Every month Caroline Whitfield flies from London to Inverness, then transfers to a tiny two-seater mail plane for the last leg of the journey to her office in Shetland. "I crawl over a pile of daily newspapers and go through to the co-pilot's seat for the one hour journey. It's a great way to arrive at work."
Blackwood Distillers is the result of two apparently contradictory impulses by its Canadian-born founder. In the wake of the 11 September attacks Caroline Whitfield decided to search for a bolt hole for her family, away from their London home and the perceived threat of terrorist attacks. "I spotted a tumbledown old manor house, featured in the 'wreck of the week' section of a national newspaper and thought, 'That would really be an escape and a half.'"
It only took one visit to convince her that this would be a great investment and persuade her husband and two children it was a good idea. Only one question remained - what would she do when she was there? Escaping the pressures of daily life tends to be low on the list of priorities for entrepreneurs.
"I wondered if you could 'get away from it all' and find some personal peace but still be in the thick of the action," she muses. "I was in the middle of selling my half of a consulting business and wondered if there were any opportunities up in the Shetland Isles." With its cool, damp climate, clean air and acres of peat Shetland, she assumed, would be bound to have its own whisky. "It was a huge surprise to find that no commercial distillery existed."
Now it does - or, at least, is about to. Her company Blackwood Distillers is a niche drinks company which has already clocked up a series of industry awards for its gin, vodka and liqueurs. These are all produced to Blackwood specifications by another firm in Shetland but plans for a new whisky mean the company has to have its own purpose-built distillery.
It's all taken a bit longer than expected, but later this month Blackwood will begin converting part of an old RAF base in Unst - the most northerly of the Shetland Islands. Production of whisky will start this summer and the first bottles should be ready for sale in 2010.
This is not the first entrepreneurial venture for the Oxford and INSEAD graduate. After reading law she opted for management consultancy, followed by an MBA and posts with Coopers and Lybrand, and Hasbro. She specialised in helping her employers set up their own internal start-ups, acting as managing director for an e-business incubator for the insurance group CGNU plc before starting her own company.
Having drinks giant Diageo as a client helped her build valuable experience of the industry. As a management consultant, she also felt the need to experience some of the problems of her clients first hand. "I was successful at my job, but in my own mind there was a bit of a credibility gap because I hadn't run a company myself. I was champing at the bit." A chance offer of help from a banker provided the catalyst for the decision to become her own boss.
While there may be something in the cliché that entrepreneurs are born, not made, Whitfield is in no doubt about the value of her INSEAD experience. "My MBA was my insurance policy - and I've never regretted doing it. As a woman I felt I needed it to get on quickly as an employee. With a degree from Oxford and an INSEAD MBA no one was going to knock me off their interview list."
Fifteen years after completing her MBA she now goes back to lecture to students. "An MBA gives coherence to a lot of the distinct parts of running a business. And the people you meet while studying can be immensely helpful later on. Some of the original investors in Blackwood Distillers are INSEAD graduates."
The ability to talk up your prospects is probably an advantage at the early stages of starting your own business, but she is adamant that self-honesty and ability to judge people correctly are more important. While reluctant to talk in terms of male or female advantages in business, she agrees that, to some extent, these are female traits.
"I've met a lot of blokes with integrity, but also a lot of them who will overstate their view. A lot of people have been happy to tell me what they think I should do, without any facts to back them up, but none of them have been women. Women prefer to ask questions."
The company already exports its gin, vodka and liqueurs to 30 countries, but the long-term ambition is to win the hearts of whisky lovers across the globe - particularly in North America.
So will she be drinking a wee dram to celebrate when the distillery is built? "I only drink it occasionally - I'm more of a gin and tonic drinker myself. But what I really want to do is stand there with my children and show them that, even when people try to discourage you, it's possible to live your dream and achieve your goal. It can be done."Reuse content