GlenWyvis Distillery: John Mckenzie

John Mckenzie heard about Dingwall’s whisky history when he took some Russian visitors on a tour in his helicopter, and overheard the tour guide talking about it. Determined to give the community back some of its rich heritage, he set up a share offer. When it closed in June, it was the most successful community share scheme in the UK to date, raising over £2.5 million with over 50 per cent of investment coming from the local area. The GlenWyvis Distillery is now under construction. 

What do you do?

My title is the founder and managing director of GlenWyvis Distillery.

My business is called the Flying Farmer, and it is just that: flying and farming. The flying relates to helicopters, that’s my professional vocation and I’m also a farmer, I farm animals and electricity. Both these jobs are 365 days a year, because I do film, TV, storms and repairs. Everything revolves around the weather.

In this modern age, community has evolved but we’re about the rural community and supporting the vulnerable in communities via sustainable businesses. For us it’s about that.

GlenWyvis came off the back of Scotland’s first cooperatively owned wind-turbine. We raised £1 million in 2013 for the turbine at Dingwall. I had the first turbine on my farm, so I had practical knowledge and I knew the landowner of the turbine who wanted to let any other people benefit from it. Unfortunately you can’t get the energy back from it, it still goes into the grid but you can get it out if you sign up to the same electricity company.

GlenWyvis: the community-owned distillery that hopes to revive a whole town from Hazel Sheffield on Vimeo.

I got planning permission for a distillery in the same manner in 2015. I put an eight-man board together who had experience in distilling, finance, landownership, branding and the community. We have all that with our strong board of directors. Through the share sale we raised £2.5 million in 77 days via more than 2600 investors who pledged an average of £1000. There are rewards! You get gin, and gin is popular right now. Our gin is made on the Island of Unst, at the top of Shetland. 

What is the point of the project?

To allow people to own something that they were not allowed to own before.

It’s the world’s first community-owned distillery and what better than a Scottish malt distillery, which could be described as a community as itself. People are very passionate about it. The gin is becoming equally as popular. Scottish malt is a profitable industry so the business plan is that our shareholders will receive some financial return, even though that’s not why people invest really, but hopefully the board will have profits to distribute to other local projects who follow our green and social impact ethos.

When was the moment you decided to do this?

The moment was when I was flying. I’ve flown people to distilleries for years, everyone from the royal family down, that’s the level of people I fly.

I happened to be flying some Russians to a distillery on the West Coast of Scotland and the guide with me got talking about where I was from and the history of the whisky industry. It was from there I looked into Scottish history more and I thought this was really something I could take from my farm and turn it into 100% green and community-owned. It’s very expensive to make something and not sell it for 10 years like you do with whisky, that’s why traditionally only the wealthy got involved. I had the choice, I could have sold up at any point, but it was important for me to keep it a community-owned business.

How do you fit it in?

I do everything every day. That’s the gist of it, whether it’s organising flying, talking about distilling, feeding animals, it all happens every single day. It’s a very interesting family life.

What’s been your proudest moment?

Raising over £1 million more than our target. That’s not just because of me, but because of everyone involved in the project. Many people came together to make this a success. We have already created three full-time jobs, that’s something to be proud of for everyone involved in this fickle day and age when you don’t know what’s happening with Brexit and recession, if you can self-help then that’s what it’s got to be about.

What’s been the hardest moment?

We ran the share offer for 77 days. I’ve done 12 marathons in my life. But for 77 days it was like running a marathon every single day. At this level, to raise that amount of money, it was like running a marathon every single day. A lot of work and a lot of teamwork.

Community Shares Scotland assisted. We don’t get any bigger grant to run the project than someone running a small share scheme, so it was hard work, and required a lot of team work among the board. So, honestly: blood, sweat and tears.

What kept you going then?

Every now and then the totaliser on Crowdfunder, the website we used for contributions, was going up and people were backing the project. We had things planned through the calendar but when we could see the finish line it became a volcano of success going £1 million over our target. I can still remember that moment and it was just a frenzy. 

What’s the next step?

We’re under construction, so it’s hugely exciting to see the distillery go up day after day. People ask how the distillery is coming on and I say “our distillery”.

It’s opening in 2017. There’s a winter between now and then, it’s a £3m project, so it’s a bigger build. But we are already a trading businesses selling gin.

How did you vote in the EU referendum and why?

I voted to stay in. I’m quite well-travelled, I’m open-minded.

Yes, there are issues, people voted so they are frustrated, but where I’m based it’s 40 years of turning back the clock, we’re now going backwards rather than forwards. I’d like to see some middle ground, it’s very confusing right now with hard Brexit, you can tell the rest of the EU is peed off with us. I’m a farmer, and farmers always find a way to survive.

How could the result of the referendum affect what you do?

It’s a farm distillery, and subsidies and grants are only guaranteed until 2019. We are receiving some grant money but we’re not receiving EU money directly. We could have been. At the moment, bar cost aspects of buying equipment from abroad in import and export costs, there are good aspects.

What would you say to someone looking to do something similar?

Plan well ahead. This was three years in the planning. It’s not something that can be replicated. It’s nice in some ways, but we’ll always assist and give encouragement, always happy to give to friendly and honest advice.

What does community mean to you?

My understanding of community comes from farming and distilling hails from that.

In this modern age, community has evolved but we’re about the rural community and supporting the vulnerable in communities via sustainable businesses. For us it’s about that.

From one project there will be other successes I’m sure. We’ll assist other projects to start-up and they’ll work together.

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