The alcohol beverage industry is a perfect mix of art and science, and requires a fine blend of process, technical and sensory skills.

Vaibhav Sood, our next pathbreaker, works as Production Manager at Port of Leith Distillery, UK’s first vertical whisky distillery.

Vaibhav talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up chemical engineering and opting for the niche industry of distilling over the general process industry.

For students, don’t play safe when choosing a career. Offbeat career paths can lead to success as long as there is eagerness to learn and grow.

Vaibhav,  what were your early years like?

I grew up in a town called Rohru in Himachal Pradesh. As it was a small town with not many good academic institutions, I did my schooling in Boarding Schools in Shimla, namely Pinegrove School. My school life was very helpful in making me an allrounder, as I gave equal importance to both studies and extracurricular activities through my schooling. Both my parents had a very non-technical background. My father is a businessman and my mother a homemaker, but we had a bunch of family friends and relatives who were working professionally in various fields of STEM and Finance who guided me throughout my teenage years.

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

After passing my 12th Board Exams with 91.8% in PCM, I decided to pursue BTech. in Chemical Engineering from SRM university Chennai. My parents were always supportive of my ambitions which did vary at times (I wanted to pursue Archaeology at one point in my school life). I decided to pursue Engineering for a stable future. I never had any particular interest in Chemical Engineering or engineering in general, but being good in PCM motivated me to pursue it like everyone else did around me. 

For my post-graduation, I did M.Sc. in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh UK.

What prompted you to venture into such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career path? 

Choosing chemical engineering was a shot in the dark. I was unsure of the stream of engineering I wanted to pursue, but Chemical engineering was interesting, as it involved many process based operations. One of my close relatives being a chemical engineer gave me the confidence to choose this as a degree.

In my 3rd year of BTech, I realized that the general process industry (Petro-Chem; Polymer; Water treatment etc) was not the place where I saw myself working for the next 5-10 years. I wanted to move away from it and luckily, during this time, I attended a few seminars on Craft brewing in NCR. Speaking to industry professionals in such events led me to Heriot Watt University’s Masters program of Brewing and Distilling.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

It was quite clear that the Alcobev industry was the right career path for me. I had good technical knowledge of the process industry after undergoing various training programs at different process industries, which included stints as Process intern in Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd; Technical assistant at Kamdhenu paints Ltd and Research associate at Central Leather Research Institute. With this experience behind my back, and learning the basics of brewing from various craft brewers in North India gave me a good foundation for my post-graduation.

Starting a life away from India was not as difficult, as boarding school had prepared me for it. My approach throughout my post graduate degree was to ensure I was building my network with fellow classmates, industry professionals and teachers. I attended as many events as were available for students both professionally and socially. I worked with quite a few craft breweries and distilleries in the UK at this time. I travelled around the country and spent weeks brewing and distilling with industry professionals. 

How did you get your first break? 

I got my first job through campus. A young distillery in the North of England was looking for an apprentice distiller to join their growing team. I knew about the company and the Master Blender from my days in the university. I submitted my application and went through a very rigorous interview process which included practical distilling and sensory evaluation. 

I started my job as an apprentice distiller at The Lakes Distillery Company in November 2018 just a few months after finishing my post-graduate degree from the university. After 6 months as a distiller, I was promoted to Maturation Operations Manager and during the pandemic I took over the role of Whisky Operations manager for the company. I spent nearly 4 years working there.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Though I was given the title of Distiller when I joined, I basically became a towel to soak up knowledge from every area of the whisky making process. I spent time in distilling, maturation, warehousing, blending, research and did many admin duties as well.  To move between various roles in a fast-paced company was challenging, not to mention a steep learning curve in order to perform efficiently. To overcome this, I had to work overtime, and on weekends. I talked, dreamt, and lived whisky for the first six months. I engrossed myself in the process and gained as much knowledge of the distillery as I could. 

Challenge 2: Adjusting to British work structure was difficult, coming as an outsider. The existing members of the team were welcoming, but also cautious. At times I felt that I was sidelined. But my previous work experience helped me to bridge that gap and I was soon accepted within the team.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I currently work as a Production Manager in the first vertical whisky distillery in the UK called Port of Leith Distillery. This is a company that I have just joined. A general distillery layout, is like a layout in any other industry, by utilizing the maximum floor space, and generally a distillery is split between 2 floors using a mezzanine structure. This is done to increase access. The product from each process is transferred to the next process using centrifugal or vacuum pumps. 

In a vertically set up distillery, the process starts from the top floor and moves down to ground floor utilizing gravity to transfer the product between various processes. This reduces overall power consumption and is a sustainable in terms of design, especially if a distillery is being set up in an urban landscape. 

Every day comes with a different challenge. My job is to ensure consistent production of high-quality single malt whisky while managing a team of highly motivated distillers. 

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

The job requires a good understanding of the process, the product and the equipment that are used in the distillery. Technical background is very much needed, problem solving skills and critical thinking is necessary. Team management and optimization is an integral part of the job.  Experience teaches a lot and most of my skills needed for the job have come through my experience in the industry as a professional and as an intern during my college days. 

What is a typical day like?

A typical day starts early in the morning where I check in with distillers on the ongoing parameters of the process, ensure all parameters are within range and investigate anything out of specification. Nosing and tasting of spirits is done early in the morning to ensure the palate is clean and a right decision on the quality can be made. Optimizing the operations and working on a sustainable and efficient process while ensuring the spirit quality is not compromised is key. As a production manager you are always multitasking as you manage:

  • The Team
    • Progression  
    • Day to day issues
    • Health and Safety
  • The Process
    • QA/QC
    • Optimisation
    • Effectiveness and Efficiency
  • The Equipment
    • RPM & PPM
    • Latest trends and patents 
    • Industry knowledge

This is while leading Research and Development of current operations and working on New Product Development to enhance the company’s portfolio.

The job involves keen focus on LEAN production practices, safe working environment and mechanical understanding of various process equipment. A good sensory ability is quite important in this role as a lot of decisions on day to day are taken by nosing and tasting the spirit produced. It’s a good mix of art and science and gives you a deep perspective on both each day while working.

How does your work benefit society? 

Yes, the alcohol beverage industry is not something we look at as a career opportunity as such, most people end up in the industry by chance, but it’s a great industry which requires a good mix of technical and sensory skills. Overall it works as a consumer goods sector but because it’s such a niche field, any kind of experience, knowledge or ability in this field can take you a long way.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

The Lakes Distillery Company won the award for The Best Single Malt whisky in the world in April 2022 while I was still working there. The whole team involved in creating this product was integral in the success of the company. This was a great achievement for a small distillery which is only 10 years old while competing with whiskies from companies producing single malt for over 200 years. That was a great achievement for us as a team.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Don’t play safe when choosing a career. Niche career paths can lead to success as long as there is eagerness to learn and grow. There is no substitute to hard work and Networking is very important throughout your life. 

Future Plans?

I am starting my certification to become a Master Distiller soon. I am working with a new company to set up the first vertical distillery in the UK, and we are working on the idea of a New Scotch which promotes restrained inconsistency. The idea is to make a whisky which is distilled forward, showcasing the variations in the product and the effect of terroir (environmental factors) on whisky. It’s geeky, it’s hands-on and it is flavour packed.