fbpx
Created by potrace 1.12, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2015

We're just loading our login box for you, hang on!

Master of Malt Blog

Author: Ian Buxton

How to buy (a bit of) your own drinks brand

This week Ian Buxton explores how you can own a little bit of your own booze business through the magic of crowdfunding. You might even get in on the ground…

This week Ian Buxton explores how you can own a little bit of your own booze business through the magic of crowdfunding. You might even get in on the ground floor of the new Brewdog and get rich! But you probably won’t.

Did you get any Brewdog? Not pints of the eponymous beer but a bit of the company. The self-styled bad boys of brewing raised capital through crowdfunding. If you picked Brewdog as an investment in 2010 then well done – early backers saw huge returns. As James Watt, BrewDog’s co-founder, explained in 2017 when a US private equity company took a 22% share: “Shares purchased in Equity for Punks I are now worth 2,765 percent of their original value. Even craft beer fans that invested in Equity for Punks IV, which closed in April 2016, have seen the value of their shares increase by 177 percent in just one year.”

If you’d invested in Brewdog in 2010, you’d be rich. RICH!

Unlike schemes such as Kickstarter where your cash is effectively a pre-order for a product and you don’t own a share in the company, crowdfunding means you are buying equity and become a shareholder – a co-owner of the business.

Now, you can buy shares in the large publicly-quoted drinks businesses, such as Diageo. In fact, if you have any kind of formal pension fund you quite probably already do. But crowdfunding is different: it allows you to get in at an early stage of the development of a new company. It’s interesting, fun, and potentially more profitable than investing in a well-established company but – pay particular attention to this bit – carries considerable risk that you can lose all your money.

So why do it? Well, several reasons. You may know the founders or principals of the fledgling concern and be prepared to back their judgement; you might agree that they’ve spotted a genuine gap in the market; in the case of a community-based enterprise you might take an essentially philanthropic view or you might just fancy a flutter.

You’ve missed out on Brewdog but, on the basis that you’re reading this on a drinks site I’ll assume you’re interested in booze, so what opportunities are out there right now? I’ve taken a look at Seedrs.com, a UK crowdfunding site, and WeFunder.com based in the USA. Note that these sites operate by providing you with information on the company, funds to be raised, intended use of the cash and details on what percentage of the business is being offered. There will be a fundraising target and a date when the offer will close. Read all this information VERY carefully before you commit.

Burleighs gin raised over £100,000 through crowdfunding this year

No one can have missed the gin craze of the last few years. If you think it can carry on for a while yet, then £10 will buy you a piece of Burleighs Gin – they’ve already raised over £100,000 on Seedrs.com.   

On the other hand, you might consider that gin is already a little passé and have heard of the hard seltzer boom in the USA. In that case, premium non-alcoholic and alcoholic seltzer brand Something & Nothing could be a good fit for your portfolio. Investment, also on Seedrs.com starts at £20, but one bold backer has already pledged £96,000 so evidently someone believes in the proposition.

Perhaps something on the huge US drinks scene will appeal. Turning to WeFunder.com there are a number of opportunities, ranging from flavoured malt beverage HoopTea (a $1,000 minimum commitment though) to Kokoro Spirits ($100 and up). Starting with Tequila it aims to build a “collection of premium spirits and a brand that celebrates communities and cultures from around the world”.

It’s always a good idea to spread your risk by diversifying investments. With that in mind, Drifter Spirits is creating a portfolio of craft spirits for the US market, starting with cachaça and aquavit brands. The company has been trading for some seven years with an experienced management team  $500 gets you a place on its share register.

There are many more opportunities arising on a regular basis and there are other crowdfunding sites. These are simply examples of an interesting new trend.  Any of these companies could be the next Brewdog or all might crash and burn, taking your hard-earned with them. Caveat emptor!

IMPORTANT: Nothing in the foregoing constitutes investment advice or a recommendation. As with any investment consider the risk factors, do not invest more than you can afford to lose and seek appropriate professional advice. Disclosure: Ian Buxton may be an active investor in one or more of the businesses mentioned here.

No Comments on How to buy (a bit of) your own drinks brand

The growing pains of Irish whiskey

It’s an Irish whiskey double-bill today. This morning we had exciting news of developments at Sliabh Liag, and now this afternoon Ian Buxton looks at problems and disagreements behind the…

It’s an Irish whiskey double-bill today. This morning we had exciting news of developments at Sliabh Liag, and now this afternoon Ian Buxton looks at problems and disagreements behind the much-heralded Irish whiskey renaissance.

According to James Joyce “the light music of whiskey falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude”. Ironically, though, that was written in 1914 when Irish whiskey was in near-terminal decline; a hiatus rather than an acquiescent break. Two years earlier, in 1912, a group of Scotch whisky distillers had founded the Wine & Spirit Brand Association, the body which thirty years later evolved into the Scotch Whisky Association. Their goal was to create a united industry voice, just one step in Scotch’s march to global domination. In fact, things were to get a great deal worse for the beleaguered Irish industry. By 1930, William Ross of the DCL was able to observe that “Ireland is an irrelevance.” Cruel, perhaps, but at the time entirely accurate.

It took a long time but, eventually, things did get better. Much better, as it happens as up until coronavirus’s rude interruption, Irish whiskey was enjoying its biggest boom since the mid-1800s with new distilleries being opened at a furious rate, existing distilleries expanded and a bewildering range of new brands being launched.

Why Irish whiskey needs a moment of self-reflection

Irish whiskey has welcomed a hoard of new brands, distilleries and whiskies in the last few years

Not that everything went smoothly. In particular, many of these new brands seemed to be little more than marketing labels – whiskey from one of Ireland’s major producers repackaged by third-party bottlers. Some went further leading to the misleading impression, according to their critics, that such bottles were produced by one of the new wave of boutique distilleries. As the ever-outspoken Mark Reynier, now distilling in Waterford summed it up earlier this year in a fascinating interview for The Irish Times. “Most of the whiskey business in Ireland is independent bottling. Almost all Irish whiskey comes from three distilleries, so while there may be over 100 labels on display at Dublin airport, most of it comes from the same few sources. It is a charade and it risks doing untold damage to Irish whiskey.”

So you would think that an Irish equivalent to the Scotch Whisky Association is just what the industry needs. And indeed there is such a body. Founded in 2014 as the Irish Whiskey Association (now Drinks Ireland and covering all Irish alcohol) it boldly identifies the number one objective of its ‘work plan’ as: “To protect the integrity and high standards of the Irish Whiskey category by securing and enforcing the strongest possible legal protection for the Irish Whiskey category name and Geographic Indication.”

Why Irish whiskey needs a moment of self-reflection

Reynier says the proliferation of whiskey repackaged by third-party bottlers could do lasting damage  

That would seem to be a wholly laudable objective and Drinks Ireland played a key role in defining Irish whiskey in a Technical File for the EU which became law in 2014. Indeed, according to DI’s William Lavelle, “Since the Technical File was adopted in 2014, Irish whiskey has benefited from increased exports, increased whiskey tourism to Ireland and a rise in the number of new brands in Irish whiskey.”

Quite possibly, but a lot has happened in the last six years, and not everyone seems to agree that the growth noted by Drinks Ireland is a consequence of their work rather than a coincidence. Mark Reynier for one regards them with some concern as under-resourced and “trying their best but pretty disjointed”. His main concern is that, as Irish whiskey grows in world markets, cynical competitors will take the opportunity to point to the proliferation of labels and suggest, through their crocodile tears, that ‘sadly, you can’t trust Irish whiskey’.  

Others, such as the relatively new Blackwater Distillery in Waterford point to what they see as an inherent bias in the regulations that favour the larger producers who were well established when the rules were written.  In a provocative entry on their hard-hitting blog, they are particularly critical of Irish Distillers, the Pernod Ricard subsidiary. 

Why Irish whiskey needs a moment of self-reflection

The promise of Irish whiskey is great, but so are the challenges facing the industry

Is this I wonder, any more than the inevitable growing pains that come with such a rapid expansion in the industry and the arrival of so many new producers, all with their own ideas, enthusiasm and desire to innovate? After all, as the Scotch whisky industry knows, new ideas and methods of production can be adopted into the regulations if the demand is there and the industry can show a need.  

Change can come, albeit over time. Irish whiskey has been around for centuries and survived any number of crises, some self-inflicted. As the world emerges from the current disagreeable interlude, as eventually, it will, perhaps this is the moment for all the players, large and small, to seize this opportunity for self-reflection and build the credibility and integrity that their trade association seeks to promote.

No Comments on The growing pains of Irish whiskey

Rock of ages: can maturation be fast forwarded?

This week Ian Buxton applies his boozy magnifying glass on maturation and asks if it can ever be manipulated or accelerated to produce a quality spirit. I found myself recently…

This week Ian Buxton applies his boozy magnifying glass on maturation and asks if it can ever be manipulated or accelerated to produce a quality spirit.

I found myself recently considering the question of ageing.  Probably because it was my birthday (yes, fine, thanks for asking) but it did bring a few things into focus. For example, will the challenge of accelerated maturation in spirits ever be fully cracked – and, if so, will the consumer accept it? Speeding up the ageing process in spirits (unlike in writers, where it seems to accelerate naturally) has long been something of the Holy Grail for some drinks companies. 

After all, if you could manufacture the same taste profile from a six-month-old spirit as one that has spent ten years waiting in cask there would be undoubted benefits. Just think of the saving in casks and warehouses. Imagine the additional profits. Why you might even be able to offer lower retail prices (now things are getting fanciful).

But people have been trying for over a hundred years or more. Shortly before the Tullymet distillery in Perthshire was closed in 1911, the owners John Dewar & Sons, then independent and family-owned, engaged “an eminent analytical chemist” to experiment with artificial maturation. It was reported that “he brought elaborate appliances from London and with our permission and the sanction of the Excise he toiled week after week with his alembics and retorts”. 

can maturation be fast forwarded

We employ various techniques already to enhance barrel maturation, but can we accelerate the process?

However, the trials ended in failure: though the boffin “brought his sample in triumph” to Dewar’s Perth HQ the company found it “nothing but an anaemic and emasculated fluid, with a taste resembling Chinese samshoo”. Perhaps they should have stuck at it, as today baijiu distiller Kweichow Moutai is the world’s most valuable drinks company, far exceeding the stock market worth of Diageo. 

More recently, there have been other efforts.  In the USA, hip bourbon distillers Hudson trailed blasting rap music at selected casks to promote ‘sonic ageing’, the theory being that vibration increases the wood/spirit interaction. In July 2008 it was reported that Diageo was wrapping casks in plastic film. A spokesman responded drily that “At this stage, the technologies under trial are not proven and we are continuing our research.”  Since then, whatever they were up to (and reports vary) it evidently didn’t work or demonstrated what it was they wanted to show. Either way, the trials have been quietly dropped.

Elsewhere, distillers have experimented with the freeze distillation of spirit, though this appears to have been more about getting very old casks that had fallen below 40% ABV, and thus couldn’t be sold as Scotch whisky, back up to a legal strength. The value that might have been recovered is extraordinary given today’s price of really old whisky but whether or not this perfectly scientifically-sound technique would have met the SWA’s ‘traditional production methods’ standard might have been an interesting debate. 

can maturation be fast forwarded

Bourbon distillers Hudson previously experimented with ‘sonic ageing’

Over in California, the folks at the Lost Spirits ‘skunkworks’ in Los Angeles has employed its THEA One Reactor (Targeted Hyper-Esterification Ageing) to create remarkable peated whiskies and navy-style rums. I’ve tasted these and in my book 101 Rums to Try Before You Die concluded that “though logic tells you that six days in a Star Trek-style ‘reactor’ cannot possibly deliver the flavours of traditional ageing, your nose and palate tell you otherwise”.  So, good then.

 

‘which they suggest may be compared to a leading’

Now yet another group are addressing this timeless challenge with what they are terming ‘accelerated beverage maturation technology’. The little-known and curiously anonymous NobleAB has produced samples of a ‘peated Speyside’, which the company perhaps optimistically suggests can be compared to a leading 10 years old Islay single malt, and a Lowland and an Indian Spirit, all oak matured with its ‘unique’ process. This its describes as “a substantial amount of wood science with specially prepared oaks for targeted maturation”. 

I know little more. Though there is a domain name for NobleAB dating from August 2017 there is no active web site and the CEO’s business card does not carry a physical address.  He’s one Stefan Laux. According to his LinkedIn profile, he spent some seven years with Rémy Cointreau leaving in 2004 (long before they acquired the Bruichladdich and Westland distilleries, and many years after they had sold Glenturret). Subsequently, Laux has moved quickly through a bewildering number of posts: we find him variously in Italy, Poland (in several roles), Tunisia, the USA, Switzerland and Hungary.

can maturation be fast forwarded

We want to know what you think – can maturation be sped up?

It’s all very mystifying. Will this prove a crock of gold, or a crock of something less pleasant?  Some samples have reached me by a strange and circuitous route and I may return to this topic if I have news. But I’m interested in your views – feel free to comment below with your thoughts on fast-forwarded whisky.

No Comments on Rock of ages: can maturation be fast forwarded?

How craft distilling is coping with Covid

In the second part of his look at how the spirits business is coping with the Covid pandemic, Ian Buxton looks at the craft distilling sector both here and in…

In the second part of his look at how the spirits business is coping with the Covid pandemic, Ian Buxton looks at the craft distilling sector both here and in the US. Surprisingly, there’s quite a lot of good news. Hurrah!

Frankly, the last thing I expected in writing this piece was to be the bearer of glad tidings. I was pretty sure that coronavirus would have had a devastating effect on our smaller distillers: under-financed and over-dependent on the non-existent on trade, I anticipated tales of woe and to be reporting closures and widespread gloom.

So, expecting the worst, I took a random cross-section of this previously-buoyant industry from my contact book and asked how coronavirus had affected their business and how they saw the future. I should begin by noting that a number never responded. That might be an ominous sign, but then again there may be perfectly good reasons why my emails went unheeded and phone calls unanswered. Because of that I won’t identify these businesses, which made up around a quarter of my sample. Let’s hope they’re OK.

The Nightcap

The Port of Leith Distillery

But what that means is that some 75% did get back to me and from them I received encouraging news of a determined and positive fightback. Yes, the arrival of this nasty disease has been disruptive, sometimes expensive and certainly not what anyone would wish for but it has brought out a refreshing blend of initiative, entrepreneurship and creativity in battling the bug. 

The various government schemes for financial support have helped, of course, but one factor that came across time and again was the production of hand sanitiser. Indeed, from the USA, Bill Owens, president of the American Distilling Institute (‘the largest small-batch, independently owned craft distillery association in the world’) told me succinctly that “what saved the craft [distiller] is hand sanitiser”. Though tasting rooms are closed (these tend to be disproportionately important to smaller US distillers) Owens reports “a distillery near Chicago going 20,000 bottles a week” and another in Kentucky achieving some $40,000 in sales. He drew a sharp contrast though with smaller brewers and winemakers, estimating that around one-third will close their doors.

A similar story emerged here in the UK. From Orkney, Stephen Kemp said that while “we watched our various revenue streams dry up overnight …. we very quickly had to diversify, and so like many others we began creating hand sanitiser,” adding that ”we also had to ‘amp-up’ our online presence substantially, and invest very heavily in online marketing.” In addition, taking advantage of the fact that many in the bar trade have had some time on their hands, Orkney Distilling say they have been “working hard to keep in touch with those in the trade who will inevitably re-open – we want to be there with them and for them!”

Barney Wilczak in action

At the opposite end of the country, the small team at the Capreolus Distillery in the Cotswolds also saw an opportunity to build trade relationships. While the up-market restaurants and bars that make up such an important part of their business have been closed, Barney Wilczak relates that “after an initial couple of weeks of panic we focused heavily on investing in both existing sommelier friends and new restaurants. This translated as sending out samples, tasting online, providing training and using the time to communicate the values that our approach embodies.”  As he also noted, “this had the advantage of being able to reach people whose schedules are normally extremely hectic and allowed them to spend time getting to intimately understand the intricacies of our spirits.” Like Orkney, and despite being an extremely small business themselves, Capreolus took pains to offer the trade “professional development, education and an engagement that shows we will be there for them in both bad and good times.” Doubtless, this investment will be repaid many times over in future sales.

At the Port of Leith distillery, founder Ian Sterling offered this perspective: “We’ve had to work much, much harder and I would really like a holiday.” But he went on to state that “overall the impact has not been severe and indeed sales have grown over the last three months”. Like many others, Port of Leith reported a mini boom in on-line sales both domestically and for export and, encouragingly, “many of those new online customers are continuing to purchase that way”. Work continues on its new distillery which should open in 2021.

There will, of course, be casualties. As Nicholas Cook from The Gin Guild points out “the underfunded, those with weak business plans, mediocre or average products without individual stand out appeal or branding, and those who were simply jumping on the ‘gin bandwagon’ and those simply caught out at the wrong point in their business development, or who were exposed as over expanded at this critical time, will find it difficult to survive”.

But from my brief snapshots – and there were others – not all is doom and gloom. The industry has been tested, but not to destruction. Craft spirits shall not wither and die!

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.

1 Comment on How craft distilling is coping with Covid

And that’s a wrap

There have been some amazing whisky publicity stunts over the years but none quite as audacious as the one Ian Buxton tried to pull off with the artist Christo. Here’s…

There have been some amazing whisky publicity stunts over the years but none quite as audacious as the one Ian Buxton tried to pull off with the artist Christo. Here’s the full story. . .

You may have noticed that the artist Christo died recently. He was 84. His wife and artistic collaborator Jeanne-Claude died in 2009 and thus Christo’s passing marks the end of a remarkable creative duo. They worked together but always under the name of Christo.

You will remember them of course as the guys who wrapped things. Starting in the 1950s with mundane household objects such as chairs and bicycles they graduated to wrapping trees, fences, bridges, monuments, buildings and, on occasion, islands. They wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris and even the Reichstag (below). 

Imagine getting one of these for Christmas!

They were colourful and sometimes controversial characters. Not everyone cared for their work; there were frequent objections to their planned installations and one lady even died when one of their Umbrellas (1991) was toppled in high winds and struck and killed her.

We didn’t seem to ‘get’ them here in the UK, though after Jeanne-Claude’s death, Christo was able to install his London Mastaba in Hyde Park in 2018. So what’s this got to do with whisky you may be wondering.  Well, if I had been a more persuasive advocate, they might have completed their first UK work in Scotland, nearly twenty years earlier. It’s an unusual story, strange but true.

Prior to this writing lark I worked almost exclusively in consultancy, building on my previous career in marketing. Together with my wife (note the parallel), we established a consultancy business in Edinburgh where we had a number of whisky clients. However, in early 1999 one major client appointed a new president of global brands. This is generally not good news for the incumbent agencies as, determined to make their mark, the newcomer looks to shake things up. Based in the USA, the lady concerned did not appear impressed with anything other than the most fashionable of trendy New York agencies. It was imperative that we come up with a suitably grandiose idea. And fast.

So I proposed that we ask Christo to wrap the client’s main distillery. To bait the hook, I suggested we pay them £1 million, cover all the costs, give them complete creative control and see what they came up with. But I had a cunning plan: to get the client their money back I also proposed a special Hommage à Christo limited edition of wrapped bottles of single malt. 1,000 bottles at £1,500 should do nicely, I reckoned.

How long would it take to wrap a distillery?

Well, the client loved it and I was instructed to go and see Christo immediately and make it happen. Through friends of friends we were put in touch and, in the summer of 1999, I found myself in New York visiting Christo and Jeanne-Claude at their combined store, workshop, gallery, studio and home in an old warehouse in the Meatpacking District (not in those days the most salubrious part of town).   

I was received with great courtesy and we toured the studio, looking at the concept studies for their current project, Over the River. Later abandoned due to local opposition, this envisaged suspending 5.9 miles of fabric panels along a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Cañon City and Salida in south-central Colorado. They told me that they needed $5m to fund the project. My hopes rose – compared to a river, wrapping a distillery would be a breeze and surely a million quid would come in handy.

Some whisky was shared, and then some wine, and they agreed to look at the drawings I had brought. Scotland seemed to appeal; the drawings received close and apparently sympathetic attention and some practical issues were discussed. All seemed to be going well.

But then we hit a snag. Quite a big one, as it happens. Rather gravely and, I thought, a little sadly they explained that, on principle, they never ever accepted commissions. There were no exceptions; they were both completely clear that a commission would not be their artistic vision and thus fatally compromised. A little recklessly – both bottles had been well sampled by this stage – I assured them (quite without any authority) that my client would surely want to increase the fee. I mentioned figures, increasingly extravagant figures, but they were unmoved. So I returned, older, wiser and empty handed to my client to report my failure.

And, you’d assume, we lost their business.  Well, no.  Along with my Christo project I’d also proposed building a visitor centre and they loved that idea as well. So Aberfeldy distillery got Dewar’s World of Whisky – but, sadly, neither of us will ever feature in the history of art!

No Comments on And that’s a wrap

Coping with Covid: Scotch whisky’s post-pandemic plans

Today industry veteran Ian Buxton takes a look at how Scotland’s whisky business has coped with the global pandemic and what the mood is as the world begins to return…

Today industry veteran Ian Buxton takes a look at how Scotland’s whisky business has coped with the global pandemic and what the mood is as the world begins to return to some semblance of normality. 

You don’t need me to tell you there’s a nasty bug going round. Not so very long ago I was worrying about the new US import tariffs on single malt Scotch and the tit-for-tat taxes on American whiskey exports to the UK and European Union, noting that producers on both sides of the Atlantic, especially smaller distillers in the so-called craft sector were starting to feel real pain. The USA is Scotch’s most valuable single market – worth more than double the next nearest (France in case you wanted to know, where they love ‘value’ blends) – so it’s important.

Well, I didn’t know the half of it. ‘May you live in interesting times’ goes the old Chinese curse and regardless of where this particular C-virus curse originated we’re certainly in interesting times now.

Like most of the rest of the world and certainly the UK, Scotland’s distilling industry was brought to a dead stop with the arrival of Coronavirus. By mid-May the Scotch Whisky Association was reporting that “87% of production sites are either operating at reduced capacity or have closed entirely”. Many began producing hand sanitiser and high strength ethanol for key workers but, however laudable their efforts, they weren’t filling casks of new make or bottles of whisky.

However, at last, there are reasons to be hopeful, and while visitor centres remain shuttered, bottling and distilling has restarted at many locations. I’ve been asking what the industry plans to do to rebuild sales in the land of the free.

There must be worse places to isolate than the Hebridean island of Islay, from where Bruichladdich’s Christy MacFarlane told me that a phased restart got underway on 3 June though many employees remain home working. “Within the USA, sales and marketing have continued on a conservative basis, with an uplift in e-commerce channels,” she says. Also on Islay, Ardbeg and its mainland sister distillery Glenmorangie have reopened – just in time to support the launch of two new products into the USA. The Cadboll Estate is Glenmorangie’s first single estate whisky.  Aged in American oak bourbon casks for 15 years, this limited edition single malt Scotch whisky is exclusive to the US, Canada and Mexico. Wee Beastie is Ardbeg’s first 5 year old expression, matured in ex-bourbon and oloroso sherry casks.

Islay’s smallest distillery (for the moment) is Kilchoman. Just prior to lockdown, the family had completed a significant expansion and now they’re back at work, albeit with a smaller team all keeping an appropriate social distance.

Back on the mainland, Gordon Buist, production director at Chivas Brothers explained that “at present, seven of our 14 distilleries are operational [with] the health and safety of our team our number one priority. Any decisions on increasing capacity and/or reopening sites will be led by government guidelines that keep them – as well as our visitors, partners and the wider community – safe.”

However, while anticipating that “social distancing will continue to be the norm across all of our sites until a vaccine is found,” he concluded that Chivas “remain confident in the resilience of Scotch – which has seen just one dip since 2000 – and its ability to bounce back after this outbreak, as it has done following many other macro events that have impacted the world in the past 20 years.”

whisky crash

Ian Buxton next to a cask of whisky

Representing Balblair and Old Pulteney single malts, Malcolm Leask, global vice president of sales, was similarly upbeat, remarking on its new US distributor partnership with the super-premium artisanal spirits importer and distiller Hotaling & Co, from April and promising “exciting plans for these brands in the US market over the next year, to tell the stories of our whiskies and re-engage US malt whisky drinkers.”

But tourism and whisky festivals have been hit hard. It feels as if 2020’s visitor operations will be a total write-off, though some distilleries have been offering their limited edition festival bottlings online. Expect them soon on an auction site as the virtual roundabout continues.

Back in the USA where blends are still hugely important, from major player Dewar’s comes word that blending and bottling operations have continued without interruption of supply. Brian Cox, VP Dewar’s North America says “COVID-19 has raised challenges, as it has for everyone, but we remain resolutely focused in trying to anticipate and shape the future, for both Dewar’s and the category. We plan to carry on pushing the boundaries of what is expected from the whisky category and continue our long-standing commitment to innovation. Watch this space for more exciting news from the brand soon.”

That’s the spirit for these times!

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.

No Comments on Coping with Covid: Scotch whisky’s post-pandemic plans

Whisky business

On the blog today, Ian Buxton looks at two scions of whisky families, Edwin York Bowen and Richard Seaman, who turned their backs on the booze business to become a…

On the blog today, Ian Buxton looks at two scions of whisky families, Edwin York Bowen and Richard Seaman, who turned their backs on the booze business to become a composer and a racing driver respectively.

If we turn the clock back to the late Victorian period there were substantial fortunes to be made in whisky and, in a period before industry consolidation, much of this accrued to a privileged class of owners who lived in considerable style. But their offspring didn’t always care to follow their parents into ‘trade’, preferring very different lifestyles. In one case, this brought respectability in the arts whilst another was to excel briefly in the raffish world of pre-War Grand Prix motor racing – with a tainted and notorious association with the Nazi party.

The composer Edwin York Bowen (1884-1961) achieved early fame and was hailed as the ‘English Rachmaninov’. Indeed, Camille Saint-Saëns saluted him as ‘the finest of English composers’ after attending the premiere of Bowen’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The whisky connection came through his father who was a partner in the blenders Bowen & McKechnie. Bottles of its Lords & Barons and Gold Braid blends appear from time to time at auction and an attractive water jug decorated with the message ‘Ask for Melrose whisky’ forms a poignant coda to his story. 

York Bowen: Photograph by Herbert Hughes, 1935. McCann Collection, ©Royal Academy of Music.

Bowen’s fame as a composer was short lived, though he continued to compose, perform and teach for the rest of his life, by the late 1920s his romantic style was considered outdated and his reputation faded. But in recent years, his reputation has risen. Bowen was a great pianist and some of his early recordings are now available on CD from Presto Classical. His own compositions may be obtained on notable classical labels such as Chandos and Hyperion, and are occasionally heard in the present day repertoire of a number of performers resulting in something of a recovery of interest in his work.

Likewise, Richard ‘Dick’ Seaman’s reputation has recently been boosted by the publication of Richard William’s book A Race with Love and Death: The Story of Richard Seaman.  Seaman (1913-1939) was the son of William Seaman. Originally destined for the diplomatic service, a decline in the family fortunes meant William was sent to work for his uncle William Lowrie, then said to be the world’s largest whisky stockholder. Lowrie took a shine to his nephew, paying him handsomely and appointing him a director. By 1910, recently widowed, he was a significant shareholder in not only W P Lowrie & Co., but also Haig & Haig, Mackie & Co. and Dewar’s, where he was also a director. 

In fact it was the great Sir Tommy Dewar who introduced him to his second wife, Lillian Pearce at a dinner at the Savoy Hotel. Love followed at first sight, Dewar later quipping at the wedding reception that this was the last time he was going to introduce any of his widows to any of his friends, as it always led to trouble.

John Richard Beattie Seaman. Photo courtesy of Daimler-Benz

Trouble – and great sorrow – certainly followed their son Richard. Educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge, he began motor racing in 1934 and was very soon successful in European competition driving first, as a privateer, an MG with later an ERA and Delage. His victories were spotted by Mercedes-Benz, whose Silver Arrow cars were a dominant force on the European Grand Prix circuit, and he signed for them in 1937. This resulted in a breach with his mother, who was opposed to him driving for a “Nazi team”, and the family tensions worsened when he married the daughter of a BMW director.

However, success on the track continued and in 1938 he won the German Grand Prix, came second in the Swiss event and was third at Donington. Now seen as one of the leading drivers on the European circuit he was leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa when he crashed and was severely injured, dying just a few hours later of the burns he received in the crash.

Richard Seaman’s wrecked car, Belgian Grand Prix, 25 June 1939. Photo courtesy of Daimler-Benz

Driving for a German team in the days just prior to the Second World War was bad enough, but Seaman gave further offence when he was seen to give, rather half-heartedly it must be said, a Hitler salute on winning the German Grand Prix. Worse was to come – at his funeral at Putney Vale Cemetery (where, curiously, F1 driver James Hunt is also buried) an enormous wreath of white lilies was placed among the piles of flowers, adorned with the name Adolf Hitler. It is said that Mercedes continues to tend his grave to the present day.

The very varied lives of Dick Seaman and York Bowen are linked by whisky and hark back to a world of great wealth derived from the Scotch whisky industry.  Yet in very different ways they set their faces against the source of their privileged existences – and perhaps are remembered all the more for that.

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.

No Comments on Whisky business

Hey big spender: private cask sales part two 

In the second part of his investigation, Ian Buxton looks at well-known distilleries that have specialist sales teams selling mature casks at six figure prices and above to high rollers,…

In the second part of his investigation, Ian Buxton looks at well-known distilleries that have specialist sales teams selling mature casks at six figure prices and above to high rollers, big spenders and fat cats.

As we moved into the final years of the twentieth century it may have seemed that the private cask [read the first part of the story here] would become little more than a curious historical footnote to whisky’s story. But the industry is nothing if not cyclical. Though most larger distilleries eventually closed their doors to the private clients, fresh opportunities arose, slowly at first and, from the turn of the millennium began gathering pace. New distilleries, some actually opened and some merely a glint in a promoter’s ambitious eye, began to sell casks of whisky yet unmade to finance their construction or expansion.

Not all were successful. There were some very suspect deals around and, on occasion, well-intentioned failure, such as the Ladybank Company of Distillers. In 2003 it announced plans “to create one of the world’s greatest single malt whiskies” at a proposed micro-distillery in Fife, charging their founder members an initial £3,250 for the promise of future bottles. Perhaps the 15% commission on offer to intermediaries should have sounded the alarm – in any event, by 2007 problems were apparent and the business placed in liquidation by 2011, with investors losing their entire stake.

However, the sale of single casks to the public has gained renewed impetus and, if willing to risk your money to a start-up at some historically rather inflated prices, there are several offers from new ‘craft’ distilleries available on the web. But what if you would like a cask of something special from a recognised distillery?

Macallan cask, probably worth a bit

Well, once again you can but this side of the business has changed a lot since the 1980s. Not just anyone can buy. It helps to be VHNW or, better still, UHNW (that’s Very or Ultra High Net Worth – filthy rich to the rest of us) for this is where the private cask action is to be found today.  Macallan appears to have started the trend, launching their En Primeur programme in April 2007 with a large and very tasteful brochure. At 30 x 41.5 cm it was indeed very large, but then ‘go large’ was clearly the message: prices started at £5,000 (presumably for the 200 litre ex-bourbon barrel) with more to pay on delivery after the recommended 12 years maturation. 

This was a whole new level of pricing for new fillings and, in retrospect, may be seen as a landmark in the transition of certain whisky brands to Veblen goods, where the marketing becomes as much about the trappings and experience of purchase as the product itself. We enter here the world of luxury and high-end marketing. Macallan maintains that the scheme proved a success, stating that they “took the decision to close the En Primeur programme in 2019 indefinitely due to unprecedented demand and an extensive waiting list of over five years.” Currently, no new applications will be considered.

But then, very quietly, something really interesting happened: brands noticed that very old whisky, long rather looked down on, could be very valuable indeed especially if it could be sold direct (just think of the margin). So single casks are once again available for sale. Not new make, however, for the new class of very wealthy buyer does not want to wait while their purchase matures – no, the demand now is for exceptionally old casks from distilleries with an established reputation that can be enjoyed as trophies.

Now let me stress that there’s nothing illegal going on here, though very few of the companies involved in the business want to talk about it. While multiple anonymous sources maintain that “everyone’s in the game”, I’ve seldom encountered such a wall of silence.  However, both Whyte & Mackay (W&M) and Diageo were willing to describe some aspects of their operation to provide a glimpse of this market.

Your own private label whisky would look splendid on your yacht

Both have identified that there is a small group of intensely private buyers prepared to pay handsomely for exclusive access to rare single malts. They may contact the distillery but, more likely, the marketing team have tracked them down to make a personalised approach.  As W&M’s Rare Whisky and Private Client team see the business, it’s more of a relationship than a transaction and they look to trade with “the right people for the right reasons”. That definitely precludes flipping these precious bottles for profit and it’s stressed that the whisky is sold for drinking not for investment, with prospective buyers carefully vetted as to their suitability.

Be clear that we’re looking at a minimum of six figures to pay to play, and frequently the transaction will run well into the millions including bottling and bespoke, customised packaging.  But then the likely client may call up from his superyacht (the typical client does appear to be male) where the whisky will be served to his guests while glancing casually at his million-pound Patek Philippe. Some of the figures quoted were eye-watering – one deal was mentioned at close to £20m!

Diageo, too, is represented here with a Rare & Collectable Spirits team established in 2015. It offers the Casks of Distinction – described as “special, old and very rare; entirely unique and individual in character… representing the most exceptional and singular expressions of their distilleries’ character.”

Feis Ile

You could even have your very own cask of Port Ellen

What distilleries? Well, any of them it seems. According to James Mackay, the head of rare & collectable spirits, nothing is off limits, and includes “some of the most famous Scotland has ever known; Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Caol Ila, Talisker, Mortlach and Cardhu, Clynelish and Brora, Oban and Royal Lochnagar on Royal Deeside” as well as “Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Carsebridge, Convalmore, and Dalwhinnie to Dailuaine”.

Like W&M, marketing is very discreet. “Casks of Distinction are offered only by appointment with one of Diageo’s network of private client teams in various cities around the world,” says Mackay, adding that “because Casks of Distinction is such a very small and niche programme, addressing the needs of a community of individuals who tend to be quite private by nature, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to promote it widely.”

So there you have it. If you haven’t been asked, don’t keep a Bugatti as your weekend car and consider flying in First Class a tiresome economy, you can probably forget access to these exceptional whiskies. In the words of an old song, “It’s the rich what gets the pleasure” but whether or not you find it all a “blooming shame” probably depends on the state of your bank balance.

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.

 

 

No Comments on Hey big spender: private cask sales part two 

The hidden world of private cask sales part one

Ever fancied your very own cask of Springbank? Well, until quite recently, this is how much single malt whisky was sold. In the first of a two part story, Ian…

Ever fancied your very own cask of Springbank? Well, until quite recently, this is how much single malt whisky was sold. In the first of a two part story, Ian Buxton looks into the often murky past and present of buying private casks from some of Scotland’s best-known distilleries. 

I’ve been thinking for some while about how the Scotch whisky industry sells casks to private individuals. Now you might very reasonably draw the conclusion that I should get out more but, that not being possible for the foreseeable future, I suggest that you pull up a chair, pour yourself a stiff dram and get ready for a long story – a two-parter, in fact. And we begin with a short history lesson (if it helps, think of it as home-schooling for grown-ups).

The purchase of a cask of single malt whisky by an individual is probably as old as the industry itself. Without stepping back terribly far in time – no more than 40 years – it was quite commonplace for a doting parent to purchase a cask of whisky in the name of a newborn child to await the celebration of their majority. The better class of pub and numerous hotels frequently had their own cask, often from their nearest distillery. Syndicates of chums, shooting or fishing friends, might subscribe for a cask to be bottled and enjoyed when out on the hill or riverbank. Companies had their own cask bottled for corporate gifts or to celebrate a significant anniversary or even a major deal.

What treasures lurk behind the white-washed walls of Bowmore?

You could approach the distillery direct or buy via a broker, then a more important part of the industry. When times got hard, distilleries were grateful for the business – Springbank in particular was a consistent seller of private casks. When I first entered the industry in the late 1980s, it was not unusual to visit a warehouse and see a small collection of privately-owned casks, some where all contact had been lost with the owner. These ‘orphan’ casks were just beginning to be a bit of a nuisance. Paperwork had to be maintained, they took up scarce warehouse space and were slowly deteriorating in quality or strength but could not be touched in case the owner or their descendants suddenly appeared. Sometimes a feature could be made of them – some readers may recall the display of orphan casks that once occupied a highly visible corner of Bowmore’s legendary No. 1 Vaults on the shores of Loch Indaal. The guide would point them out – containing allegedly the oldest whisky on the site – but not to be touched or sampled for even the most important VIP guest.  What mysteries they held could only be guessed at, delicious speculation over a later dram.

The trade was then more informal. If not quite conducted on a handshake there were fewer rules. In particular, it was acknowledged that having paid for the cask the owner could do with it whatever he or she wished (provided the tax was paid).  Private bottling was normal and, by and large, thought unexceptional.

From time to time such drams still appear at auction. Here, for example, is a Jura single malt privately bottled for the hotel of the same name that stands opposite the distillery and here is one of the many Springbank bottlings, this to commemorate the decommissioning of HMS Campbeltown. And, finally, just to show that anyone could do this, here’s a Port Charlotte from a cask that I bought in 2002 and bottled through Royal Mile Whiskies (check out the back label if you don’t believe me).

Imagine having one of these!

So despite the protestations of certain distillery’s PR teams and what you may sometimes read, the sale of private casks has been a long-honoured tradition. But it was never, until relatively recently, approached with an overtly commercial eye: the purchase price was typically little more than the distillery’s standard trade filling price with a small margin added for the inconvenience. How do you think it was possible otherwise for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society to begin a modest operation, discretion assured, back in 1983 when they could benefit from the ‘whisky loch‘ of such bitter memory. The distillers were, quietly, glad enough to see them then, as few buyers were interested in older casks. With Scotland awash with whisky, every sale was gratefully received.

But industry consolidation brought hard-eyed accountants to the fore. The profit was not considered worth the paperwork involved and a generation of marketing managers, more astute than their predecessors, began to question the lack of brand control as single malt sales grew in importance and value. One by one, the supply dried up. When, in November 1989, Aberlour distillery ran a national advertising campaign to sell casks there were eyebrows quietly raised at the SWA at the headline, “Invest in a hogshead of Aberlour”. The price of £1,350 (ex duty, VAT and bottling) was considered excessive by many and the very idea of promoting private sales was simply ‘not done’.

So, by 1990, it may have seemed the halcyon days were numbered. The possibility of your own cask moved slowly out of reach as prices rose and availability fell. But, if you’re seriously rich, all is not lost.  Look out for part two next month where I delve into the shadowy world of million pound casks and some very private buyers.

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.

No Comments on The hidden world of private cask sales part one

Alan Gray, Scotch whisky industry expert – obituary

Today, Ian Buxton pays tribute to one of Scotch whisky’s greats who died recently: Alan Gray, the man behind industry bible the annual Scotch Whisky Industry Review. Here at Master…

Today, Ian Buxton pays tribute to one of Scotch whisky’s greats who died recently: Alan Gray, the man behind industry bible the annual Scotch Whisky Industry Review.

Here at Master of Malt, we were greatly saddened to note the passing of Alan Gray. Alan Gray – ‘who he?’ some of you might ask. 

Alan may not have been well-known outside the industry, and he is unlikely to have been recognised by the whisky drinker, but he was widely respected by industry insiders for his insightful commentary on the Scotch whisky business.

Born in Lanark in December 1939, he trained initially as a chartered accountant, became a financial journalist in London and, on his return to his native Scotland, a stockbroker. Bear in mind that in the 1960s there were still very many more independent whisky companies and thus stocks quoted on the market. But whisky became his great love and, in 1977, he launched the first edition of his Scotch Whisky Industry Review.

As he developed his contacts and networks (which were extensive, for he was a clubbable man), this came to be seen as the most credible independent source of information and commentary on the industry. Each issue went into meticulous depth on production, stock levels, shipments, brand and marketing activity, frequently covering 300 pages or more of closely packed argument.

Alan Gray (photo credit: The Keepers of the Quaich)

His reputation grew with the publication of a monthly newsletter and he was valued for his discretion and his respect for the many ‘off the record’ conversations which added such depth to his commentary.

Alan was recognised as a Keeper (later Master) of the Quaich, an honour which he greatly valued. He was not afraid to challenge some of the industry’s conventions or to debunk the myths and spin that he detected from time to time in marketing. During his long life, Alan recorded the whisky industry moving from the depression of the ‘whisky loch’ to today’s current prosperity and expansion, always with sharp wit and a keen intelligence.

Think of him as a latter-day Alfred Barnard – a chronicler and enthusiast who has left an invaluable and unrivalled record. He had only recently completed work on the latest Scotch Whisky Industry Review 2019, remarkably the 42nd edition (photo in header from this publication). Its 284 pages will be a lasting memory of an impressive lifetime’s achievement.

Alan Gray died on 20th February 2020 and is survived by his wife of 56 years, Margaret, his three sons Barry, Colin and David, his brother Jim and by six grandchildren.

 

No Comments on Alan Gray, Scotch whisky industry expert – obituary

Type on the field below and hit Enter/Return to search