Calder talks up plans for new Skye distillery

BY KEITH MACKENZIE

Finlay Calder was never short on spirit when he captained the British Lions, or helped Scotland to Grand Slam glory.

But it’s spirits of the bottled variety he is now hoping will lead to business success on Skye.

Calder, capped 34 times in a glittering rugby career during which he led the British Lions to a famous series victory against Australia, is fronting up plans to build a distillery in Sleat.

As the project director for Mossburn Distillers — new players in the whisky market — Calder will be overseeing the Skye development, work on which is set to start in June this year.

Backed by some £5 million from private investors, Mossburn’s project to renovate the former farm steading at Cnoc takes forward an idea initially pursued by the late Sir Iain Noble.

The company have bought the site, which carries planning permission, and Sir Iain’s widow Lucilla will continue to serve as a member of the firm’s board of directors.

The Torabhaig distillery comes with the initial promise of at least eight jobs, and will eventually complement a much larger plant near Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders.

Visiting the site last week, Calder spoke about whisky with all of the passion he displayed as a cornerstone of Scotland’s back row in that famous win over England in 1990.

“Whisky is about memories,” he said. “It’s about people sitting in a bar in far-flung Rio de Janeiro, and they look up and see your whisky, and they remember where they were, or the welcome they got, and the warmth of being at a particular place when they first tried it.

“That’s what sells whisky — it’s not always just about the taste. You have got to make people feel special about it.”

Work on the 150-year-old steading starts in June, with specialist Edinburgh-based architects Simpson and Brown overseeing the renovation. Though the company hope the first spirit will flow by the end of 2015, it is expected construction will take two and a half years to complete.

The Torabhaig site will also host a cafe and facilities for visitors, but warehousing and bottling will be taken care of at the company’s larger Borders base.

Renovation plans include con­structing a roof which can be raised to allow the copper stills to be replaced every 15 to 20 years. A new pagoda-style “millhouse” will be built alongside the old steading, which will host the distillery’s main manufacturing functions.

Calder, who prior to his involve­ment in the whisky industry worked for two decades with Swiss industrial­ists Glencore, added: “Building a distillery has been done many times before, but each one still has its challenges.

“It’s a listed building and will have to be managed in accordance with that status. That takes specialists and specialists are busy, so you have to take your place in the queue. But we are better to take our time and get things right.”

It will be up to a decade before the first bottles are sold, but Calder hoped the new venture would take inspiration from Skye’s long-established distillery at Talisker.

“We will be on a much smaller scale, but Talisker is a much-loved and respected whisky. We’re hoping we can produce something similar.”

THE DISTILLERY is one of a series of separate projects planned for a corner of Skye which continues to show an impressive level of economic resurgence. In the coming years there are plans to extend facilities at the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, to build a new village at Kilbeg and to open a £1.8 million community hub in the Camuscross and Duisdale area.

Although his heart remains in the borders, Calder — who retains involvement with Scottish rugby through his club Stewarts Melville FP —  has been impressed with what Skye has to offer.

“It’s the cleanest place in Scotland,” he said. “That’s what I noticed first. The roadsides are clear of litter.

“The economy in Skye is quite good, but we don’t want to go distorting it. We’re not looking to compete with anyone else.

“There’s no point in creating jobs to displace others, but hopefully we’ll see clients coming in from all over, and they will stay locally and this will mean spin-offs elsewhere.

“To begin with we are looking at creating seven or eight jobs, but once we get into proper working patterns I think there will be more to come.”

Curiously, though,  it’s a football great rather than a figure from the oval ball game who provides the inspiration when it comes to a successful business model.

“You have got to have youth. I liken it to Sir Alex Ferguson. He’d always carry two or three older ‘henchmen’ on his team, and then have the young legs doing the running around. I think that’s the perfect formula in sport and in business.”

And Calder adds, finally, that his new link to Skye might also allow him to extend his sporting interests still further

“I worry about Scottish rubgy like everyone else, but my wife likes the shinty. So I’ve got to go and see this game live!”

keith.mackenzie@whfp.co.uk