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Master of Malt Blog

Author: Ian Buxton

Ronnie Lee – the man who mends mills

This week Ian Buxton celebrates a true whisky hero, a Welshman without whom Scotland’s distilleries would literally grind to a halt. What about those malt mills, eh? They’re just about…

This week Ian Buxton celebrates a true whisky hero, a Welshman without whom Scotland’s distilleries would literally grind to a halt.

What about those malt mills, eh? They’re just about the first thing you see on any distillery tour but, once you’ve heard the guide’s regulation story about their age and how they outlived the company who made them, you move on.  

It’s a shame. Painted, usually, in that distinctive shade of dark red, sturdy, planted four-square in the mill room, ready to receive another load of malt, these quiet occupants of an unobtrusive corner of the distillery just do their job in a modest and under-stated way.  A malt mill would never shout or draw attention to itself you feel, happy to do an honest day’s work and then await the next consignment to be turned into grist.

But if you take a second, harder look you might see a simple plaque discreetly fixed to the side with the legend RONNIE LEE, MILLWRIGHT and a telephone number.  One day I couldn’t bear it any longer; I was puzzled and intrigued; I had to ask: “Who is this bloke Ronnie Lee?” 

R. Boby

Plate from an old Boby mill

“I have no idea,” was my host’s honest, if unhelpful reply (but then he was a marketing type). I began asking production folks – real whisky people. To a man, they smiled.  “Ronnie Lee,” they said. “You must know Ronnie Lee.” Embarrassingly, I didn’t and the more I learned the worse I felt. So, I set to tracking him down because everyone told me that, though he wasn’t their employee, Ronnie Lee was a vital part of their team. From Diageo to Kilchoman, Chivas Brothers to Rosebank, he keeps the mills running. Without his unique service those antique rollers might seize up and fail, whisky could not be produced – indeed, a great national disaster would befall Scotland.

So I called the number and found myself on an industrial unit alongside a chicken farm in Chepstow – about as far from the glamorous world of luxury seen in whisky’s current imagery as may be imagined. This is where old-school engineer Ronnie and his two sons are based and where the world comes when a mill – possibly more than one hundred years old – needs some TLC. 

These fine pieces of machinery, be they the familiar Porteus design or that of their less well-known rival Boby, were built to last.  Their solid construction and simple, yet well-proven design has stood the test of time and, entirely fortuitously, speak to our present-day concerns about sustainability and the responsible use of resources.

A beautifully-restored Porteus

A beautifully-restored Porteus mill

But how long can they continue to run? The answer may well surprise you. I was certainly taken aback when Ronnie proudly shared with me his latest project: the restoration of a Boby mill, found in an Australian brewery and saved from scrap, that he believes was manufactured around 1855-60.

It may well be the oldest surviving example of a malt mill anywhere in the world and, following 80-100 hours of skilled and experienced cleaning and restoration, it will certainly work again and looks good for another 150 years of service (though, strictly speaking, non-commercial use as it lacks the anti-explosion guard fitted to later models).  Perhaps it will become a display piece, tribute to some far-sighted Victorian engineers as Robert Boby Ltd of Bury St Edmunds.

And how has it happened that Ronnie has found himself in this highly specialised niche? He grew up near his present Chepstow home and, after school, was apprenticed to the motor trade, quickly passing through a dozen or more jobs before embracing self-employment.  Back in 1995 he was contracting to Buhler, a Swiss mill manufacturer, installing their larger systems in flour mills (there aren’t many in distilleries, though you can see a mighty example at Glenfarclas). 

Ronnie Lee with an old Boby mill

The man himself with an old Boby mill

By this time, Boby was being closed down and the old Porteus company was owned by Briggs of Burton (a name you’ll find on mashtuns and other larger pieces of brewery and distillery equipment). But the heyday of the Porteus mill was the 1960s and by 1972/73 manufacturing had ceased. Maintenance and spare parts became more and more of a problem and eventually Briggs were unable to support what was by now, for them, an obsolete product. 

Ronnie was able to acquire the original Boby plans and drawings (he could build you one from scratch) and armed with these and Porteus’ withdrawal from the market, it was natural for him to step into this gap. His affinity with old machinery and his ability to coax new life from their aging cogs and gears has ensured his unique place in whisky. So, in a world which lauds distillery managers as rock stars, spare a thought and raise a glass to Ronnie Lee, the man who mends the mills and a true whisky hero.

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Small distillers are the real losers in the EU/ US trade dispute

If you think the trade dispute between the Trump administration and the European Union has hit you hard, wait until you hear how craft distillers in the US have been…

If you think the trade dispute between the Trump administration and the European Union has hit you hard, wait until you hear how craft distillers in the US have been affected. Industry expert Ian Buxton looks into the rights and wrongs, winners and losers in the battle of the tariffs. 

Now I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the price of some American whiskeys has been going up. And some craft whiskeys which we hear about on this side of the Pond seem unduly hard to find. What’s going on? 

It’s all Donald Trump’s fault. Well, the Donald would blame someone else, of course, and he’s been quick to point the finger at Airbus Industries and the European Union. But he may have a point.

Just over a year or so ago the World Trade Organisation (WTO – an acronym you’ll hear a lot more frequently if the UK does indeed finally execute a no-deal Brexit) determined that EU aid to Airbus constituted an illegal subsidy that disadvantaged Boeing, its main competitor.  So, seeking to Make America Great Again and punish the EU, President Trump imposed stiff tariffs on imported steel and aluminium.

Rather than backing down, the EU retaliated with its own new tariffs, including a stinging 25% rate on American whiskies. As some cynical commentators observed, this may not have been unrelated to the fact that much US distilling takes place in the Southern states that tend to vote Republican.  Politics, eh – it’s a dirty game.

As a result, prices have risen and major European importers have cut back their orders. In fact, for the 12 months to July, US whiskey exports to the EU fell by a massive $160m as around one-fifth of the sales just dried up. The folks at Brown-Forman, who make around 60% of the US whiskey we drink, have been especially hard hit. We’re talking about Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and Early Times – all fine products and justly popular. In their most recent financial results, Brown-Forman reckon they’ve lost around $125m in sales. Even for an industry giant that’s got to hurt. 

This dispute has been grumbling along for nearly 15 years but, under Trump, the American response has been increasingly robust. In fact, reports suggest his administration is preparing to slap tariffs of up to 100% on $1.8 billion worth of European spirits and wine, with potentially dire consequences for Scotch whisky and British gin (never mind Cognac; the French can look after themselves!)  The US distilling industry trade body DISCUS is urging restraint, fearing tit-for-tat European retaliation. “American whiskeys have become collateral damage,” said Chris Swonger, DISCUS’ head honcho.

major fire at Jim Beam

The big boys will probably be ok

Brown-Forman is big and profitable, it’ll get over it. It’s a rather larger problem for small craft distillers who add such variety to the scene, especially when they’ve invested in new bottles and packaging. Well, according to Mountain Laurel’s owner Herman Mihalich (they make Dad’s Hat Pennsylvania Rye, but his European distributor has stopped ordering) “we went from a marginally profitable business to breaking even.” Prior to the new tariffs, Europe accounted for around 10% of his sales but these dried up almost overnight.

That feels bad enough, but consider the plight of Catoctin Creek Distilling Co. in Virginia, who have thousands of unfilled bottles just waiting for their tasty rye whiskey. What’s the problem: just fill ‘em up and sell them in your own backyard, you say. Well, there’s the rub – they can’t. Owner Scott Harris was all geared up for a European sales drive and, just ahead of the tariff spat, invested in 70cl bottles for Europe.  Sadly, they’re useless in the USA where the law says spirits must be sold in 75cl containers The difference is only the size of a mini but means a mountain of expensive glass that he can’t use.

As he told the Reuters news agency: “We had one distributor we signed a deal with. He just stopped returning our phone calls. We’ve been trying very hard to get into the UK and France, and we can’t get any distributor to talk to us right now.”

Well, as the poet would have it,
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

For you and me all this means little more than not getting our favourite craft bourbon or rye this Christmas, or having to pay more. For employees of US distilleries affected by this trade war, it could get worse – DISCUS are warning of thousands of job losses if the dispute continues. But I have a plan. As I note in the recently-released latest edition of my 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, Canadian whiskies are a steal. You can thank me later.

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How to write a bestselling whisky book

This week Ian Buxton shamelessly plugs the new edition of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die and takes a look at how the industry has changed since 2010 when the…

This week Ian Buxton shamelessly plugs the new edition of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die and takes a look at how the industry has changed since 2010 when the book appeared.

Your editor must have been in a very benevolent mood recently.  He’s invited me to write about the new edition of my book 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, which goes on sale this week. So, if your gorge rises at the prospect of an author blatantly plugging his own work, look away now.

Still here? Some background then. The first edition appeared nearly a decade ago and, I’m very happy to say, was an immediate, albeit somewhat surprising success. But the fact is that the book had a difficult birth, being declined by publisher after publisher on the grounds, back then, that there were already more than enough whisky books (this would be late 2007).  With the exception that is of one very small Scottish publisher, a friend, who I pitched it to more out of desperation than any expectation he would take it on. “I can’t publish this,” he said, “because if it’s the success I believe it will be I couldn’t possibly manage it – the cashflow alone on printing would wipe me out”. 

That, I thought, was the sweetest and kindest way for anyone to tell me they didn’t want the book so I dropped the idea. And then, by a very strange set of coincidences and some further setbacks it was picked up by Hachette, whose Scottish arm (now defunct) was looking for some Scottish-themed titles. Published in Autumn 2010 its immediate success surprised us all and there were several hasty reprints. The book even made it into some national best-seller lists that Christmas.

whisky crash

Ian Buxton about to drink some whisky

And that, we all thought, would be that. One big Christmas and then it would be done. But in 2011 sales were even better and it continued its onward march. Pretty soon though, as whisky moves so fast, it began to feel outdated so I revised a new edition for 2013, and then a third in 2016 and they have continued to sell very well indeed. Over 200,000 in total so far (he bragged, with inexcusable vulgarity).

Why has it been so well received?  Readers tell me there are several reasons: they like the convenient format; the irreverent approach appeals (too many drinks writers take themselves far, far too seriously in my opinion) and the fact that I try not to preach and avoid imposing my opinion encourages readers to develop their own point of view – which is all that really matters. In that spirit I’ve never awarded scores and now I’ve even dropped my own tasting notes. Let your own mother-wit, nose and palate guide you – you are the surest guide to your own taste.

And why a new edition now? Well, to be honest, there are two reasons: firstly, because it has continued to sell and sell the publisher is keen to keep the momentum going but, secondly, I wouldn’t have revised it now if were not for the fact that whisky keeps changing. Looking back to 2010 we’ve seen the rise and subsequent decline of NAS whiskies, the incredible growth in whisky’s popularity in new markets, the spread of the pernicious virus of ‘investment’ in whisky, especially Scotch, and the amazing quality and value offered by many unheralded producers or previously forgotten styles.

There have been lots of revisions and amendments in this new edition. Whiskies have been dropped and new whiskies included. To spread my net as widely as possible, I’ve decided that there will only ever be one expression from any one distillery and, seeking what seems to me best value, I’ve included unfashionable distilleries and countries I’ve previously neglected

101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die is a book about tasting and enjoying whisky, not collecting and certainly not ‘investing’ in it. Sometimes I’ve surprised myself with the whiskies I’ve included but they are all there for a reason (you’ll need to read it to find out what they are). So I’m not going to bang on. Apparently the market thinks there’s room for at least one more whisky book and I hope that this can be it.  Thanks to the Editor for his indulgence and thanks to you for reading this far. The fourth edition of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die is available now and I very much hope you will enjoy it.  Oh, and Christmas is just around the corner. In case you hadn’t noticed.

101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die (4th edition) is published this week by Headline, £14.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Could Chinese single malt whisky be a Trojan Horse?

The whisky world is full of excitement at news that Pernod Ricard has begun work on a single malt distillery in China. Ian Buxton, however, isn’t so sure this is…

The whisky world is full of excitement at news that Pernod Ricard has begun work on a single malt distillery in China. Ian Buxton, however, isn’t so sure this is a good thing for Scotch whisky. In fact, he thinks that this development might sound the death knell for the industry’s global dominance. 

As you will have read elsewhere, Pernod Ricard has recently announced that they have begun construction on a new single malt distillery in China. According to its press release, the Emeishan Malt Whisky Distillery represents “a potential investment of one billion RMB (US $150 million)” and the 13-hectare distillery site “will boast a state-of-the-art malt whisky distillation facility, due to begin production in 2021”.  Pernod Ricard has not given details of the anticipated production simply replying that “it’s too early to confirm a figure.” Speaking off the record, sources close to the project talk of two pot stills but with scope for expansion.

What are we to make of this news? Most commentators so far have done little more than breathlessly recycle the press release – which, to be fair, is pretty breathtaking. A Chinese single malt distillery, even an initially modest one, is a genuinely new idea and something which could fairly be described as radical, even epoch-making. Except it’s not actually a new idea. Back in 2014 in a book, The Science and Commerce of Whisky, I co-wrote with Professor Paul Hughes, then of Heriot-Watt University, I imagined the future thus:

“There now appears no technical reason why high-quality whisky cannot be produced in the most unfavourable of climates… [and] there would not appear to be any significant technical barrier to entry for new producers.… a new producer might emerge in, say, China utilising the latest technology…[and] enjoy cost advantages in production and shipping, potential protection within tariff walls and, with skilful marketing, patriotic support from a consumer able to purchase a product that looked and tasted like a high quality import at local market prices.   …established producers could be faced with significant competition. Why would our hypothetical new distiller not wish to compete for a share of a growing, profitable and fashionable market on their own doorstep?”

the Emeishan Malt Whisky Distillery

Artist’s impression of the the Emeishan Malt Whisky Distillery

Why not indeed? Let’s put to one side the dubious morality of doing business in one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Pernod Ricard certainly has, telling me in response to my enquiry, that “we have a presence in many different markets with many shifting political landscapes and therefore do not provide political commentary.” So sip the shark fin soup with your new partners and look away.

Or, simply weep for Scotch whisky, for what we see here is the first nail in Scotch’s coffin; a Trojan Horse if you will. Oh, don’t be absurd, you say. Stop over-reacting. Well, I don’t believe so. Certainly not next year, probably not for a decade or more, possibly not even in my lifetime, but this marks the beginning of the end of a once-dominant industry. 

Once upon a time we built things here in the UK – ships, for example, and televisions and all kinds of consumer goods. More pertinently, once upon a time, the Irish whiskey industry led the world. With the largest stills and the best-selling brands they were the giants of their day.  But it took less than fifty years for that hegemony to be utterly destroyed. History suggests that currently well-entrenched and dominant market positions are far from impregnable and Scotch and other ‘traditional’ producers would do well to consider potential challenges, not facilitate them.

Jean-Etienne Gourgues, Pernod Ricard's MD for China

Jean-Etienne Gourgues, Pernod Ricard’s MD for China

I don’t imagine for a moment that Pernod Ricard thinks it will end this way. With a market share of around 20% of global Scotch and substantial investment there, it certainly isn’t looking for a self-inflicted wound. Yet, this I believe is the probable long-term outcome of this spectacular Chinese venture. After all, as Pernod’s Jean-Etienne Gourgues, MD for China says “we’re going to be transferring our world leading whisky-making expertise to China” using “major process equipment [which] is sourced from Forsyths, the best-in-class in the distillation equipment industry.” 

The more drinkers are persuaded that great whisky can be made anywhere in the world, the more that Scotch whisky’s premium cachet and exclusivity will fade. This is the start of a very slippery slope and today’s confidence can all too easily be revealed as tomorrow’s complacency.

Perhaps the Bible has a lesson.  In 1 Kings 18:44, it reads: “And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand. And he said, Go up, say unto Ahab, Prepare thy chariot, and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not.”

Perhaps it’s time for Scotland to buy an umbrella.

 

 

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Low alcohol, high profits

This week drinks industry veteran Ian Buxton casts a sceptical eye over alcohol-free ‘spirits’ and asks whether the abstemious youth of today are being taken for a ride. I’m troubled…

This week drinks industry veteran Ian Buxton casts a sceptical eye over alcohol-free ‘spirits’ and asks whether the abstemious youth of today are being taken for a ride.

I’m troubled by the ‘yuff’, I really am. Now, before you write in or reach for the comment button, I do acknowledge that this is a function of my state of advanced gammon.  But really, consider the evidence: the Students Union bar at the University of Abertay is to close due to lack of demand. Apparently coffee is preferred to pints. This is in Dundee for goodness’ sake. Not the student life that I recall (or like to imagine that I can recall).  Another report suggests that undergraduate drinking is declining everywhere

Elsewhere, youthful nightclubbers in Kent are inhaling (oxymoron alert) ‘premium’ vodka mist from a balloon. This is foolish and must stop. Everyone knows that ‘premium’ vodka is merely packaging and, more importantly, vodka is best reserved for lighting barbeques and, in extremis, cleaning open wounds. It is not to be considered as a drink for adults.

New alcohol free aperitif, Everleaf

New alcohol free aperitif, Everleaf

But, to be serious for one moment, in fact everywhere we look an entire generation is turning its back on alcohol. According to recently released data from the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (one imagines its annual conference must be one long party) in 63 nations studied over the past decade rates of underage drinking have plummeted. Among the ‘best performing’ nations we find the UK where almost one-third of 16-24 year olds are total abstainers, compared to one fifth a decade previously. Binge drinking is down by a half. Time for some soul searching I feel.

It’s certainly getting some serious attention in drinks company boardrooms. The trend away from alcohol seems to be driven by the cult of ‘wellness’ and the pernicious impact of social media. Apparently pictures of drunken antics appearing on Facebook where they are preserved for all eternity do not enhance career prospects, though clearly journalism has never been considered an option.

But – when not inhaling vodka from a balloon – people still like to go out and socialise.  So what do they drink? Well, the industry has plans. And you don’t need to sell your Diageo or Pernod Ricard shares just yet because it turns out that alcohol-free drinking is not profit-free drinking. Once the abstainer faced the choice of boring water, various sweet and calorie-laden fizzy drinks or an alcohol-free beer which let’s face it, until recently, were generally deeply unpleasant. It’s hard to appear the life and soul of the party if every mouthful involves some grimacing. But sensing a market disappearing in front of its eyes the drinks industry got busy. Good old soda and lime has been displaced by products such as Seedlip, Ceder, Celtic Soul and Heineken 0.0. They taste good (well, mostly they taste OK) and, importantly for the target market, they pass muster on Instagram. 

However, qualifying as cool comes with a price tag – Seedlip, for example, will set you back at least £20 a bottle and frequently more. That’s around half as much again as a bottle of standard Gordon’s Gin, but with no alcohol tax to pay.  Six cans of Heineken 0.0 are around £4; that’s only a pound cheaper than the real thing. Celtic Soul, a “non-alcoholic blend of carefully distilled dark spirits” is £25; Atopia, from the Hendricks people is also £25 (though contains 0.5% alcohol so hold me back); Seedlip’s sister Aecorn, an alcohol free aperitif, asks £19.99 and mock gins such as Ginish and Portobello Road Temperance (4.2% abv) hover in the £20-25 range. These are pretty steep prices.

Atopia, low alcohol juniper spirit from William Grant & Sons

Atopia, a low alcohol juniper spirit from William Grant & Sons

I get that there are development and marketing costs but, given the rate at which these products are suddenly being released, they’re evidently not unduly demanding for a reasonably competent distiller to turn out and they don’t spend years maturing in expensive casks either.  Yes, marketing isn’t free but actually a lot of the promotion for the trendier alcohol-free options is fairly low-cost as enthusiastic drinkers plug their favourite brands on social media. Thanks very much say the spinmeisters.

If they do happen to cannibalise volume from established brands, it won’t be long before we hear the distillers complaining – but these are crocodile tears.  Given the retail prices being achieved and noting the absence of alcohol duty, the unit profitability on the typical new-wave alcohol-free brands comfortably exceeds the money made on traditional, full-strength products drunk by grumpy old gits like me.

So, while this new generation of earnest and abstemious little puritans may seem bafflingly dull to my degenerate cohort, I do worry that they’re being taken for a ride.  Premium prices make for premium profits. Still, all to the good for my pension plan.

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Missing in action? The forgotten blends

When was the last time you read about Label 5 Scotch whisky? Or William Peel? Or Teacher’s? Ian Buxton looks at the blends that still bring in the money, if…

When was the last time you read about Label 5 Scotch whisky? Or William Peel? Or Teacher’s? Ian Buxton looks at the blends that still bring in the money, if not the column inches. 

Imagine if you will that you live in a fine country house. It’s well-appointed with many delightful rooms, a range of useful outbuildings and extensive grounds. All in all, it’s perfectly agreeable. What’s more, thanks to your aunt’s endowment and some shrewd investments, there’s a steady flow of income to keep the whole place running. The problem is that the old girl’s more than slightly batty so you have to keep her out of the public’s curious view. It’s the classic problem of the mad aunt in the attic and I’ve been thinking about her quite a lot recently. That’s because I’ve been drinking some blended Scotch whiskies and, for an article I’m writing, trying to get the distillers to talk about them. To summarise: they don’t have a lot to say.

Now my email in-box overflows on a daily basis with news of different single malts.  A constant stream of eager PR agencies and their clients vie for your attention with ever more exotic, expensive and esoteric releases of rare single malts. Often they’re limited to a few hundred bottles and, all too frequently, with a price tag running into four figures.

Dewar's White Label

They don’t make adverts like this any more.

They do, of course, provide easy copy for whisky magazines and bloggers and the proud brand manager is more than happy to see the column inches that result. They don’t, however, really mean terribly much in the grand scheme of things – while they’re the glamorous Spitfire pilots of whisky, the blends (the crews from Bomber Command if you want to keep this rather tenuous analogy going) do the grunt work.  They still account for more than 90% of all the Scotch sold around the world and without them, as I never tire of reminding folk, quite a number of single malt distilleries would have shut years ago.

The volumes of some of these brands are quite remarkable.  You know about Johnnie Walker, of course, and probably realise that blends such as Ballantine’s, Grant’s and Chivas Regal still sell impressive quantities (for the record, they each move considerably more than 4 million cases annually – that’s a lot of hooch).  But what about Passport, Buchanan’s, White Horse or Sir Edward’s? Well, any one of those sells more than 1½ million cases, leaving even the best-selling single malt gasping in their wake. 

In fact, brands that have been more or less forgotten on the UK retail scene such as VAT 69 and even Teacher’s still comfortably break the 1 million club barrier. And the ‘value’ brands that grace French supermarket shelves can clock up some remarkable numbers. Label 5 for example, which you’d be forgiven for not calling to mind, is a powerhouse performer selling close to 3 million cases.  Even more remarkably, the William Peel brand does even better.

So what’s the problem?  Why don’t we hear more about these whiskies? Well, some of it is pure snobbery – especially in the UK and US markets, blends are rather looked down on (not least, it has to be said by whisky writers and bloggers). The rot started with one of my personal whisky heroes, the author Aeneas MacDonald, who back in 1930 with his marvellous polemic Whisky (still in print, incidentally, and still well worth reading) chastised blended whisky drinkers as “the swillers, the drinkers-to-get-drunk who have not organs of taste and smell in them but only gauges of alcoholic content, the boozers, the ‘let’s-have-a-spot’ and ‘make it a quick one’ gentry and all the rest who dwell in a darkness”. Other writers have followed his lead.

Dr Jim Beveridge

Softly-spoken and unassuming, Dr Jim Beveridge from Johnnie Walker

Then there’s the undeniable fact that selling lots and lots of the same whisky day after day makes for rather less compelling copy than a stream of new releases.  There’s only so often that story can be written.

But there are stories to tell about blends and blending, even if blenders by inclination seem to be quite a modest breed, preferring the quiet sanctuary of their blending room to the stage at a large public whisky event. To their credit, Diageo did try some years ago to bring blending to the fore, holding a series of educational seminars for trade and media and releasing late in 2012 an elegant and erudite little pamphlet on The Art of Blending.

What’s more, their signature Johnnie Walker blend has proved adept at stealing malt whisky’s PR clothing. For proof, look no further than the recently released John Walker Last Cask.  There are just 330 bottles available worldwide (that’s if the Chinese leave us any, as it’s released there first) at approximately £2,500 each. 

So come on whisky marketers!  Let’s hear it for the engines of whisky’s success!  Let’s hear it for the mad aunt in the attic!

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks.  A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

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Drinks billionaires – keeping it in the family

Today Ian Buxton takes a closer look at some of the illustrious families of the drinks industry such as the Haigs, Bacardis and Ricards, and reveals which great brands are…

Today Ian Buxton takes a closer look at some of the illustrious families of the drinks industry such as the Haigs, Bacardis and Ricards, and reveals which great brands are still in family hands.

Do you ever wonder who might raise a glass to you when you, to coin a phrase, raise a glass yourself? It’s an intriguing question. After all, drinks companies are fond of maintaining the façade of family owners. Think Bulleit Bourbon – it’s actually a Diageo brand (which arguably was mainly developed under Seagram’s) but a very high profile is maintained by Tom Bulleit and, until recently, his daughter Hollis. They’re speaking via their lawyers now. The story behind their acrimonious break-up is a rather unfortunate one and perhaps for another day, but sadly illustrative of the potential problems lurking in any family.

The Nightcap Drinks billionaires

Bulleit bourbon, a family business?

But back to Diageo. In its Scotch portfolio we’ll also find the Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and Haig brands. Now, once upon a time, there were real-life actual people answering to Walker, Buchanan and Haig who owned the distilleries that made these products – but no longer.

Today Diageo is a publicly-quoted company. That means you can buy a share in the business and be a part-owner. Actually, if you have any kind of a pension plan (whether through your employer or direct) you probably already own a share in some shares. Diageo is one of the UK’s largest and most successful businesses, and most well-balanced pension portfolios will have a holding in the company.  To declare an interest, I certainly do (I checked), and I’m very happy with its recent performance.

Many large industries have evolved in this way. But the drinks trade is something of a curiosity as a number of important brands remain in the hands of the descendants of the founding family.  Though some, like the Walkers, Buchanans and Haigs have long since cashed in, other companies remain determinedly independent and make great play of the long-term planning required in the spirits business. This, they suggest, means the industry is well suited to family ownership rather than being driven by the short-term demands of the financial community.

Some of the smaller examples are well known. Glenfarclas, for example, is happy to stress the fact that the distillery has remained in the Grant family since 1865 with chairman John Grant and son George directly and actively involved in every aspect. Grant Snr even lives on site, and you can’t get more hands-on than that.

Whisky Advent 2018 Day #18 Drinks billionaires

George Grant from Glenfarclas

Glenfiddich too is a family concern so, along with the various brands they own – think Balvenie, Hendrick’s Gin, Tullamore D.E.W. and Sailor Jerry rum among others – the forty-odd descendants of the founder William Grant thank you for every bottle you buy.  Oddly, though, while the public face of the company is largely represented by the Gordon branch (Peter Gordon and Grant Gordon in recent years) the major shareholder is believed to be the intensely private Benedicta Chamberlain. If her reputed 29.9% of the business is anywhere close to accurate, she’s comfortably in the billionaire class. Think of that next time you pour a dram of the world’s best-selling single malt.

As you’d expect, the family take the whole business very seriously. So much so in fact that Peter Gordon has even published a book on the subject. Family Spirit: Stories and Insights From Leading Family-Owned Enterprises looks at the strategies of eleven other family-owned businesses, though mainly not in the drinks industry. One of the companies he might have studied is Bacardi.  Yes, every drop of Dewar’s or Aberfeldy single malt or William Lawson’s (a million case-plus blended Scotch you’ve probably never heard of) adds a few coppers to the eponymous descendants of Don Facundo Bacardi.  A Bacardi and Coke puts a smile on their face, as does your call for Grey Goose, Martini, St-Germain or Patrón tequila.

Alexandre Ricard Drinks billionaires

Alexandre Ricard

Now the Bacardi family is very disciplined, borrowing if necessary to fund its acquisitions (over US$2 billion in 2004 for Grey Goose, then reputedly the largest purchase price in spirits business history for a single brand, and now a cool $5.1 billion for Patrón), but the equity isn’t sold. Much the same story could be told about Suntory Holdings, still controlled by the Saji and Torii families.

Elsewhere, public listing to raise capital hasn’t entirely removed family control as the tight grip of the founding dynasties at Davide Campari SpA, Brown-Forman and Rémy Cointreau SA clearly demonstrates. The Ricard family still retain 16% of the giant Pernod Ricard operation. It’s no coincidence that one Alexandre Ricard is both chairman and CEO, even if activist US investors Elliott Management are pushing to shake things up.

So, the reality and scale of family control is something to ponder as you part with your hard-earned cash. As you raise their brands to your lips, the question can’t be avoided: ‘what are the drinks billionaires sipping tonight?’

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Was Glenfiddich really the first ever single malt whisky?

An email making bold claims about Glenfiddich arrived at Master of Malt HQ last week. We had our doubts about its veracity so we turned it over to whisky writer…

An email making bold claims about Glenfiddich arrived at Master of Malt HQ last week. We had our doubts about its veracity so we turned it over to whisky writer and industry veteran Ian Buxton for his take. And here it is!

In what I laughingly refer to as my line of ‘work’ I’m exposed to a fair amount of nonsense from over-exuberant PR agencies (one day, I must offer you a selection of their better howlers).  Mostly this can be put down to inexperience or an excess of enthusiasm but this week my inbox positively glowed with some nuclear-weapons-grade spinmeistering from Glenfiddich’s agency Porter NovelliBack in 1969, they would have you know, “Glenfiddich was changing the world of whisky as we know [it, sic], launching the first ever SINGLE MALT WHISKY – they were all blends before the summer of ’69!” (their bold face and block caps).

Well, that got my attention, as did the claim that Glenfiddich opened the world’s first ever distillery visitor centre (I hope you’ve noticed the bold face and block capitals, by the way).  Let’s deal with that first: distilleries have been welcoming visitors since the 19th Century as Alfred Barnard would testify and, while they may not have had purpose-built facilities, Tobermory was actively welcoming visitors from the early 1920s (look closely at the bottom two lines on the door).  Glenfarclas opened their doors at much the same time as Glenfiddich – so closely in fact that they could hardly be accused of ‘copying’ their Speyside rivals. As so often, two people independently had the same great idea at much the same time, though it was hardly revolutionary. These, in fact, are mere striplings: the Palais Bénédictine was opened in 1888, beating Glenfiddich by a mere 81 years, and as Scotch whisky began life in the 15th Century at Lindores Abbey we can be sure that the hospitable monks were welcoming medieval visitors more than 500 years ago.  

Tobermory

Tobermory has been welcoming visitors for a long time

So that’s a pretty daft claim that ill becomes a brand with a great track record of innovation but one that we could probably ignore if it hadn’t been offered with the remarkable assertion that all Scotch was blended prior to 1969.  Really? Who knew? 

Where to start?  Well, Macallan’s then Chairman George Harbinson, was able to assure his presumably happy shareholders in 1963 that “the sale of Macallan in bottle is gaining momentum with a steadily increasing demand for the over 15 year old from the south of England”. Or perhaps with Professor George Saintsbury who in his hugely-influential Notes on a Cellar Book (1920, but still in print), disparages grain whisky as “only good for blending” and points the reader to Glendronach, Clynelish (now known as Brora) and Smith’s Glenlivet as single whiskies of note.  His admirer Aeneas MacDonald in his Whisky (1930, but also still in print) devotes the whole of his book – a genuine first, by the way – to singing the praises of single malt.

But for writers in the early part of the twentieth century to be championing single malt it had to have been around for some time.  Well, of course it was: blending greatly boosted Scotch whisky’s fortunes from the late 19th century at the expense of single malt but it never went away.  Connoisseurs such as Saintsbury, MacDonald and Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart (Scotch, published 1951) make that abundantly clear. Earlier writers too, sang its praises.  I call to the witness stand Robert Louis Stevenson who in his poem The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad apostrophises Talisker, Isla or Glenlivet as one of his three “king o’ drinks”. And that, of course, brings us to Glenlivet of which Sir Walter Scott was to write “it is the only liquor fit for a gentleman to drink in the morning”.

Bowmore advert

Advert for Bowmore whisky from before 1969

Now, Chivas Brothers’ The Glenlivet may have dropped its claim that it was “the single malt that started it all” but the Glenlivet name was highly prized.  Did not King George IV on his famous Brigadoon-style visit to Scotland in August 1822 demand a glass of Glenlivet whisky, then technically illegal and most certainly not blended? So valuable was the Glenlivet name that in 1884 J. G. Smith had to go to law to obtain the sole right to use the definite article in marketing his whisky as The Glenlivet.  As soon as Prohibition was repealed in 1933 his successors were exporting to the USA with such success that just twenty years later some 27 other brands had applied Glenlivet as a suffix to their drams. But even before Prohibition certain Islay whiskies, notably Laphroaig and Bowmore were well known in North America.  Bowmore were even advertising in Canada in the late nineteenth century. Need I go on – well, just one more example.  Royal Brackla was advertising its whisky and the Royal Warrant it received from King William IV in the 1830s.

Oh, and just for Porter Novelli’s benefit, Glenfiddich was being sold in Scotland well before the Second World War and Glenfiddich Pure Malt dates from 1903 at least.  How do I know – well, I found this picture on their website! Perhaps the PR team should take a look!  

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks.  A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

Glenfiddich

Glenfiddich malt whisky bottle c. 1903-1908

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Hops and grass, a match made in heaven?

As various Conservative politicians tumble over themselves to admit their early experiences with drugs of varying illegality, but within limits naturally, it seems as good as time as any for…

As various Conservative politicians tumble over themselves to admit their early experiences with drugs of varying illegality, but within limits naturally, it seems as good as time as any for Ian Buxton to look into the drinks industry’s flirtation with weed.

Yes, cannabis.  Or dope, grass, bhang or pot – call it what you will, it’s currently taking up a great deal of the time, attention and budget of the drinks industry’s senior executives.  Not that they’re smoking the stuff or baking it into their lunchtime snacks, you understand, but a lot of money is changing hands. Cannabis is shaping up to be the next big thing after alcohol.

Much of the activity currently takes place in North America. Canada has liberalised its laws on cannabis and a number of US states are poised to follow. Cannabis-infused drinks are under active development with brewers leading the way. As just one example, giant Canadian brewer Molson Coors took a majority stake in August 2018 in a joint venture with cannabis producer, The Hydropothecary Corporation. It’s taken the resulting Hexo Molson company less than a year to develop their first products, which will go on sale this December as soon as they become legal in Canada.

And what happens in Canada crosses the border to the US fast though currently Federal law prohibits brewers from using marijuana in beer. That hardly presented a problem to the noted craft brewer Keith Villa, the man behind Blue Moon Belgian Wheat Beer. His Ceria Grainwave Belgian-Style White Ale has no alcohol and but includes 5 milligrams of THC, the high-producing ingredient found in cannabis plants. It’s currently available in Colorado, with further distribution planned.

Ceria Brewing

Image courtesy of Ceria Brewing Company

Likewise San Diego’s Two Roots Brewing Co. which has five styles of non-alcoholic THC beer available in California and Nevada. Other craft brewers are piling in, and this hybrid category is rapidly gathering momentum. Apart from the obvious attraction, drinkers seem to be motivated by the wellness trend that is attracting younger US consumers – an alcohol-free buzz definitely fits with the millennial zeitgeist.

A few craft brewers doing funky things is all very well, however, but what about the big boys.  Well, they won’t all fess up to their plans but, behind the scenes, work is definitely going on.  After all, as Spiros Malandrakis, Euromonitor’s senior alcoholic drinks analyst explains, the industry needs to realise that it can’t stop cannabis’ inexorable rise. The management “can complain”, he says, “but this is going to happen. They can either sit in their offices and say: ‘Oh my God, our industry’s going to die,’ or they can do something and evolve alongside it.”

And, of course, they are. Heineken, for example, owns California’s Lagunitas Brewing, maker of Hi-Fi Hops.  According to their ‘Brewmonster’ Jeremy Marshall, “We’ve often dreamed of hops and their cannabis cousin partying together at the family reunion. We wanted to bring this party to life in a beverage. It’s high-time that good beer inspired a provocative, yet refreshing non-alcoholic alternative. With a smidge of California sun-grown cannabis in every sip.”

For the moment, Diageo has yet to make a move.  Though rumoured last year to be in talks with three Canadian cannabis producers the official line is that they are “watching” the market but that cannabis-infused alternative drinks have yet to make any discernible impact on their North American sales. “I wouldn’t call them a threat,” says their North American chief Deirdre Mahlan.  

Cannabis, coming soon to a bar near you (if you live in Canada or Colorado)

Pernod Ricard take much the same line.  According to CEO Alexandre Ricard: “We’re seriously monitoring the situation and starting to consider if it (cannabis) would or would not fit in our portfolio.” He went on to say: “We’re not there yet, we’re currently just analysing the data and observing the market from a consumer point of view in a number of US states and Canada. At this stage, and let me be very clear, we have no evidence whatsoever that cannabis legalisation may have an impact on premium spirits consumption.”

Well, perhaps not.  But others don’t agree. Legal marijuana in the US is predicted to reach a value of $23bn by 2022 and that’s too lucrative a market to ignore. Step forward Constellation Brands, a major US drinks business (products include Corona Extra lager; Casa Noble Tequila; High West whiskey and strategic investments in a number of craft distillers), who last year pumped almost $4bn into Canopy Growth, a Canadian cannabis group. This followed a previous smaller investment which made Constellation the first Fortune 500 company and the first major alcoholic beverage maker to take a minority stake in a marijuana business.

Others will surely follow.  Let’s hope their money doesn’t go up in smoke.

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks.  A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

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Whisky and honours

Today Ian Buxton toasts Dr Jim Beveridge from Johnnie Walker who has just received an OBE and looks into the occasionally murky world of whisky and honours. As you may…

Today Ian Buxton toasts Dr Jim Beveridge from Johnnie Walker who has just received an OBE and looks into the occasionally murky world of whisky and honours.

As you may have read recently, Dr Jim Beveridge, master blender for Johnnie Walker has been appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the latest Queen’s Honours list.  It couldn’t happen to a nicer or more modest chap – and he joins an exclusive group of whisky notables. In 2016 David Stewart, the long-serving malt Master at the Balvenie, was awarded the MBE while his opposite number at Glen Grant, Dennis Malcolm received an OBE – one rung up the awards ladder.  More recently, Nigel Mills, co-founder and chairman of The Lakes Distillery was appointed a CBE (a couple of steps up the awards hierarchy) while, at the same time, David Gosnell of Bushmills received the OBE.

Dr Jim Beveridge

Dr Jim himself!

So I expect by now you’re wondering, what are these awards, who else in whisky has received one and, most interesting of all, how are they decided?  There is no particular mystery about the British awards system. The aim is to recognise people who have made achievements in public life, or committed themselves to serving and helping Britain: “they’ll usually have made life better for other people or be outstanding at what they do.” as it says on the www.gov.uk/honoursThere’s nothing obscure about that and, other than the staunch republicans among us, we can probably agree that it is appropriate to recognise exceptional achievement or national service.  But who decides and how do they know who is worthy?

Though these are the Queen’s Awards, it’s not actually Her Majesty who decides. Specialist committees, comprising senior civil servants along with people who are independent of government, recommend awards to a main committee who then forward them to the Prime Minister’s office and then to the Queen. If you know someone particularly deserving, you can nominate them on the website. 

This system was introduced by John Major as Prime Minister but previously the basis for an award was, at best, opaque and, at worst, corrupt. There may have been some skulduggery surrounding the so-called ‘Whisky Barons’ of the 1920s ennobled by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, most notably the creation of Lord Woolavington (formerly James Buchanan). It is said that he paid handsomely for his peerage – allegedly, the sum of £50,000, or about £2m today – but signed the cheque with his new title and dated it for one day after the announcement was due, to ensure that the wily Lloyd George would honour the new honour!  But rest assured Messrs Beveridge, Stewart and Malcolm haven’t written any dodgy cheques! Their awards are strictly on merit.

Jim Beveridge

Dr Jim in action

Though there have been some involved with whisky production who have received gongs, like Ronald Martin from United Distillers (1931-2005, awarded OBE in 1991) or Professor Geoffrey Palmer from Heriot Watt University who received an OBE in 2003, the most senior awards, including knighthoods tend to come from the commercial side of the business.  Examples include Sir Anthony Tennant (1930 – 2011), knighted in 1992 for his work at IDV and at Guinness following the ignominious departure of Ernest Saunders, and Sir George Bull, knighted 1998, having been one of the principal architects of the then-largest merger in UK corporate history with the union of Grand Metropolitan with Guinness to create Diageo. A more recent business knight is Sir Ian Good, chairman of the Edrington Group from 1994 to 2013.  He was knighted in 2008. Interestingly, his predecessor John Macphail (1923-2004) received the lesser award of CBE, despite his obituary describing him as “one of the most inspirational and influential figures in the Scotch whisky industry”.

So here’s to all the distinguished individuals mentioned here, and all the others that I should have saluted but have omitted. Let’s raise a glass to their contribution to whisky, along with the hope that the new generation of distinguished whisky women will shortly have their special place in history.  

Who will be the first women in whisky to be honoured?  I leave it to you to speculate…..

Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks.  A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog.  Or just buy his books.  It’s what he really wants.

 

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