Scott Allen’s engineering design firm has worked with some of the biggest – and smallest – whisky distilleries in Scotland. Now, it’s following in the footsteps of our national drink by finding fans as far away as Australia and the United States, writes
Some meeting rooms have motivational posters; others have brightly-coloured walls. Scott Allen’s meeting room has bottles of whisky.
“That’s just a selection of the distilleries we’ve worked with,” explains Allen, pointing to the bottles of Scotch and other spirits lined up on shelves at the far end of the boardroom table at Allen Associates in Stirling. All the major players are there, from Glenmorangie to Highland Park, but there are plenty of new distilleries too, including Raasay, just off Skye, and the new Tullamore Dew facility in Ireland.
A quick glance at the design engineering firm’s list of clients tells a similar story. As well as big names like Beam Suntory, Diageo, Edrington, Glenmorangie, Whyte & Mackay and William Grant, the company also works with a raft of start-ups, including Ardross, Holyrood and the prestigious revival of Rosebank.
Following its success in Scotland, distilleries further afield have now come knocking too. Allen Associates has worked on European projects in Finland, France, Spain and Sweden, and has spread its wings across the Pond to Canada and the United States, and as far as Australia, China, Russia and Singapore.
“Australia is one of our biggest overseas contracts,” says Allen. “We’ll have someone based out there for the best part of a year, managing the project.
“We’ll also do some business development out there while the project is underway – strategically, it’s an important piece of work for us. I visited Tasmania last year and you can feel the buzz of the new distillers.
“Scotch whisky has an amazing reputation throughout the world and we’ve been able to capitalise on that because we’ve worked with nearly all of the distilleries in Scotland,” Allen points out, gesturing again to the bottles lined up along the shelves. “We’re the biggest specialist distilled spirits process design engineering company in the UK and we have the potential to be the biggest in the world – we are certainly not far away from that position and could in fact be already there.
“There are much bigger drinks design engineering firms out there, but they work in other industries as well as distilleries. There’s no-one else who can match our expertise and experience.”
The global thirst for Scotch shows no sign of abating. Figures from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) trade body showed that exports grew by 3.4% during the first half of last year to £1.8bn. Whisky is the UK’s biggest drink or food export and accounts for about 20% of the sector’s overseas sales. That popularity has sparked an interest in distilling local whiskies too. Traditional whisky-making countries like Ireland, Japan and the US are being joined by newcomers in France, Sweden and even Taiwan.
Working on distillery projects around the world can create challenges when it comes to the length of time it takes to travel to visit clients and projects. “But the pace we can work at – thanks again to our expertise and our experience – means that we more than make up for the travel time,” says Allen.
“If an overseas client chooses a local business then that company will have a steep learning curve ahead of it to get up to speed on distillery design engineering. We don’t need to go through that same process because of our long track record working in this sector.”
Another way in which Allen Associates is overcoming the distance to its overseas clients is through the use of virtual reality (VR). Allen leads the way through to the design studio and picks up a pair of VR goggles and what looks like an electronic magic wand, a handset that allows the user to move through the design for a distillery.
Allen loads up the three-dimensional (3D) model for the eponymous distillery on the island of Raasay, off the coast of Skye, which was officially opened last autumn. Slipping on the VR goggles allows the wearer to look around themselves and see the distillery’s still room, mash tun and pipe work in superb detail.
“This is a really useful tool for when we’re explaining to clients about how all the equipment will fit into the space,” Allen explains. “Distilleries also need to look good these days for tourists too.”
Flicking through the company’s portfolio, it’s easy to see what he means, with pipework being tucked away underneath mezzanine floors, leaving still rooms minimalist and spacious for when visitors come on tours. His assertion is borne out by the latest figures from the SWA, which showed that a record 1.7 million tourists visited distilleries in 2016, up 8% year-on-year and leading to £53m in visitor spending.
Using VR and travelling to Asia and North America feels like a long way from Allen Associates’ origins. The company was founded by Allen’s father, Bill, in 1994 after he retired from his role as a chemical engineer with The Distillers Company (DCL), which became part of Guinness and eventually Diageo, Scotland’s largest whisky producer.
Bill was joined by his friend and fellow chemical engineer Stephen Ryde in 1999 and Allen came to work for the growing business in 2001, having studied at the University of Strathclyde and worked in the process industries. Allen Associates initially focused on designing yeast systems and cleaning in place (CIP) equipment for distilleries, but has since expanded into a wider range of areas.
“We can now design every part of the distillery, from the grain coming in to the spirit being filled into casks,” says Allen. “We go far beyond that too – we designed a system for emptying the casks and preparing the whisky for blending and bottling.
“We’re involved in each and every step of the process, both inside and outside the distillery itself. And it’s not just whisky either – we’ve work with most other distilled spirits including gin, vodka and rum.
“Part of the growth has come from the increased capital expenditure by large companies expanding their production and craft distilleries being set up. But customers are also becoming more aware of the work we can do to help them optimise their processes, which saves them money in the long-term, and the advice that we can give over regulatory compliance, which now accounts for about 20% of our business.”
Including consultants, Allen Associates now has 20 members of staff and Allen himself was last year appointed as a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Chemical & Process Engineering. Allen has previously delivered lectures to third- and fourth-year students, but the three-year appointment puts his relationship with his former university on a more formal footing.
The expansion of his company is reflected in its financial figures too. Turnover has risen from £1.25m in 2016 to £1.5m in 2017 and is poised to breakthrough the £2m mark this year.
Growth for Allen Associates means growth for the wider whisky industry supply chain too. Where possible the firm uses Scottish suppliers and contractors, which can mean extra work at home and abroad for other businesses too.
“People don’t realise how inter-connected the whisky industry is,” Allen reflects. “It’s not just the distilleries themselves – there are coppersmiths, pipe fabricators, tank fabricators, electrical contractors – the list goes on.
“We like to use Scottish companies when we do work abroad too. But if a client chooses to use a local company instead then we have to make sure they are up to the same standard and that their work is of the same quality as our Scottish suppliers.”
It’s nearly 25 years since his father founded the company and, looking back over the past quarter of a century, Allen picks out lots of memories. “Having a great relationship with my staff has been a key highlight, we are friends as well as colleagues, and the company would not be where it is without them.
“In relation to projects, one of the most exciting moments is when the distillery is being commissioned and spirit is coming off the stills for the first time. That was especially true on Raasay last year – it’s such a stunning location, with the view of the Cuillin hills on Skye from the still room.
“Back in 2004, Speyburn sticks out a bit for me as it was the first project I was in involved in where production was being increased – before then it was mainly production efficiency projects. It was exciting as you could feel the enthusiasm for the increased demand for spirit.
“Installing the Famous Grouse solera tank farm for Edrington on Great Western Road in Glasgow was an exciting project and so was the new Tullamore Dew distillery in Ireland for William Grant & Sons. The team at Grants was really great to work with.”