We spoke to Catherine about life in the Springbank bottling hall
Bottling Hall Quality Controller
How long have you worked here and has it always been the same role?
I’ve worked here for about 28 years. I’ve always worked in the bottling hall and have been doing quality control for over 20 years
What did you do, relatively briefly, before then?
When I came to work in the bottling hall everything was done by hand, the cask was pumped into the vat with a hand spun pump but today it is done by an electric pump.There were between 5-8 staff; someone put 2 bottles onto the blower to clean out the bottles then someone else placed the bottles onto one of the 6 filling heads. When the bottle was filled the cork was dipped into whisky to make it easier to go into the bottle and from there the bottles were lifted upside down for an inspection in case there were any bits of cask or cork inside or the bottle had a bad blemish. If any of these scenarios occured, the whisky was then re-filtered. The next part was to put the capsule on using a machine, then from there the bottles were placed onto a wide shelf until ready to be hand labelled once all the bottles were done. We had a small glue machine in which we passed the labels between the glue rollers then put them onto the table for the other girls to put onto the bottles, ensuring they are between the seems on the front of the bottle and, of course, straight. From there, each bottle was washed with soapy, hot water then passed on to have another wipe with a glass shine in another bucket of water. Then the bottle must pass one last inspection before it is sat on the shelf again to dry before being packed into the cases that we had stamped, stapled and taped before the operation had started.
You packed 120 cases daily back then, can you give the readers an idea of how different things are today?
From 120 cases a day then to a capacity of 900 cases a day now, even if we don’t bottle as many as that too often.
Thats a big difference, tell us about other developments like the automated line that has been installed and how it has changed things?
Now the only things that are done by hand are at the packing area where it's a quick inspection for the bottle and into the carton, passed up the conveyor then into the outer case. Then you slip it through the tape machine but, after that, the pallatising area is exactly the same as it used to be; all manual lifting and printing on the cases and lifted onto the pallets with the same patterns of stacking as before.
You’ve talked in great detail about the bottling process, do you think the outside world is aware of the level of detail and hard work that goes on in the bottling hall?
When people come into the bottling hall they have absolutely no idea how much work is put into each bottle. Even 20 years ago they had no idea we did everything by hand as I have described and people were totally fascinated. We were a “quaint little distillery” - that’s how they used to describe us. People were amazed that 20 years ago we still did all the jobs I just described by hand. Now, visitors come in and are quite shocked that we have modernised and taken the quaintness away but the company was never going to survive if we kept that up, just doing 2 casks a day.
The progress that has been made is clear for all to see but obviously we still do so much in a traditional manner. Since you have worked here for so long, it must be difficult to imagine not conducting the entire process here at the distillery?
It certainly makes us unique and we have been a unique distillery for all these years. That’s why we are still here, because we do things differently and there is an understanding that things have to be done that way. For all these years, I would loved to have seen that automated machine (installed in the hall) but now that it’s there, as much as I love it, I really miss not hand labelling! So if we ever end up having jobs like that needing done… (Catherine raises her hand as if she is volunteering). I do it. We used to call it a craft when we hand labelled.
The bit I hated was actually the packing, I totally hated doing that but I loved everything else because it was more manual and I just love working with my hands.
And this building was not always the bottling hall, was it?
We’ve had quite a few bottling halls, it’s not just been in this warehouse, number 14 - which originally held casks. Mr Wright then changed the building purpose to bottling. labelling and wet good storage as well as dispatch. We’ve actually labelled miniatures in the back of (the Campbeltown Cadenhead shop). We have been in the old cooperage, we had a small room in there where we labelled. There has been 2 other bottling halls as well but this one has existed the whole time. At one time we were told we couldn't bottle gin or rum in this warehouse and latterly we were put where the joiners shop is now.
Springbank did used to have 2 bottling halls although we only used the 2nd one about twice a year. You would see us walking across to it with our buckets, bottle rests and fairy liquid and the process would happen there. It was fun having a change of scenery. We took our capsule machine with us and there was a vat sitting over there. It was purpose made for us, it wasn’t as if we were just stuck in there, they actually built a bottling hall for us. And this building was apparently a bus garage at one time, I don’t remember that, though.
Tell us about the staff here, when the office staff visit the bottling hall we always seem to see someone new we don’t recognise.
There are quite a lot of days I come in here and I don’t know people! When I came here at first there were only 7 staff in the bottling hall. Then the pony label machines came in plus a conveyor so there was 8 people needed to work the line. Now we have 2 bottling lines and 20-odd members of staff. I can’t keep track of who is in here and who is over there (working in production). Most of the staff that have ever been in production have came through the bottling hall as well. Often this is where people start.
You mentioned that people often start here, is there common elements of the job that you find yourself teaching new people or something that new members of staff usually struggle with?
Everyone needs the same help with the same things. If there is a struggle with any part of the bottling hall then everyone has the same struggle. I can see it going to happen before it does. I try to explain “don’t do it like that, do it like this” but they still do it anyway! Like putting capsules on, you have to have a feel for the machine. We work at a fair speed but there is only one speed you can seal a capsule on. Trying to get them to practice that is important.
Lastly, sum up for us what working in the bottling hall is like today?
It can be a fun, happy place to work in but it is also a place where you have to knuckle down and get on with it. We don’t have time to muck about… anymore.