-language tour itineraries and working with the Edinburgh Whisky Academy. There is a new flavour development course in the autumn and I’m looking forward to that.”

Ann points out: “I miss the interaction of working with a community of people – that was quite a transformation for me. And I’ve missed IT support! I’ve had to earn how to put together a website and develop my social media.”

Away from the tasting tables, Ann says that “I’ve got a young collie dog that gets me out for exercise and I attend art classes. I enjoy spending a couple of hours a week focusing on something I last did years ago and discovering a new approach to appreciating some elements of the world around me.”

NickMorgan_022Also finding time to appreciate more elements of the world around him is Dr Nicholas Morgan, whose career has included teaching Scottish history at the University of Glasgow, creating the United Distillers (now Diageo) archive and moving into marketing roles with the company, ending with him serving as Head of Whisky Outreach. In 2020, his book about Johnnie Walker – A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s No.1 Scotch Whisky – was published.

Nick lives in Chiswick, West London, and he says: “Because I’m no longer travelling with work, I get to enjoy my garden throughout the year. I always seemed to miss my irises during May and June!”

Not that he has been loafing around in his official retirement to date, apart from some enjoyable days at the Oval, watching Surrey County Cricket Club, of which he is a member.

Chief among his working activities is writing, contributing to several publications and websites, and 2021 saw the publication of Everything You Need to Know About Whisky (but are too afraid to ask).

Like most of the subjects of this feature, Morgan mourns not being part of a team, saying: “I miss working with brilliant brands and distilleries. It’s the relationships you have with people that makes it tick.” One aspect of the Diageo role that he does not miss, however, is the major amount of travelling it involved, stating: “I won’t mind if I never get on another plane!”

He adds: “I really enjoy that I’m in charge. I get up in the morning and I decide what I’m going to do. That’s a great thing. And during the last 30 years, I’ve had to ‘park’ certain questions and queries that have come to mind about whisky, but now I’m free to explore them. Also, I’ve discovered distilleries outwith Diageo that
I didn’t know well.”

Regarding his writing, Nick says: “I was pleasedto get my second book published so soon after the first one. It was important to me to get two out as a marker, so people take me seriously as a writer. I’m working on something just now that will either make a small book or appear online. It will be out early next year and it will turn heads. I’m currently developing two book projects, one of which has nothing at all to do with whisky.”

Clearly, there is real passion among many senior members of the Scotch Whisky community to avoid spending too much time on the golf course and continue contributing to the overall wellbeing and shared wisdom of the industry – embracing Greek philosopher Socrates’ assertion that “Knowledge that isn’t shared is wasted.”


This article first appeared in the winter 2023 issue of The Keeper magazine

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