Interview: Glasgow Distillery Company’s Liam Hughes on 1770 whisky

Liam Hughes, Ian McDougall and Mike Hayward

The Glasgow Distillery Company, the first independent single malt distillery to open in the city since 1902, and makers of the international award-winning Makar Gin, has announced the launch of 1770 Glasgow Single Malt Scotch Whisky. With only 5,000 bottles existing globally, bottles will be allocated via a ballot.

Named 1770 in a nod to the city’s forgotten past (the original Glasgow Distillery, now long-gone, was founded that year), the single malt is said to represent the beginnings of a renaissance for single malt whisky in the city.

Created and crafted by the forward-thinking team at the distillery, with young and talented distillers at the core, state of the art equipment and traditional methods have been brought together to produce an exquisite product that is said to reflect the “new spirit of Glasgow”.

Glasgowist spoke to Glasgow Distillery CEO and co-founder Liam Hughes.

Was whisky always in the plans for the distillery?

Yes, right from the beginning, whisky was what the distillery was all about, but equally gin was always a core part of it too. So whisky’s my passion, and gin would be [co-founder] Mike Hayward’s passion, hence the gin still is called Annie, after his great-granny, and he actually developed the recipe for all the Makar range. That’s very much his passion, whereas the biggest part of the operation is now the whisky, and that’s my passion. It’s always been joint, but whisky’s been the dominant element in terms of what we’re doing, given the scale. About 90% of what we produce is whisky.

When you set out, what’s the process that brings you to the stage that you have 5000 bottles to release. How does it start?

To be honest, at the beginning we didn’t know how many bottles we were going to be able to release. We’ve got Tara, which is named after my daughter, and was the first whiskey still to arrive in December 2014, and we started the process of distilling in February once everything was connected up. Our first liquid came off the stills on the 4th of March 2015, and we filled the cask the following day.

It’s now three years, and every day that goes by we have more whisky becoming legal whisky. So what we did at the end of year one into year two, we basically tasted all of the casks that we had. We were never going to release any of the first 100 casks, simply because they’re too valuable given their rarity. So we identified a number of casks that I believed were representative of what we wanted to bring to the marketplace as our first release, and it just worked out that there was approximately over 5000 bottles out of the batch. It wasn’t planned in that way, it was just more by chance.

That must have been a great personal moment for you guys to stand around the first cask and think this is the beginning of a journey as a business.

It was, and bizarrely there was just me and one other guy actually filled the cask. We had teething issues with the equipment, so we didn’t want to create a big drama that we’d invite press or anybody along to see us filling the cask. I thought, “let’s just fill the cask, we’ll make a big deal of it when it’s three years old.”

It was a real moment of personal satisfaction that many years of hard work and a load of grief finally resulted in us being able to start the second phase of the journey, which was effectively the maturation of the whisky.

The name of the whisky is a way of reconnecting with the story of Glasgow as a distilling city. We’ve always thought of ourselves as a brewing city, but it’s interested that you’re bringing that element back to the forefront of people’s attention.

It’s one of the things that really caught my imagination. As I’m sure you can gather from my accent I’m not a born and bred Glaswegian, having come from across the water 20 odd years ago. As part of the research for the business I actually spent a lot of time in the Mitchell library researching the history of distilling in Glasgow, I made a strong connection with Professor Michael Moss at Glasgow Uni, who’s written about eight books on the industry, and we struck up a friendship, and it really resonated with me that if you could go back in time 200 odd years there were somewhere between 30 and 40 relatively small distilleries scattered around Glasgow.

So there actually was a really strong distilling history in the mists of time, and actually, I guess, not that long ago. Downturns in the late 1800s and the early part of the 1900s effectively finished distilleries off, for want of a better word. So the name is more of a nod to Glasgow’s distilling history, but it’s no more than a nod, we don’t really want to dwell on it. We see this as a revival of something that was lost, we can’t bring back, there’s no whisky that somebody can produce a bottle from somewhere and go, “Here’s something from the original Glasgow distillery.” It just doesn’t exist.

So it’s more a nod to saying Glasgow was once a great distilling city, and there’s absolutely no reason why it cannot be again, and we were the first to open, now the Clydeside’s up and running, the Lang family are hoping to build a distillery in Glasgow as well, and I hope that over the next few years there’s many more distilleries. If you look across to Edinburgh there’s currently five distilleries either in planning, or about to begin the construction. So it’s a whole new chapter in distilling for Scotland, this wave of new distilleries, it just hasn’t happened in living memory, so it’s all very exciting and all very new.

What we really wanted to do by using the name 1770 was add a thank you to times gone by, but then focus very much on the birth of the new renaissance of Glasgow single malt Scotch whisky.

Glasgow is an amazing city, I’m proud of what we’re actually doing, and proud of the other distilleries that are coming along.


What about the pool of knowledge that you’ve drawn on, did you recruit people from other distilleries to get set up and now you’re training people in the distilling process in Glasgow, or how’s that working for you?

To be honest, we have purposely up till now not really recruited anybody with a distilling background, and there was a very good reason for that. So, because of the way we built the distillery, if we’d recruited somebody who’d worked in one of the bigger distilleries for 30 years, the two wouldn’t have fitted. They’d be used to much more computerised, and more manufacturing kind of way of producing whiskey, whereas ours is very crafty, it’s very hands on, very hard work.

So the majority of people that we have, well up until two weeks ago all of them were under 30. So we’ve tended to take people raw out of Heriot Watt, or a lot of our distillers are actually ex-brewers, because the distilling process up until after the fermentation is the same as brewing. So the brewers would be used to hard work in small craft breweries, so that’s what we were looking for, and I also wanted people to learn and grow with the distillery, rather than bringing stuff that they’d maybe learned elsewhere, which is totally relevant, perfect to the size of distilleries that they were working at, but then probably wasn’t going to fit and match with what we’re doing or have been doing. By the end of May we will have 11 distillers, which is a lot, and the reason for that is it’s a shift pattern that we operate on and also because so much of what we do is not computerised, it’s still a lot of hard hands on work, and hence we would need more distillers than people would expect.

So, beyond this initial release, what’s the aim for the years ahead?

This year, our first release is unpeated, and 5000 bottles is all that we have to release. We have a lot more whisky from this year, but we’re keeping the lot of that for future releases. In 2019, we will release our first peated whiskey, and then in 2020 we will release our triple distilled. So I think there’s possibly only one other distillery in Scotland that has all three of those iterations, so unpeated, peated, and triple distilled.

Most distilleries are renowned for being a peated distillery, or if you look at Auchentoshan, they’re renowned for triple distilled, but we’ve gone a slightly different route, so it causes us some headaches in terms of having to stop production and change from one to the other, and make sure all the equipment’s cleaned and all the rest of it, but for us it felt right to be able to bring out three different releases, year after year.

As the years go buy we have more and more liquid, because our production has trebled year on year, and we are just investing a lot of money into the site over the next 18 months to double production again, which will gives us the capacity to be laying down the equivalent of about a million bottles of whiskey a year by 2021.

Well, that’ll be fun.

Laying them down’s easy, but then I’ve got to sell them at some point. For a small distillery, it’s a big number. If you’re putting it in the context of a MacAllan or a Glenfiddich, it’s not a big number, but for us it’s a big number, and I think for the new wave of distilleries coming through, it’s a big number. Most people are slightly surprised when I tell them what our capabilities will be in a two years time.