A lifetime’s love affair

When a distillery has been your home and playground from an early age, it’s no surprise that it should then become your place of work. For Tomintoul’s master distiller Robert Fleming, whisky has been part of his life for as long as he can remember. Lee ‘Connas’ Connor caught up with Robert to find out more about his lifelong passion for the whisky world

“I grew up at the distillery where my father, grandfather and great grandfather all worked,” says Robert, master distiller at Tomintoul and director at its owners, Angus Dundee Distilleries.

“In those days, if your parents worked at a distillery, they lived on site. So, from a very young age I’d wonder around and play in the malt barns and watch the stillmen firing up the old coal-fired stills. I was only seven or eight at this point, it was a great childhood. You probably wouldn’t get away with that now. But even as a child I remember only ever wanting to work in a distillery.”

Barring a brief stint as a civil servant, that’s exactly what Robert has done. In 1974, after deciding that office work wasn’t for him, he applied and was accepted for a job in the cooperage at The Glenlivet, the very same distillery where his forefathers had worked.

“I loved every minute of it. I had a great time there, with lots of fond memories. But like anyone who is career-minded, I was looking for something new to challenge me.”

Luckily, Robert’s drive and enthusiasm for new challenges came at a time when Chivas Brothers had more of a foothold at Glenlivet, and in 1983 they introduced their Management Training Scheme.

“That was fantastic for me,” says Robert. “Although I was based at BenRiach initially, we were moved around frequently. They understood that no two distilleries are the same. I was at most of the Chivas Distilleries at that point – Longmorn, Strathisla, Glen Keith and so on…I was so fortunate to gain that experience in different facilities, it really was second to none.”

Robert’s itchy feet played an integral part in his early career, and in 1990 his desire for new experiences led to him to the manager’s job for Whyte & Mackay at Tamnavulin and Tomintoul distilleries.

An aerial view of Robert Fleming’s workplace, Tomintoul distillery on Speyside

“The manager at Tomintoul was a great guy and very much “old school”, hands-on and on the distillery floor most of the time,” he says. “They needed someone with experience, in terms of health and safety, security and reporting excise and so on, to come in and look after that side of things. It was an exciting undertaking for me. I liked the variety. Although I wasn’t an expert in these areas, I enjoyed getting involved and learning.”

Then, at the end of the 90s, situations arose that would lead to his future being far less sporadic. Bizarrely, this put him in a position he’d not been in before.

“In 1999, we were trying to sell Tamnavulin. The main point of interest was from the Hillman Family (owners of Angus Dundee Distillers), but they were only interested in Tomintoul. After some negotiations in 2000, Tomintoul became Angus Dundee’s first distillery.

“We literally left work on 31 July 2000 as employees of Whyte & Mackay and came in on 1 August on Angus Dundee’s payroll. Previously, I’d worked for companies with a portfolio of distilleries. This time it was an absolute clean start, learning day by day with a company who’d never owned a distillery before. There was a great sense of anticipation, along with natural trepidation and wondering: ‘What are we supposed to do now?’ I’m very proud of the success we’ve had since.”

Indeed, Robert has overseen huge changes in distillery life over his career. The job of a distillery manager is now diversified to the point where only 15 to 20 per cent of their time is dedicated to being on the production floor (on a good day).

In a distillery which has expanded in the way Tomintoul has under his stewardship, very few will have had the vastness of experience that Robert has encountered.

“We’ve expanded Tomintoul a great deal since 2000. There were only 13 employees when I took over, we now have 27. We’ve increased our warehousing capacity, built a blending facility, we’re exporting to multiple countries all around the world. I have other responsibilities in that, in 2003, Angus Dundee bought Glencadam distillery, which had been mothballed. I helped re-open and install another blending facility there.

“I’ve been a director of Angus Dundee now for 19 years, and my role nowadays is very much overseeing everything. Hopefully we can continue inspiring by tradition. We’ve not gone down the route of computerisation, as we want to maintain the quality of the spirit in the way that my forebearers have. Historically, we produced a light fruity spirit that was mainly used for blending. It’s about retaining that style going into the future.

Robert helped re-open Glencadam distillery after it was mothballed

“Twice a year though, we now make peated spirit which we use ourselves. And over the past 15 years or so we’ve done a lot of experimentation with new cask types, from sherries such as PX and oloroso.

“Then on to port pipes and all kinds of wine casks, these are not mainstream, we use them for special releases that we put out. The Sauternes finish is one of my favourites, it’s very interesting and complex.”

Even with all of his years of experiences, Robert is still as enthused and excited about the possibilities with the distilleries he oversees.

“We’ve got loads of stuff going on,” he says. “Not only are we building a new warehouse at Tomintoul, there are hugely exciting things happening at Glencadam. We’ve bought Glencadam House adjacent to the distillery with a view to converting it for corporate purposes. And we’ve just moved the office staff out so that we can extend it to build a brand-new visitor centre.

ABOVE: A cask warehouse at Glencadam

ABOVE: The stillroom at Tomintoul distillery

“The exciting thing for me is that we’ve reinstated a water wheel in the original lade which would have powered the distillery back in 1825. That’s an original footprint from where everything began at Glencadam, you can’t get more authentic than that!”

Having passed his 30-year landmark with Tomintoul distillery in 2020 and celebrated with a special 30-year-old bottling, you might think thoughts of retirement were on the horizon for Robert. But like many who are steeped in the whisky industry, he’s not ready to walk away.

“I’m at an age now where I can retire, but I just don’t want to,” he says. “My family keep asking about it, but there’s always some other project that you’re involved with or want to get your teeth in to. As I say, I don’t consider myself an expert in all the various things that make a whisky distillery successful, I’m not a chemical engineer or anything. But being involved with all the things that make the machine work, whether it’s promotional work abroad, or reinstating features from 1825 – I love it all.”

“I’m at an age now where I can retire, but I just don’t want to … being involved with all the things that make the machine work, whether it’s promotional work abroad, or reinstating features from 1825 – I love it all.”