ALAN Wolstenholme has spent much of his career running Scotland’s biggest distilleries. Now he is on a mission to create the right environment for the country’s many craft distillers to thrive.

The Scotch whisky veteran, who for many years held senior operations roles with The Distillers Company and William Grant & Sons, is chairman of the recently-relaunched Scottish Distillers Association.

In broad terms, its remit is to safeguard Scotland’s growing ranks of craft spirits producers, as concern heightens that their reputations risk being sullied by what might be termed opportunistic brands. The association contends that consumers must be protected too, so that when they buy a bottle of Scottish gin they can be assured of its provenance and authenticity.

“Nobody is trying to say these products are intrinsically better than anybody else’s, it is just a matter of transparency [for] consumers, who are paying £35 or £40 for a bottle of gin that they think has been lovingly crafted in Scotland, “ Mr Wolstenholme said.

The Scottish Food and Drink Association estimates there are now more than 100 Scottish gin brands, which between them amassed exports worth in excess of £400 million at the last count.

And there is a good deal of conviction that there is plenty more where that came from. That much was emphasised by Mr Wolstenholme’s former employer, William Grant, which recently unveiled plans to double production of its popular Hendrick’s brand (overseen by his former colleague Lesley Gracie).

But not everything in this botanical garden is rosy. As often seems to happen when an industry undergoes rapid growth, the expansion of Scottish craft spirits would appear to be running well ahead of attempts to safeguard it. This is particularly pertinent for Scottish gin.Concern is mounting that certain gins are being presented as Scottish in marketing terms when, in fact, little of the production takes place in Scotland.

The response of the Scottish Distillers Association has been to develop an accreditation scheme, designed to increase transparency in the production of Scottish spirits, for the benefit of distillers and drinkers. Its five-point plan dictates that distillers must own and operate a still in Scotland, have a skilled and qualified individual responsible for quality, distil and bottle spirits in Scotland, make reasonable claims in the naming of spirits, and operate it with an HMRC licence and in accordance with the Trades Descriptions Act, Advertising Standards Authority and responsible drinking guidelines.

Distillers which meet the criteria can choose to carry the accreditation on their bottles, which provides consumers with a guarantee the product has been “distilled, bottled and made in Scotland”.

Mr Wolstenholme said the basis of the scheme has been around for a year, but concerted efforts are now under way to raise its prominence. New logos are in the offing, administrative support is being provided by Scotland Food and  Drink, and a memorandum of understanding has been agreed with the Scotch Whisky Association, setting out grounds for collaboration.

Mr Wolstenholme said the success of existing accreditation schemes such as Scotch Beef highlights the commercial potential of the collective movement.

But for the time being he does not believe it would be feasible to underpin the initiative with government regulation.  “I’ve had these debates,” he said. “At the moment I don’t see a route to doing that quickly and efficiently with the resources we have.”

While Scotch whisky is protected by a geographical indication (GI) status, which strictly governs how and where it can be made, Mr Wolstenholme says achieving this for Scottish gin is impracticable for now – not least because the legal definitions of what constitute spirits such as whisky, gin and vodka, are underpinned in EU law.

“To get a GI going for Scottish gin would take years, especially with all the disruption with Brexit," he said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

As for what constitutes a gin that could be regarded as being made in Scotland, the association believes that a spirit has to have undergone “substantial transformation” in this country.

“Putting it in a bottle or a slight dilution is not a substantial transformation,” Mr Wolstenholme said.

Expressing the view that gin can be called Scottish if its recipe includes botanicals from around the world, and based on grain neutral spirit made elsewhere (“hardly any neutral spirit is made in Scotland”), he stated: "Shortbread is made from Irish butter and Caribbean sugar. It is made in Scotland, it is Scottish shortbread.

“My two key things are: does it conform to the legal definition of gin, [and] is it made in Scotland? That is the line I like defending. I do have problems when people get stuff made in England and put tartan and bagpipes on it.”

It is all quite technical stuff, which is why it helps the Scottish Distillers Association to have someone with Mr Wolstenholme’s background fighting its corner.

Mr Wolstenholme, who studied chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, describes himself as “very much an ops guy”. He ran grain distilleries for The Distillers Company (which was bought by Diageo forerunner Guinness) before being headhunted by William Grant to run its Ailsa Bay plant in Girvan, leading him to move to Ayr, where he has lived since. As distilleries director at Grants, he also found himself running the Glenfiddich and The Balvenie distilleries in Dufftown, where he also commissioned Kininvie.

He then spent around a decade outside the whisky industry, working for a US chemicals manufacturer, which saw him run about a dozen factories around the word, in locations such as California, Iceland and Tasmania.

While he laughingly describes his 10-year spell away from whisky as an “aberration”, the time was well spent. “I got a lot more international perspective than I could have ever done at that time,” he said. “The best thing was I never had to leave Scotland.”

After the company division he worked for was sold to a rival, he elected not to “re-join the rat race” and set up his own consultancy.

“I’ve been doing consultancy mostly in whisky here, but a lot in Ireland, North America and also the Far East,” he said. “Then about four or five years ago I got in tow with these craft distillers.”

And there is no doubting the excitement Mr Wolstenholme feels about the energy and dynamism flowing through the Scottish craft spirits industry. He first sensed something special might be in the air when he was introduced to Tony Reeman-Clark, his predecessor at the Scottish Distillers Association who set up Strathearn Distillery in Perthshire in 2013.

Within a short time a coterie of influential, early movers emerged, who by 2014 had come together as a “club under the aegis of the International Centre of Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) at Heriot-Watt”.

The nascent industry found support from the James Hutton Institute in Edinburgh, Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, with early players including Pickering’s, Arbikie, the Glasgow Distillery Company and the Isle of Raasay Distillery.

Mr Wolstenholme believes the development of the craft spirits scene in Scotland owed much to the emergence of the “malt whisky revolution” of the late 1960s. “I give credit to Charlie Grant Gordon, as being the guy who really kicked that off [with the promotion of the Glenfiddich single malt],” he said.

“Grants, back in that generation, particularly Charlie, were seen as disruptors.”

Now there is a new wave of disruptors on the scene, and Mr Wolstenholme is doing his level best to help them flourish.

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

At one point in my career I had responsibility for about 12 manufacturing plants all over the globe. This took me to Iceland, Tasmania and Chile but San Diego in California was always a good trip. More recently I’ve been back to several US states including Utah where I visited the only “ski-in saloon distillery”. However, the top destination was Myanmar. On family holidays, we would usually head for Spain, Greece or Florida. Recently my wife Heather and I have been to Australia and Thailand.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

As a child I was an avid Biggles reader so had no other idea other than to become a pilot. Speed, excitement and glamour – what’s not to like?

What was your biggest break in business?

After university I was employed by the old Distillers Company as a production trainee. Once you are in the whisky industry you can go in many directions. But getting that first foot in the door is vital.

What was your worst moment in business?

After several years building up a food ingredients business, our American owners sold it to a competitor who shut most of it down, making three-quarters of the 240-Scottish workforce redundant.

Who do you most admire and why?

It has to be my old friend Dr Jim Swan who sadly died last year. In the mid-80s he led a group of distillers to the US to discover why the ex-bourbon barrels were not maturing Scotch as well as previously. This work formed the basis of much of the research done since on improving maturation.

What book are you reading, what music are you listening to, and what was the last film you saw?

I’m reading John le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies, and have recently been to see Paul Simon, The Who, Neil Young and Bryan Adams. The last film I saw was The Darkest Hour.