If you’ve ever found yourself debating the merits of turning your back on a career – even after 25 years – and perhaps questioned if it’s ‘just too late’ to find your new path, then this is the story for you.
Kecia Mcdougall is Fife’s first female distiller, 53 years old, and is going down a storm in the world of new era spirit brands. Here’s her chat with Eloquently Her.
Taking a breather from milling, mashing, soaking and sampling, Ohion-born Kecia Mcdougall is sharing a tale about bluebirds.
It’s the kind of sweet tale which catches you stifling an unexpected tear, thanks to its slightly romantic and highly fortuitous set of twists and turns.
Clearly a woman who has always been prepared to court a degree of calculated risk, Kecia had been just 24, when in the vibrant days of the late 1980s, she jumped aboard a plane to the UK, fuelled by a wish to make a new life with her British-born boyfriend.
Sobbing during that flight, she chatted with a compassionate African American lady who was keen to hear her future plans – and who promised that she would send a gift in honour of their brief time together.
It was some weeks later, as she settled into life with Duncan – her now husband – that a lovingly wrapped glass ornament arrived. A small bluebird, it would feature on Kecia’s home windowsill from that day forward (and remains, nearly 30 years on).
Today, that humble bird is depicted as the emblem to this charming entrepreneur’s drinks brand.
Tayport Distillery is a recent arrival to the business scene, and lies in the small town of Tayport, in Fife.
It’s a company which, from the very outset, has been birthed with a desire to resonate with its natural surroundings, and to call upon the use of grains, fruits – and no doubt a little Scottish passion too – which are unmistakable in this part of the world.
“I’ve always been intrigued by distilling and fermenting, so it’s been something of a hobby for many years,” explains Kecia, from her family home.
“I loved the process of distilled spirits which could be enjoyed by our friends and family, and it’s always made sense to me, that in a place like Tayport, with so much fruit and grain available, I should be using that rich supply of ingredients.”
She says: “We’re surrounded by some of the best berries in the country, and farmers have a real desire that their grain and produce is used well, so I was surprised to find that nobody else was making a wholly Scottish spirit utilising our fantastic grains and fruits.
“That’s really where the idea for my business came from. I wanted to produce a spirit made from fruit and grain on our doorstep – something with real provenance.”
Here’s where Kecia’s story needs some clarity and scene-setting, however.
After all, she may have been a happy ‘hobby distiller’, but her ‘day job’ for more than 25 years had been as a highly skilled NHS nurse practitioner.
She’d gained enviable expertise and credibility in her field, and was both highly trusted and accomplished as a prescribing nurse.
Could she, and should she, really give up something so ‘solid’, for the dream of her own distillery in the surroundings of her Scottish home?
“No decision like that is made lightly,” she admits. “But things had continued to change hugely in the NHS world, and I’d spent a number of years feeling that perhaps this was no longer the place for me to ‘stay until retirement’.
“I’d got a thirst to do something else, and in many respects I suppose there came a natural point where the passion for my hobby – and for what it would be capable of as a commercial business – took priority in my heart over my original career.”
By 2016, Kecia had started to evolve a business concept.
She knew that many spirit companies were claiming Scottish heritage whilst buying in base spirit, and that there remained a gap for a brand to stay true to its immediate ecosystem, whilst delivering a first rate product.
“In the end, after so much discussion and debate with Duncan and my children, I took my idea to the Scottish start-up support organisation, Business Gateway,” she continues.
“They were really helpful and took me through the process of formulating a viable plan.
“By 2017 I was able to make the formal decision to resign from my job, and to throw myself into a new world – launching Tayport Distillery and becoming the first female distiller in Fife.”
Strictly speaking, Kecia’s products are not gin. To be labelled as such, it would need to contain juniper berries, but with this female founder’s provenance rationale ensuring only fruits and grains from a 50 mile radius, this wouldn’t allow for that addition.
Instead, her Never.25 range of drinks are referred to as being Eau de Vie (a clear fruit brandy).
Kecia begins to laugh as we turn to discussions about this choice of name, and why, perhaps, that humble bluebird didn’t also feature in the branding word as well as the logo.
“The whole branding and naming thing has been something I’ve given huge thought to,” she smiles, proudly.
“We couldn’t have bluebird because of a trademark issue elsewhere, but I spent several weeks in such a haze of sadness and disappointment at finding that out, that it transpired I completely missed my 25th anniversary.
“The day Duncan and I realised, we said ‘Never 25’, in utter disbelief that we’d been married so long….and weirdly, that fell into becoming the brand name for our range.”
Now based in an industrial unit just across the water from Dundee, the magic of Tayport Distillery is a five day a week operation which sees Kecia very much taking the helm over every aspect of the product’s journey.
“I love that I’m able to get immersed at every stage,” she confesses enthusiastically.
“I’m always speaking to the farmers in the area about their grain and their fruits, and making sure I can drop everything to go collect a haul of produce if they suddenly tell me there are apples in need of collection.
“I get the grain, mill it, mash it – much like you would if you were making a porridge, and then distil it into a clear spirit.
“I then get my mountains of fruit from local farms, which is often rejected as being less than ‘shop quality’, and that gets soaked in the clear spirit for a month or so. I now also do a second distillation to make sure it’s clear, which was a conscious decision around how I wanted the product to look when it’s table-ready.”
At 42% proof, the resulting spirit is now produced in blueberry, strawberry and raspberry variants. A slightly less strong offering – a liqueur – joined the brand family last year, branded 1992, in honour of Duncan and Kecia’s ‘unforgettable’ year of marriage.
Already, this provenance-conscious brand has been the recipient of a trade award, and has been cited by research organisation Mintel for its innovation.
Operational growth and development has coincided, with the business now benefiting from upgraded equipment allowing it to produce around 500 bottles per month.
“We’re really excited by where we’re at so far, and the feedback and acknowledgment we’ve achieved, so now it’s very much a case of building on that and on getting conversations with the kind of bars, restaurants and retailers which we feel will love our product, and also love our back story,” Kecia says.
“Something I’m so pleased and proud about is that it’s remaining a real ‘family feel’ business, even as we grow and expand our ambitions.
“We’ve had no investment so far, and every member of the family has played a part – be it contributing to the brand or helping out at the weekends.
“My daughter takes on the social media and the website, and Duncan is an engineer, so it’s useful to have him on hand when things need some more technical consideration.
“To be in this position, working on something I love, and with the people I love, just feels so incredible and I’m extremely grateful.”
At 53, Kecia knows she’d be regarded by many as a more ‘latter life’ entrepreneur, but she’s certainly ready to embrace this career phase with no less enthusiasm and energy than you’d expect of a 20-something.
She says: “In many ways, I feel like it’s exactly because of my age, life experience and time in my professional journey, that this is even more perfect as a point to be developing a business which is clear about what it’s trying to achieve.
“I had spent a long time loving distilling as a hobby, and now I’m getting to shape that into a second career, after many happy years being in the health service.
“It really is never too late to say you want to start something, and to let your dreams and inspiration take flight.”
Looking back on that teary flight from Ohio, and that chance meeting with a warm and wise woman who felt compelled to send a meaningful gift, one can’t help thinking that that particular passenger would certainly have agreed with this wonderful sentiment.
Wherever in the world she is, I’m sure she’s wishing Kecia well with her exciting second-stage life.