Whisky is a national heritage in Scotland – an ancient tradition that has been passed down through the generations. The first ever recording of the distillation process was over six hundred years ago, when Friar John Cor distilled the barley-based drink known as Uisge Beatha in Gaelic (literally meaning water of life).
Today there are numerous distilleries ranging in size and domination within the marketplace: from the Goliaths of Glenmorangie to the smaller independent manufacturers such as the Praba Na Linne, founded in 1972 by merchant banker Sir Iain Noble, which produces three whiskies – Poit Dubhm, te Bheag and MacNamara.
Now the company is looking to expand its marketplace and Noble has recruited Douglas Smith as commercial director of the company in order to raise its profile and brand worldwide.
Smith has relocated from Crewe, where he worked in the marketing department of Bentley UK. Having spent the past eight years with the company, his decision to up sticks and move to Skye – one of Britain’s most northerly points – might come as a surprise to some. But for Smith the decision was something that he relished. He comments: “My decision to leave was not just a lifestyle choice – I don’t think that you could get a better way of life than the one I have here. I also came to the decision that in ten years’ time I didn’t still want to be selling Bentleys to others, I wanted to be driving one instead. The lifestyle is completely different up here – I am beginning to learn that not everything can be done tomorrow – that you have to maybe wait until the following week to get it done. I am beginning to learn Gaelic – it is in my contract that in twelve months’ time I should be able to speak and understand Gaelic. We have four people in the office who speak Gaelic fluently so I have to make the effort there.”
Both the Bentley and Praba Na Linne brands are undergoing a reposition in their respective marketplaces and, due to his experience at the luxury car manufacturer, Smith believes that he is more than qualified to take the company into a new era, which in time should bring about new clients and, more importantly, an increase in sales. He comments: “At Bentley I was in charge of developing the brand and helping to launch the newer range of Bentleys to our new target market, which of course was a younger one than we had previously marketed to. We had a £2 million marketing account, and a separate PR account. When we did PR we tried not to spend too much, instead making the Bentley into a more aspirational brand – so we got the likes of David Beckham driving one so that the younger generation were aware that it wasn’t all about stuffy older men driving the car.
“Using the marketing and PR skills, along with the event management side of things that I did at Bentley, has really brought the benefits to the way we work now. The challenges for me now are to make sure that creatively we are getting the message out there with the new range of packaging that we have just had done, that we are visible within the marketplace and that we are regarded as authentic in the work that we do.”
However, marketing south of the border is something of a challenge for the firm, as the Gaelic names don’t always translate well. In order to tackle this problem, the bottles have undergone a complete redesign, with packaging and bottling bringing a new dawn to the firm. And Smith believes that it will ultimately pay off. He says: “I think that there will always be some language barriers when it comes to selling to England, due to the fact that we are a Gaelic whisky firm and it is one of the issues that we have really taken to task. We redesigned the bottle, using glass from an Italian manufacturer, and really made more of the fact that the whisky is a luxury drink, and that it is also totally accessible to all those who want to drink a nice malt from time to time.”
At the same time, the firm won’t be denying its heritage and, with a massive £2.6 million investment for a new distillery to be built by 2006 on the island, the future seems bright for Praba Na Linne and Smith.
However, technology within Skye is something of an issue for Smith. And, while it is more than evident that he loves the style of life that Skye offers, it appears that the communication revolution is yet to reach the island. He comments: “One of the main bugbears of mine at the moment is that we don’t have broadband. It has been put into one side of the island and, well, we aren’t on the right side. So I have to always dial up to access my e-mail. And getting mobile phone coverage can sometimes be a bit of a problem in the office – but when I go outside to get a signal and look at the wonderful, breathtaking views that are all around me, that reminds me why I decided to take the job in the first place. The quality of life up here is fantastic and it would have to be the best decision I have made to make the journey up here.”
Let’s hope he feels that way once he has experienced a Skye winter, which is, by all accounts, not for the
faint-hearted. But at least he can have a wee dram to warm himself up, and, well, he’ll never be short of a whisky or two.