Glenglassaugh Distillery boss on reviving a lost whisky brand
THE giants of Scottish whisky are known the world over, but Stuart Nickerson is currently on a campaign to reacquaint the world with one of the long-lost malts.
Glenglassaugh Distillery, founded in1875, was mothballed in 1986 when then owner Edrington Group decided to focus on blended whisky.
The spirit produced near Portsoy in Aberdeenshire did not fit into the Edrington blends meaning the site was left to gather dust.
Nickerson, a chemical engineer by trade, had spent three decades in the whisky industry and is a specialist in designing the workings of distilleries.
Since the 90s he had been running his own consultancy service advising on engineering issues for the distillation process.
But in 2007 he was approached by Lithuanian investment group Scaent with an intriguing proposition.
Although the company specialised in energy trading one rich backer had decided he wanted a high quality Scottish whisky distillery in the portfolio.
With a bit of perseverance Nickerson was able to strike a deal for Glenglassaugh the following year.
He said: "What we got in 2008 was a 133-year-old distillery with a stock of just under 500 casks of spirit left, but the stock was top quality.
"Once we had the distillery, I was asked by the group to run Glenglassaugh as its chief executive."
But it wasn't just a case of turning things back on. Indeed the whole distillery had to be refurbished and brought up to scratch.
However part of the deal involved buying the available Glenglassaugh spirit which had been maturing.
It allowed the business to make a real statement of intent.
Nickerson said: "The real jewel in the crown was the stock we acquired.
"That allowed us to position our brand at the very high end and give us breathing space to create new stock.
"With the cheapest malt selling for around £150 and other varieties fetching up to £1,500 a bottle this placed Glenglassaugh in the luxury end of the whisky market."
Nickerson admits options to make the whisky more accessible were just not viable.
He said: "We could have sold at much lower prices but we would have been selling premium stock on the cheap
"That would have left us with no stock to maintain the brand while we await the maturation of new stock.
"In the space of three years we are now selling into 25 markets worldwide so it has been a great success so far."
Vindication of the decision to re-open Glenglassaugh came at the 2008 International Wine and Spirit Competition.
Up against a host of big names the company scooped both sections it entered.
Nickerson said: "The first two casks we earmarked to relaunch the brand was a 41-year-old and a 34-year-old cask.
"We entered both into the competition and the 34-year-old won the best cask strength Scotch whisky gold medal, best in class and the top whisky in its class trophy.
"Our 41-year old also won the best in class, the gold medal and the trophy for the best 40-year-old and above Scotch whisky.
"The fact we won the top prize in both categories outlined the fact we had something very special at Glenglassaugh.
"Those wins put us on the map, and the connoisseurs around the world were soon looking to buy some of these first releases."
Whilst basking in the glow of its new international awards, the global financial markets collapsed and with it high end gift market.
This meant the business plan had to be looked at again.
Nickerson said: "Our original plan was to sell lots of whisky at fantastic prices and also bring out a blend.
"We also planned to build a visitor centre and grow the brands with a large capital investment in marketing.
"The financial crisis hit just as we were just preparing for launch into our first two target markets - the United States and Russia - but when the bubble burst, we just couldn't get an importer in the USA.
"Our strategy had to change, but I have always believed even if you get a couple of cases into a new market, if you have a great product it will be the product which ultimately builds your market.
"Because we release the high-end expressions in roughly 250 bottle launches, we can target particular markets through specialist importers, and that is exactly what we have done."
There was also a bit of good fortune during this period.
Unknown to anyone in the company Glenglassaugh had built up a loyal following in northern Europe.
The customer base, particularly in Germany, was keen to meet the demand Nickerson needed to make long term plans viable.
He said: "We were extremely lucky because in the 22-years the distillery had been mothballed, Edrington had been selling off Glenglassaugh casks to independent bottlers who were selling throughout Europe.
"So we already had a loyal following in Holland and Germany. We managed quite quickly after buying the distillery to establish distributors throughout northern Europe on the back of that.
"Those contacts gave us our first orders."
The international aspect of the company is key and Nickerson points out the expansion hasn't been easy.
"We have battled our way into many of the new markets we now sell into.
"I have travelled all over the world to attend trade shows and specialist events in the past three years.
"I email and phone specialist suppliers and importers and have basically sold Glenglassaugh one customer at a time."
Another strategy to bring in revenues whilst waiting for the first three-year-old spirit has been selling small barrels to individual and corporate customers.
Nickerson said: "The 50 litre individual barrels have really taken off.
"Because of the small size of the barrels, the whisky matures much quicker.
"We fill these barrels with either normal or peated spirit for the customers and store it for five years.
"They can also choose which kind of cask they wish the spirit to be stored in such as sherry or former malt whisky barrels.
"We priced that at P500 a barrel, and as soon as we launched the interest was overwhelming.
"Whisky clubs were the first to buy but we now generate sales from all over the world."
More recently Glenglassaugh has launched two new spirits which it is now looking to market.
Nickerson said: "Clearac, which is a clear liquid spirit, comes straight from the still with no maturation. That's not a whisky, but the taste is lightand very fruity with hints of pear and green apples.
"The interest has been very encouraging, but the product marketing is at a very early stage.
"Blushes is created by allowing some of the new spirit to mature for six months in oak casks which held red wine in vineyards in California.
"That has also grown to be a good seller for us."
The effects of the financial collapse may have forced a change of strategy yet Nickerson remains confident Glenglassaugh sales will push past £1million by next year.
Nickerson said: "The high end gift market collapsed just as we bought into Glenglassaugh, but we are now selling well and hit around £600,000 in sales last year.
"That was only our second year in the market and we'll be close to a million in the coming year.
"Growth has been high double digit since we relaunched, and we are well ahead of where we expected to be.
"The newer spirits, when they come online, will be flagship drinks for our expansion into the Far East, China and India.
"South America is also a huge market we have to look at, but we think breaking North America will give us the springboard to export into those regions."
STUART Nickerson was born and brought up in Edinburgh.
He studied chemical engineering at Heriot Watt University then took his first job with what is now Pfaudler Balfour based in Leven, Fife.
The work took him to a number of Highland distilleries designing by product facilities for some of the big names in Scottish whisky.
That experience persuaded Nickerson to change track and his next post was with Arthur Bell, maker of Bell's Whisky, at its base in Dufftown, Speyside.
Three years later he moved on to Highland Distilleries, taking the role of distillery manager for Highland Park in Orkney.
Nickerson was then asked to run the Glenrothes Distillery, also run by Highland,in a role which included managing the warehousing of Glenglassaugh.
While at Highland Nickerson completed a masters qualification in business administration before going on to join United Distillers as project manager.
Next up was a stint at William Grant where he was general manager then distilling director.
After leaving there he ran his own specialist whisky engineering consultancy before being approached to run Glenglassaugh Distillery by the Scaent Group in 2008.
Outside of work Nickerson is a keen ice hockey fan who lives in Portknockie on the Moray coast with his wife.