21 October 2022

118th Whisky Insiders Interview - Jackie Thomson

Ardbeg Distillery
Visitor Centre Manager

How long have you been working in the whisky industry?
As long as a well matured, rare older whisky. Well rounded, expensive and sagacious! This equates to 26 years in the hospitality of whisky. Being a Highlands girl originally, I came to it by default, never by design, and was interviewed initially for the role as Visitor Centre manager of Glenmorangie Distillery by Dr Bill Lumsden back in 1996.
I managed to get a hard hat and steel toe capped boots and engineer a move to Ardbeg Distillery on Islay when the company bought it for £7m in 1997. My job was not so much in ‘the industry’ as in liquid hospitality.
We didn’t talk about brands or core ranges or single casks or bloggers. Consumers were responsive to change and Ardbeg was in the right place at the right time. Getting to the distillery on Islay in 1997 when it was simply a historic building was intoxicating. I was very lucky and have loved the cut and thrust of visitor centre life ever since!
What has been your biggest career highlight to date?
A cliché but too many to mention! Every Ardbeg festival day fills my heart with joy - and of course a little fear as we prepare. Bringing the Islay Festival of Malt and Music to a close is a biggie too. Surrounded by your whisky tribe, your whole team dressed up, the local community, consumers, wider colleagues, helpers, magnificent music, the aroma of Arbroath smokies in the air – it’s an almost feral or primal feeling and I wish I could bottle it to release when times are tough!
Can you remember your first dram, and indeed what it was?
Yes. My papa was a cardiologist in Glasgow, and he often had bottles of whisky given to him as presents from colleagues or patients. One of the first sips I remember was Laphroaig when I was really wee. I wish I could say I loved it, but I definitely did not. Neither did he as it happens!
What does whisky mean to you?
The word whisky embraces so much more than what is produced. Going back a step, if I had not serendipitously seen the advert for the job at Glenmorangie Distillery, I would not have met my husband and not had my kids. The opportunity to move to Islay would not have transpired and I may never have set foot on the island. I would not have met the fabulous and countless team members I have worked with over the years – watching young people arrive in the ‘whisky industry’ shy and reserved and watch them grow into knowledgeable, warm and confident humans.
Countless colleagues from whom I have learned so much, consumers and visitors to the distillery who have enriched my life, nights out, nights in, road trips and whisky shows, an understanding of chemistry and geology, how to write a risk assessment and cut peats. How to converse with individuals from all walks of life across the globe, an understanding and intuition about visitor expectations, how to organise a whisky festival and how to clean a toilet till it gleams!
Where would you like to see yourself in five years’ time?
Somewhere near the Transfagarasan in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania or the Seward Highway in Alaska with Dugga, my partner, a killer play list and a well-preserved camper van. A well-stocked bar of single malts and loads of smelly cheese.
Perhaps that’s a dream! In reality heading for retirement – lord feels like 5 minutes since I started. And I will have written my epic whisky murder mystery novel. It’s been maturing a loooong time!
What was your last dram?
Last night I had a Lola (Ardbeg An Oa and cherry cola) with my sister. Do not knock it until you’ve tried it!
Do you have a favourite whisky and food pairing combination?
If I had not accidentally read the Inverness Courier in Birmingham 26 years ago and fallen into the world of whisky I think I may have fallen into cheese in some way.
I have had some rare and special experiences – my favourites being gutsy old sherried whiskies and gutsy old cheese. The smellier the better!
What’s your favourite time and place to enjoy a dram?
Outside in a howler. I love the salty air, hair in a boorach, incessant amusement on an adventure with people you don’t yet know and that almost childish way people feel on the water as you speed along on a boat. And a dram guaranteed to instantly consolidate the company!
Also, up a mountain when you ascend the top. When out on a blustery autumn day beating for pheasants. There is a pattern here – outside and in adversity!
What do you think is going to be the next thing on the whisky horizon?
Companies and the folk within companies will realise that consumers want to speak to the people at the coal face of whisky making. Sustainability is also a key focus of course - I would love to see more projects rooted in our communities with local participation.
In 2021 we had a wonderful trip to Ardbeg Distillery with 18 bartenders and mixologists. It was an incredible visit which gave me an immense appreciation of the art of bartending and creating. I think people outside the industry will also come to appreciate more creative genius when it comes to using our spirits.

What’s the one dram you couldn’t live without?
Ardbeg 10 Year Old! Ardbeg, the distillery and its folk, have played a big part in my life. My feelings for the place transcend the liquid and I fear my blood may run Ardbeg green!
Many thanks to Jackie Thomson. Who will be our next Whisky Insider? Click back soon to find out!