Meet Cara Laing, Director of Whisky at Douglas Laing

Established in 1948, Douglas Laing is a leading independent blender and bottler specialising in the creation of artisan, small-batch and Single Cask Scotch Whiskies. Hand-selected from the finest, and often rarest stocks available throughout Scotland, their whisky is at high alcohol strength and made without chill-filtration or added colour. We were fortunate to Meet Cara Laing, Director of Whisky at Douglas Laing. Via the internet, of course.

Cara is a third-generation Laing and we wanted to find out what’s been happening since they purchased their new distillery, how COVID-19 has impacted them, and what the future holds for this family-run business.  

The Dram Team (TDT): What’re your plans for the Strathearn distillery and its whisky now a little time has passed since you took ownership?

Cara Laing (CL): Strathearn has been with us for around 7 months now, and that time has been spent getting to know the people and the “spirit” of the distillery, whilst crafting our exciting plans for the future. The team up in Perthshire has already taught us so much, and we’re thrilled to find that their passion and commitment matches ours. 

We are in the midst of installing new equipment to facilitate increased production – soon, we will be able to produce almost 200,000 litres of alcohol per year. Our approach will very much be one of hands-on, small volume released to ensure spirit quality excellence. 

Towards the end of 2019, we quietly launched the first ever Single Malt Scotch Whisky produced at Strathearn Distillery. Matured predominantly in Sherry casks and bottled at 46.6% alcohol strength, it’s a truly exceptional dram, and a tempting hint as to what’s to come. That said – the spirit was distilled and matured before the Douglas Laing acquisition, so we look forward to releasing future bottlings, where we can truly influence the spirit, wood and packaging. 

TDT: How is the build of the Clutha distillery going - any updates or news you can share?

CL: Our new head office, warehousing, bottling hall and indeed Clutha Distillery, continue to progress, albeit slowly. Whilst we are no strangers to being patient – heaven knows, the whisky industry isn’t the fastest – the building industry is slow. Progress has been somewhat inhibited by COVID-19, but nonetheless, we continue to move things along positively and as quickly as we could hope for, given the circumstances. We are now making crucial decisions that will ultimately impact the new make style – such as purchasing our stills – which is incredibly exciting. Contrary to what most of us expect from a Lowland Single Malt, Clutha will become known for being a robust, chewy and mouth-coating Lowlander, with a big focus on Sherry cask maturation. 

TDT: Have there been any unexpected challenges or opportunities arising from moving into the distillery side of the whisky industry?

CL: Suddenly people have said we are no longer independent bottlers! We are – it remains a huge focus for us and a core part of the business – it’s just that we are also distillers now which is a great and very welcomed addition. 

TDT: Are there any changes planned for the range, or new products we can get a sneak peak of?

CL: We’ve talked a lot so far about our distilleries, but actually, the focus for us on a day-to-day basis at Douglas Laing is primarily on our Remarkable Regional Malts range. The “hero” of the range is Big Peat – our cult Islay Malt – and we’re poised to unveil a particularly exciting limited edition in the next couple of weeks. Despite this year’s “Feis Ile” -  Islay Festival Malt & Music Festival taking on a somewhat different format this year – Big Peat will release his special bottling in honour of the occasion as usual. In a departure from the norm, this special release will carry an age statement and a particularly unique spirit within, but we can’t say too much more at this stage…

Beyond that, The Epicurean recently unveiled the second in its “Wood Series” – a collection of special bottlings, finished in unusual wood. The first release was finished in a single Cote Rotie single cask, followed by 2020’s Cognac Finish bottling. We have another planned for the coming months, and our Epicurean Lowland Malt is currently resting in a variety of different styles of cask, as our experimentation and innovation continues.

TDT: Much of the Douglas Laing range focuses on regional styles and flavour profiles associated with those whisky-producing regions. How has this approach helped Douglas Laing attract new whisky drinkers, and is it something you’ll be continuing to do in the future? How important do you think it is as a marketing tool to your consumers?

CL: Regions are vitally important in terms of helping to explain the different styles/flavours of whisky but it can also be confusing to consumers who are early in their whisky journey. It’s a confusing category generally with so much terminology and jargon and we then throw the regional element into it, but we view it as really important. We also believe talking about the regions makes for a great consumer experience – it’s a wonderful way to host a whisky tasting – start with a light, elegant, fresh Lowlander, venture to the Highlands with something sweet and honeyed then onto Speyside for something sherried and bursting with fruit and spice then to the islands for a Whisky that is reminiscent of a walk on the beach then finish with something Big and Peated! We strongly believe there’s a whisky out there for everyone and highlighting the regional variations is a great way to help explore the category.

TDT: You mentioned that some of the build has been affected by COVID-19. A lot of people are worried about the economic impacts of the current pandemic. How else has COVID-19 impacted your business? And what do you think the wider whisky industry will need to do to adapt to a different marketplace in the coming months or even years?

CL: It’s a pretty scary, unknown world out there just now. It’s been incredibly positive to see some markets bounce-back really positively but equally terrifying to see some which closed overnight essentially. We have been very cautious about ways of working – we introduced home working well before lock-down and reacted very fast in terms of producing sanitiser. We will just have to see what the following weeks and months bring. We continue to engage with our customers and continue to use online platforms to speak directly with our end consumers. I think we’ll see much more of the former – we’ve done pub quizzes, countless online tastings, we’ve even proposed whiskies to pair with your favourite Netflix shows! We, like everyone else, wait to see what the “new normal” will be and what it will mean for whisky. 

TDT: What are you most excited about for the future?

CL: We are certainly excited about our new home including the Clutha Distillery but we are also excited to see Strathearn get really up-and-running, as well as some of the excellent bottlings we have coming up this year – there are some real crackers that we can’t wait to reveal and see on-shelf and online soon. 

We loved having the opportunity to meet Cara Laing from Douglas Laing. If you want to learn more, check out our other blog Douglas Laing Whisky: Everything You Need to Know

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This interview was originally conducted in June 2020.