Nestled within the job description like a neon blinking banner was a non-negotiable demand: must have a passion for the quality of the spirit. This requirement in particular was illuminated as a poignant reminder of what makes Crafty Distillery tick. But hold your horses there, surely spirit quality is at the forefront of any craft distillery? For the puzzlers out there, herein lies the conundrum. How far should the bar of spirit quality be raised to be considered… excellent quality? And more on-point for Crafty, exactly how far can the said bar be raised?
Crafty Distillery began, and continues, with a spirit-first philosophy. A burning ambition to concoct the finest quality spirits, where flavour and quality cannot be compromised on any level. When Graham Taylor and Craig Rankin set forth on this endeavour, rightly or wrongly, the strategy was driven by a single burning question: How far can we elevate the bar of spirit quality whilst keeping it accessible to all?
Fast forward 6 years of pure graft in the distillery, the dynamic duo of Graham and Craig remain true to their roots and continue to create tasty honest craft spirits for everyone that likes a tipple. However, in the spirit of not-resting-on-your-laurels, we are entering into a new era. Craig, the alchemist behind the spirits who lends his culinary prowess to craft our Hills & Harbour Gins, 24Seven Vodka and Billy & Co Whisky, is handing over certain reins. But do not fear, Craig is not vanishing off into the scotch mist. While Craig will still be intricately involved in new spirit development as Commercial Director and Master Distiller, to allow him to focus on getting Crafty spirits out to more people around the world he is handing over the distillery management to someone new.
Handing over the responsibility of production and management is no small feat. Crafty Distillery is not an off-the-shelf designer distillery – far from it. And while you may think that distilling is distilling, in an age of profit-driven standardisation, automation and computerisation, managing Crafty Distillery requires a very particular mindset, passion and approach. So allow us to introduce to you Nicky Docherty, our new Crafty Distillery manager.
Meet the new Crafty Distillery Manager
Like Crafty Distillery, Nicky has followed an uncommon path into the world of spirits. Previously a shepherd in Ardnamurchan, Nicky found his way into distilling by pure chance. However, this chance enabled him to learn from some of the most experienced people within the industry and took his family and himself to some remote places.
“I’d been living in Ardnamurchan for around four years, working on the estate as a shepherd. When I saw the local new distillery being built I thought that whisky could be a good career to get into. They had some jobs going so I researched the whisky industry and thought that I could make a good career out of that, because up until that point I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do as a career. I put my cv in and was lucky enough to get a job as a process operator back in 2014. That’s when I started in whisky.”
“I joined the team at Ardnamurchan three months after production had started, taking the process from creating the spirit all the way through to the first single malt release. It was really brilliant to be there through all of that. I was lucky enough to learn from people who had a lot of experience in the industry (up to 50 years). Just taking what I could from them and learning from them was a brilliant experience.”
“I left Ardnamurchan Distillery in September 2022 to work on a new distilling project in the outer Hebrides. A great experience for my family and I to live on South Uist, one of the most beautiful places in Scotland, The knowledge I gained there will stand me in good stead for the future at Crafty distillery. “
While distilling was an entirely new direction for Nicky, it wasn’t long before he realised that his new direction aligned with his own values of continually pushing for excellence and creating a product that could be enjoyed by so many.
“After two months of producing spirit I knew that I wanted to build a career in that. There’s just something about it. You get the chance to improve on what you’re doing every day. You see what you are producing every day as well. You put a lot of work into the spirit, filling the casks, all these sorts of things, but when you see people’s reactions to it when they try it… it’s a great feeling.”
Nicky’s unusual route into the world of distilling has brought with it many advantages that have helped him greatly over the years. Interestingly, the mindset that came with these advantages also resonates to a great extent with the passion that brought Crafty into being. Chiefly, an independence that is not reliant on consultants and third parties.
“When I worked on the Ardnamurchan estate I was responsible for fixing machines and all sorts. So I definitely brought that with me into distilling. I wasn’t scared to tackle anything and try and fix it. I also spent a few years in hospitality in Glasgow which gave me some good experience with customers. I would get involved with tours, and at Ardnamurchan too, and if you are enthusiastic about the product it really helps to give people a great experience.”
“Being where Ardnamurchan is, it’s a very remote area. As a new distillery there were obviously teething problems so if something broke, the other process operator and myself would take it to bits and put it back together again. And nine times out of ten it would get the distillery up and running without needing to call an engineer out.”
Being so hands-on at Ardnamurchan, it’s easy to see why Nicky was drawn to a distillery that is more about tightening nuts and bolts than it is about polishing computer screens. It’s about keeping the graft in craft, ensuring that the skill heritage that is so ingrained within Scottish culture continues and prospers, rather than succumbing to digitalisation.
“When I read the advert for the job for a distillery manager at Crafty Distillery, it was really the focus on the actual craft of being a distiller that grabbed my attention. A lot of distilleries are being retrofitted with almost 100% automation and I think within time the actual craft of distilling will be lost if distilleries keep going down that route. Also I think that smaller distilleries are better placed to be more innovative in their processes. Larger distilleries are very set in their brand and less able to change.”
“I could tell when I had my first meeting with Graham and Craig that they loved distilling as much as I do. Hearing about their ambitions for Crafty Distillery I thought I’d really love to be a part of that and was lucky enough to be offered the job.”
As mentioned, it’s a passion for the craft of distilling that really drives quality. Not cutting corners, not accepting good enough and not hiding behind oak maturation. If you give 100% throughout every stage of the process, only then will you be able to achieve the best quality that you possibly can. However, within this there is always room for improvement if you have the desire to constantly push for it. These are things that resonate very strongly with Nicky.
“I don’t believe that you should ever settle for what you have. I think you can always do better. I always expect 100% from myself and from everyone around me. You see a lot of people in places that just remain the same, I think you should always be pushing and looking to do better.”
“I think if you slack in any one area, you’ll be slacking on the quality overall. You get a lot of people placing the emphasis on the cask, but you’re missing out on heaps of quality if your spirit’s not top notch. So for me as a distillery manager, in the first instance the emphasis has to be on the spirit, then you look at the cask after that and fill the spirit into the best possible casks you can get your hands on. You can cover mistakes in the spirit with good quality casks. But if you focus on getting the spirit right in the first place you’re of to a better start.”
On the subject of getting the spirit right, when it comes to distilling unaged white spirits, it’s all about the spirit. Crafty Distillery is amongst a minority of distillers who produce all of their their spirits from scratch. So for Crafty’s gins and vodka, that means starting with just the raw grain, yeast and water. Something that embraces the kind of craft that Nicky’s keen to get stuck into.
“Although I’ve not distilled white spirits in my career so far it has been an interest of my wife and I, who has previously worked in the whisky industry. In fact, we had designed and funded a micro gin distillery and were at the point of ordering the still and other equipment when Covid 19 hit Scotland. That put a stop to our plans but I kept a keen interest on that side of the spirit industry. It’s a part of the job that I am looking forward to getting hands on with.”
With all of Nicky’s experience across different roles and locations, it’s always fascinating to consider how we sometimes arrive at where we are and the learnings that have been acquired along the way. So when I asked Nicky what advice he would give to himself if he could travel back in time to when he was 16 years old, this is what he had to say.
“You don’t have to get it all figured out. You don’t need to know what you want to do at that early point in your life. Just go into everything that you’re going to do with 100% effort, and you’ll find what you’re supposed to be doing. Back then I wouldn’t have believed that I would end up being a distillery manger in Galloway to be honest!”
And on the topic of Galloway, it’s a fair drive and change of scenery to Ardnamurchan. As it so happens, the wonderful hills, forests and coastlines of Galloway bring their own benefits to Nicky that are not related to distilling whatsoever.
“I got into doing triathlon last year and competed in a half iron man, and I’ve just started training to do a full iron man next year. The iron man that I will be doing is around forest tracks so it’s not flat roads. The roads and the tracks all around the Galloway forest are a perfect training ground for that sort of thing. And with the lochs for swimming as well it should be ideal. My brain is still trying to tell me that the full iron man will be fine however!!!”
If you are planning a Craft Gin Tour or a Whisky Tour in Galloway, or even just fancy popping by to stock up on delicious spirits, be sure to join us in welcoming Nicky to the distillery. It’s easy to see why he is the perfect fit for our distillery and the team, and most importantly why the distillery is in safe hands. With this exciting new era for Crafty, keep an eye out for news and stories because there are plenty of amazing developments in the pipeline!