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 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.

2 Comments 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

Agave cask Scotch whisky: what fresh madness is this?

In June 2019, the SWA issued a statement outlining changes to the Scotch whisky rules allowing, among other things, ageing in casks that previously held agave spirits. Now the first…

In June 2019, the SWA issued a statement outlining changes to the Scotch whisky rules allowing, among other things, ageing in casks that previously held agave spirits. Now the first agave-aged whiskies are here (or nearly here , the UK market will have to wait a while), and Ian Buxton wants to know: what came first, the new rules or the whiskies? 

Well, that didn’t take long.

Back in January 2018, you might recall excited commentary around a story that Diageo had a ‘secret working party’ suggesting new rules expanding the types of casks that could be used to finish Scotch whisky. The Wall Street Journal broke the story but it soon led to much speculation on social media, with some commentators having a minor fit of the vapours at a proposal considered shocking, radical or heretical (insert your adjective of choice – you get the general idea). If you believed some of the responses, the whole future of Scotch was at stake.

Diageo’s secret jungle HQ. . . allegedly

At the time industry leader Diageo played the predictable dead bat. Speaking quite possibly from a hidden lair in an extinct volcano while stroking a white cat, an anonymous spokesman offered these priceless words to a breathlessly waiting world:

“Scotch is the most important category for Diageo and we have an unwavering commitment to the integrity, long-term success, history and tradition of the category. As champions of Scotch, we are always looking at ways to innovate to both protect and secure the future success of the category. In doing so, we work with the Scotch Whisky Association [SWA] on a range of ideas that seek to strike a balance between tradition and innovation, in a way that ensures consumers get the great products they want. We will never compromise on the quality and integrity of Scotch.”

And so matters remained until June 2019 when the SWA, previously reported to be unenthusiastic about the changes, quietly announced an amendment to the prosaically-named Scotch Whisky Technical File.  This permitted Scotch whisky to be matured in casks previously used to age agave spirits (such as Tequila and mezcal), Calvados, barrel-aged cachaça, shochu and baijiu, as well as some other fruit spirits. Discreet industry lobbying had evidently persuaded the SWA to revise its position. However, as an industry-funded body, it had little choice if larger members insisted on the change which had been duly approved by the SWA Council in the previous December.

In any event, it’s now clear that much surreptitious activity had been going on anyway in warehouses across Scotland.  Unsurprisingly, Diageo was very quick off the mark with the low-profile announcement of Buchanan’s Two Souls in Mexico in May 2019 (before the SWA amendment). The blend is finished in Don Julio Tequila casks, a brand that Diageo owns, and which happens to sell a Tequila finished in old Lagavulin barrels.  

With this timing a pedant might consider that in its enthusiasm – how shall we put this politely – Diageo’s Mexican team were sailing close to the wind in promoting a still illegal whisky. Mexican press coverage refers to a “launch” on 16 May, yet the rules did not come into force for another three weeks. On investigation though, it transpires that this was a media pre-launch briefing for influencers and Two Souls was not publicly available until 1 July.  That could have been embarrassing but we may, of course, safely assume that not a drop was served.

However, we’re now seeing a number of new cask finishes joining the party. As of this month Diageo’s Buchanan’s offering has been matched by Chivas Extra 13 finished in Tequila casks and Dewar’s Ilegal SmoothIlegal being a fashionable Mezcal brand in which Dewar’s ultimate owner Bacardi has a share. The Chivas Extra 13 forms part of a small range, also including Oloroso Sherry, Rum and American Rye finishes.  Not to be outdone, Dewar’s brought its Caribbean Smooth (it’s a rum finish, as if you hadn’t guessed) to North American markets in September last year though it should be noted that these other finishes had been permitted for some years prior to the new regulations.

Ewan Gunn in action on Islay

Wondering what Diageo will do next? Predictably, they’re pretty tight lipped about future plans. This is what senior global brand ambassador Ewan Gunn (above) had to say:

“Whilst we never reveal any of the hundreds of ongoing experiments our whisky makers are constantly engaged in, you can rest assured that we will continue to be at the forefront of making great whisky and pioneering new and exciting expressions. Watch this space…”

Nothing, thus far, on how Buchanan’s have got on in Mexico, so it remains to be seen how markets will accept products such as Two Souls, Dewar’s Ilegal Smooth and Chivas Extra. Traditionalists should hold onto their hats though as the marketing folks undoubtedly aren’t done monkeying around with Scotch whisky. One thing I suppose is clear. We may not have seen cachaça, shochu or baijiu finished whisky yet (though we assuredly will) but the world hasn’t ended. Scotch will survive which, given we’re all likely to be in lockdown soon, is a reassuring thought.  (Note to self: better lay in a few bottles).

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 Agave cask Scotch whisky: what fresh madness is this?

It’s Indian whisky, my friend

Indian whisky brands sell a staggering amount on their home turf but much of what is sold as ‘whisky’ wouldn’t be recognised as such in the EU or America. But…

Indian whisky brands sell a staggering amount on their home turf but much of what is sold as ‘whisky’ wouldn’t be recognised as such in the EU or America. But now this distilling giant is producing single malts to take on the world. Ian Buxton takes a closer look at the biggest whisky market of all.

What’s the best-selling whisky in the world? You’d probably guess Johnnie Walker, or perhaps Jack Daniel’s. You’d be wrong. In fact, it’s Officer’s Choice, which outsells Walker roughly two to one. Diageo’s global behemoth is also outpaced by a number of other little-known brands such as McDowell’s No. 1, Imperial Blue and Royal Stag.

Of course, ‘little-known’ is quite incorrect.  As befits their staggering sales – Officer’s Choice alone sells over 32 million cases annually – they are very well known indeed in their home market, which just happens to be India, the world’s largest whisky market. Even the tenth biggest seller, Bagpiper, accounts for some 6 million cases which would make it easily the world’s third largest selling Scotch. It’s not as it happens, though you might think the name and packaging just a trifle confusing.

For years, most of us outside India have tended to look down on Indian whisky, if we thought about it at all. Quite a number of the cheaper brands are distilled from molasses, which makes them rum in the eyes of EU and US regulators, hence the fact that they never appear on our shelves. The better Indian whiskies, however, are distilled from grain and frequently blended with a proportion of real Scotch. Scots distillers aren’t above shipping bulk whiskies to India for local bottling with Indian-made spirit, it’s just that they don’t make much noise about it.

The inability of the huge Indian distilling industry to sell most of its products in the EU has long been a source of friction and partly accounts for India’s significant tariff barriers on imported Scotch (up to 150% with additional regulations at individual state level). However, in recent years the more innovative Indian distillers have been producing single malt whiskies that meet EU legislation in full and, from a slow start, have been gaining sales here.

Ashok Chokalingam from Amrut in action

One of the pioneers was Amrut Distilleries, based in Bangalore who first launched in the UK in August 2004 in Glasgow. Since then they have collected both awards and appreciative fans who look to Amrut for both flavour and value.  Because of the rapid maturation of Indian whiskies and their willingness to experiment with finishes there has been a steady stream of releases and there is more to come. “We have released three different versions of Greedy Angels 10 Years Old last year and a single grain (first ever single grain whisky from India and one more first from India),” master distiller and head of international sales, Ashok Chokalingam told me. “In 2020 we are planning to release a number of exciting single casks for a number of countries, mainly for Europe and America. Also one more first of its kind is planned from India by May 2020,” he added intriguingly.

Amrut have progressively moved up-market: the 2019 Greedy Angels release commands a near-£700 price tag, albeit at 55% ABV. Stocks are very limited but such is the demand that a price hitherto unimaginable for whisky from the sub-continent can be sustained. Similarly, the Paul John range from John Distilleries of Goa also includes a number of interesting variants at £100+ prices.

Nor have rivals been idle. Rampur, based in the foothills of the Himalayas and one of India’s oldest distilleries, currently offers its Select single malt expression with a Double Cask and PX sherry finish variant due to follow shortly. Well informed critics tell me that Double Cask is an excellent product. “Rather nice” is how one understated Scots distiller described it; which, take it from me, is praise indeed. But then, this is a serious distilling operation – the company’s 8PM blend is one of India’s top ten whiskies, with annual volumes estimated to exceed 7 million cases.

Rampur Double Cask, “rather nice”

No surprise then, that Rampur has been looking at the lucrative European markets with interest and employing Scottish expertise to provide the essential skills. The legendary Dr Jim Swan was involved in their early single malt production and, more recently, former Diageo master distiller Charlie Smith (once of Talisker and latterly responsible for getting Ballindalloch up and running) has been working to install new distilling plant with a production potential approaching 2 million litres of spirit annually.

The new distillery will be capable of producing two distinct spirit types (think Roseisle) and is to be supported by new warehousing facilities with sophisticated humidity control to combat the estimated 12% angel’s share. These are substantial investments and indicative of the serious long-term thinking behind this project and the company’s commitment to quality.

Perhaps then, it’s time to rethink our attitude to Indian whisky.

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 It’s Indian whisky, my friend

What the blazes: a history of distillery fires

Making whisky is not without its hazards, distillation can be a dangerous business. Then there’s the challenge of storing thousands of wooden casks of flammable liquid safely while they mature….

Making whisky is not without its hazards, distillation can be a dangerous business. Then there’s the challenge of storing thousands of wooden casks of flammable liquid safely while they mature. Inevitably, things sometimes go wrong. Ian Buxton looks into the explosive history of distillery fires. 

If you’ve ever visited a distillery warehouse of recent construction, you’ll have noticed that it’s festooned with all kinds of safety precautions in the event of fire: smoke sensors; sophisticated monitoring and alarm systems (frequently linked to the local fire station) and substantial fire walls to prevent the flames taking control of the whole building. There’s generally a significant gap between modern buildings, both to prevent the fire spreading and to allow firefighters access to all sides of the structures. Different vintages of production are spread across a number of warehouses to prevent the possibility of the total loss of a specific age of whisky.

Not the aftermath of the Blitz but Watson’s Whisky Bond following a fire

All permanent staff will have had training and there will be fire-fighting equipment on site, though possibly out of sight of the visitors. Health & safety legislation quite properly lays great stress on mitigating risks and training staff in good practice or, if the worst should happen, evacuation procedures. For all the care, though, there are still accidents (and sometimes accidents with a still), such as the recent fire at Masons in Yorkshire. For some reason, the USA has in recent years been particularly prone to significant conflagrations: Heaven Hill (1996), Wild Turkey (2000), Jim Beam (2003 and again in 2019) and, tragically, Silver Trail in Kentucky where in 2015 a young distiller was killed and a colleague severely injured.

Fortunately, fatalities are rare these days and usually only whisky is lost.  Sadly, it has not always been so. Glasgow was the scene of one of Britain’s worst ever peacetime fire services disaster when, on 28 March 1960 the Cheapside Street whisky bond caught fire and collapsed, killing 11 firemen. The blaze took a week to fully extinguish and, at its peak, required 450 firemen, 30 pumping appliances, five turntable ladders, four support vehicles, and a fire boat on the River Clyde. There were six bravery awards, including two awards of the George Medal.

At this time, Glasgow still had a considerable number of operational warehouses in the city itself though. Following the fire, most were relocated (the buildings still presented hazards, though.  Failure to remove security bars from the windows at an old bond in James Watt Street led to the death of 22 employees of an upholstery workshop just eight years later.)

Postcard commemorating the fire at the North of Scotland Distillery in Aberdeen

Clearly earlier lessons had not been learned. Prior to world war one there were disastrous fires in both Aberdeen and Dundee. In September 1904, the North of Scotland Distillery in Aberdeen was totally destroyed by fire and some 700,000 gallons of whisky (around two year’s production) was lost. Though the distillery did reopen it proved hard to recover and it eventually closed in 1913, ironically just as Port Dundas Distillery in Glasgow, which had lain dormant since a fire ten years earlier, was recommissioned. 

A little further down Scotland’s east coast, in Dundee, a devastating fire broke out in July 1906 in the James Watson & Co. bond at the junction of Seagate and the aptly-named Candle Lane. Then one of the largest distillers in the country and a major force in the industry, Watson’s never really recovered from the disruption to their business and the company and remaining stocks were eventually acquired by the DCL (forerunners of today’s Diageo). The neighbouring blending house of John Robertson & Son was also badly affected by the fire as flaming alcohol was seen raining down on surrounding streets and buildings, setting light to a sugar warehouse, jute factory and printers. 

So bad was the inferno that firemen had to be called from Edinburgh to help fight it. The fire, which burned for 12 hours, has been described as the most destructive in the history of Dundee. An eyewitness recorded it sending “rivers of burning whisky” through the city, the spectacle attracting a thousand strong crowd of spectators. According to the Dundee Courier, the glow was visible from Brechin and Montrose (about 30 miles away) and people on Dundee’s outskirts could read newspapers out of doors at midnight.

major fire at Jim Beam

There was a major fire at Jim Beam in 2019

While the six storey bond, several other buildings and around 1,000,000 gallons of spirits were lost, there were mercifully no fatalities recorded – and local postcard company Valentines were quickly on the scene to record the damage in a series of rare and now collectable postcards.

So, next time you visit a distillery and your guide prohibits flash photography try to remember these tragic events in Scotland’s distilling history and confine the mixture of fire and whisky to a Blue Blazer cocktail when you return home!

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 What the blazes: a history of distillery fires

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