Risking it all – what led me to open a whisky distillery at 57?

For many decades, Ian Palmer, from Highland, worked at the production end of the scotch whisky industry in large corporate companies. After his two grown-up children left home he felt like he had the opportunity, and also an increased willingness to take some risks. Armed with years of life and industry experience, he made a bold decision to open his very own whisky distillery at the age of 57. It was as if the “stars had finally aligned” and the time was right to become his own boss.

Where did it all begin?

Ian Palmer

Since landing his first job in a whisky distillery as an 18-year-old engineering student, Ian hasn’t looked back and still enjoys the “lift” that the industry gives him. He says, “I think that many people would describe the whisky industry as a very sticky industry. Once you’ve got your feet sticky it’s a bit difficult to leave, and putting a box round that or describing that is difficult.”

As he progressed through the ranks and landed director roles with some of the whisky industry’s biggest production companies, the dad-of-two hoped that he would one-day start his own business. He says that it was only really a question of when and how he would make it happen.

Laughing, he explains, “I’m arrogant enough to believe that I can do it better than everybody else and stupid enough to believe it, so that’s a dangerous combination! My family weren’t surprised at my decision at all. I’ve been married to my wife, Linda, for a great number of years and she was incredibly supportive.”

“...so why wait until your fifties to do it? Well, the dots had to join up and part of that was the age experience and being slightly less risk averse”

Although Ian knew he was ready to work for himself, he spent three years laying the foundations of his business before launching his distillery, InchDairnie, in 2014.

He says, “Many people go into the brewing or distilling world as a bit of a hobby or because they’re excited by the product. For me that just wasn’t enough, so I focused greatly on building a business first. This meant making sure I had the proper funding, that I’d built partnerships with various people and that the product had a route to market. Then I built the distillery to meet the needs of the business, not the other way around.”

Inchdairnie distillery
InchDairnie Distillery, Fife

He continues, “There’s also the fact that the whisky I’m creating is an aged product. The whisky industry is peculiar because you make the whisky but then you store it in the warehouse for twelve years in the hope that by then you can still sell it. The world will have changed four times over in those twelve years so there’s a major risk, and that’s reflected in the time, effort and detail that went into planning the business before we said ‘yep let’s do it’ and opened the distillery.

“You could say, ‘well that all takes a lot of energy’ – which it truly does – so why wait until your late fifties to do it? But the dots had to join up and part of that was down to age, experience and the fact that I’d become slightly less risk averse.”

“Becoming my own boss has given me the freedom to do more of what I want to do”

So far, Ian says that he much prefers his current way of working, compared to his lifestyle as a corporate employee because of the freedom and flexibility it gives him, but admits that it does come with challenges:

“You do have a picture of what you think being your own boss is going to be like and then that picture isn’t always what it’s like. Working for myself has given me the freedom to do more of what I want to do, but I still have to make compromises because there are other stakeholders involved. They’ve got needs from the business, so being totally uncompromising just doesn’t work.

“The reality of owning your own business is that the major elements are yours, meaning you don’t have to compromise on those things – but you do have to compromise on some of the bits around the edges. But generally I’m happy that I’m no longer working within the traditional corporate world. Those days are long gone and I will never ever go back to them.”

“There is no pattern to the day and that's one of the great pleasures you get out of this way of working”

For Ian, another large benefit of working for himself, is that no day is ever the same as the last. He says, “As you rise up the corporate tree it becomes quite difficult to describe your average day and I think that situation is even more obvious when you start running your own business. You could be in different countries, you could be meeting with different people, you could be doing nothing during the day but talking to people on a skype call at 10pm at night. Then some days I meet designers and suppliers, and so on. There is no pattern to the day and that’s one of the great pleasures you get out of this way of working.”

After spending many years making and producing whisky, Ian is also enjoying the fact that his new role has allowed him to try something different within the same industry.

He explains, “I enjoy building a brand. Most of my life has been about building the tangible which has been about making and producing the whisky but now it’s all about being the brand which is the non-tangible. That is probably where I’m finding the greatest sense of satisfaction because it’s something that I’ve not done before.”

“I’ve thought about retirement but that only took about three seconds and the answer was no and that was that. I’ve not yet achieved what I’ve set out to do…”

Ian says that his work in the whisky industry is far from over, and at the moment, he’s showing very little sign of slowing down:

“I’ve thought about retirement but that only took about three seconds and the answer was no and that was that. I’ve not yet achieved what I’ve set out to do because I’ve not finished building the brand and that’s what’s important for me. At the moment the job is not done – I’ve got a good number of years to go.”

Ian Palmer skiing
Ian Palmer leisure

Although Ian is still hard at work, with no plans to retire, he does take regular time out to relax and unwind:

“I do disappear from time to time; mostly to France and the French alps for skiing. I also go sailing and I’m keen on cycling as well. I love to get away. When you’re on a yacht floating around Greece, it’s amazing how bad the mobile phone signal is! When you’re travelling, you can end up somewhere and think ‘oh there’s no signal here, so we’ll stay here until tomorrow.’ That bits really nice.”

“I do tend to rebel against the ageing process”

The businessman explains that he pays very little attention to his age, but says that he does allow himself more time to do the things he wants to do as he gets older. He says, “I do tend to rebel against the ageing process. Spending more time away, doing what I enjoy, is probably the only recognition I give to my age. And I do take longer to travel. For example, in the past I travelled to Paris and back in a day for work. Now I would probably add another 24 hours onto that. Sometimes I do feel very old but then I just pick myself up and get going. In my view, the ageing process is 90% mental and 10% physical.”

Reflecting back on his experience of setting up his own business, Ian expresses how careful planning and a desire to do something different can be all you need to get started on your next adventure:

“I think it helps to plan with the mindset; how do I do this, not should I do this. For example, I knew I was going to start my own business, so it was just a question of working out how. I think by doing something different as you get older, you’ll reflect back on life with a much brighter light. It will bring a bit of colour.”

Have you set up your own business? Can you relate to Ian’s story? We’d love to hear from you at [email protected].

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