August 2, 2016 – Evan Cattanach was one of the giants of the Scotch Whisky industry, in size and in stature. Standing well over six feet tall, with a piercing stare counter-balanced by a large laugh, he knew more about Scotch Whisky than almost anyone and generously shared that knowledge with everyone. Even in his final years after a stroke forced him to use a wheelchair to attend whisky festivals, his smile and spirit never waned as he greeted longtime friends and whisky newcomers alike. The 80-year-old Cattanach passed away Sunday (July 31) in Mount Kisco, New York, where he had settled after relocating from Scotland.
“He was such an imposing figure, as distillery managers were in that day,” said Diageo Director of Whisky Outreach Dr. Nick Morgan, who first met Evan Cattanach when he joined the company in 1990. “Distillery managers were like lairds of everything they surveyed, and Evan was really big – he wasn’t overpowering, but he had this quite dominant, forceful personality which he put to great play when he spoke to guests at the distillery or certainly when he went out to speak to them at tastings which he did around the world.” Morgan credits Cattanach with being one of the industry’s key evangelists during the 1980’s and introducing a new generation to Scotch Whisky.
During his 33-year career in distilling, Evan Cattanach worked at and managed 15 distilleries, including many of Scotland’s legends. He started at Balmenach in 1991, and went on to manage St. Magdalene/Linlithgow, Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie, Caol Ila, Coleburn, Cragganmore, and Cardhu. During that time, he was instrumental in the creation of Diageo’s Classic Malts range of whiskies, and in 1985, he became the first distillery manager to begin traveling as a Scotch Whisky ambassador. Cattanach officially retired in 1993, but as he said with a laugh in a 2007 WhiskyCast interview, “that retirement just lasted a month, and they asked me back again…now I’m busier than ever.” Cattanach spent nearly 20 more years as a brand ambassador before health problems forced him off the road several years ago.
Listen to Mark Gillespie’s 2007 interview with Evan and Melissa Cattanach:
Asked to describe the best thing about the whisky industry, Cattanach never hesitated. “It’s the people…it’s a craft business and it’s made by craftsmen,” he said – years before “craft distilling” became a common term. “It’s the people back home in Scotland in little communities that just love what they do…they love their community, they love their area, and it’s just marvelous…all these little distilleries are great.” Cattanach grew up in one of those small communities, the Highlands farming village of Kingussie just off the A9 highway. He was born on October 15, 1935, and left the family farm at the age of 25 to start working at Balmenach Distillery, 30 miles away in the heart of Speyside.
Cattanach’s work as an ambassador led to his 2000 marriage to the former Melissa Bedolis. “She actually was given a task to go to Scotland and go around the distilleries…so she did an interview with me and then she went on a tour around Scotland, drove herself around there, and a number of years later we got together and got married,” he said with Melissa at his side during the 2007 Whisky Live festival in New York City.
“He goes everywhere with more energy than any ten people I know,” the former writer and corporate communications executive laughed as she described traveling with Evan. “He knows people everywhere he goes, which is the really unbelievable thing…crossing any street in any major city, not even just in North America but anywhere…somebody knows Evan, from ‘there goes the kilt guy’ to “Evan, Evan, Evan…how are you!'” Sadly, Melissa Cattanach passed away a year after that interview in 2008. Their son Robert was born in 2000, and survives them along with Gregor Cattanach, Evan’s son from his first marriage who followed him into the whisky industry as a brand ambassador for Diageo, his daughters Ali Cattanach and Lorna Macdonald, and several grandchildren.
A memorial service has been scheduled for Thursday, August 4, at Mount Kisco Presbyterian Church in Mount Kisco, New York.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Dr. Nick Morgan.