From soft touch to cask strength

From soft touch to cask strength

Tom Bruce-Gardyne recounts the history of Cadenhead, a company once regarded as a “soft touch” but now better known for being quick to spot business opportunities in the whisky industry

Production | 16 Jul 2001 | Issue 17 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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Miss Ann Oliver was a legend of the swinging, psychedelic sixties – well, at least she was in the drinks trade of Aberdeen. Whenever orders were thin on the ground the place to head for was number 47 Netherkirgate where Miss Oliver ran the firm of William Cadenhead Ltd. For the steady stream of salesmen selling everything from casks of whisky to boxes of labels, she was the customer from heaven – the proverbial soft touch. When she was finally forced to retire and sell up, the trustees were horrified to find there were no records of what she had been buying all those years. The cellars and bonded warehouses were full to the brim and when Christie’s were called in to liquidate the stock no-one knew what to expect. The resulting auction, held in London on 3rd and 4th October 1972, broke all records for a wine and spirit sale at that point in whisky history. Among the gems in the 167 page catalogue were: five hogsheads of Macallan, sold for £1,041.25; 10 puncheons of Demerara Rum, which went for £1,463.24; and two and a half cases of Château Latour vintage 1950 that were knocked down for a mere £312.50. The business in Aberdeen had been around since George Duncan set up as a vintner and distillery agent there in 1842. It then passed to a brother-in-law, William Cadenhead, who continued bottling spirits for the next 50 years. Although the company had always handled a trickle of single malt and blended Scotch, the real demand was for rum due to Aberdeen being a busy seaport. During the next century, whilst under the stewardship of Robert Duthie (William’s nephew), these
developed into brands which were advertised all round the city on theatre curtains, concert programmes and on the back of buses. The depression of the 1930s left its impact not least on Duthie himself – he was run over by a tram on his way to see the bank manager. But the firm continued in Netherkirgate until it was bought out by J & A Mitchell, the owners of Springbank, at the time of the Christies’ sale.Today Cadenhead’s lives on as the oldest surviving independent bottler in Scotland with three shops and a world-wide reputation for its cask-strength whiskies. All that survives from the Aberdeen days is the company’s name on a stained glass sign that hangs in the Edinburgh shop where Alan Murray, Cadenhead’s Managing Director, explains the company’s ethos. “Our philosophy is to give the customer the most natural product they can get which is straight from the cask, and then it gives them the opportunity to add as much or as little water as the like.” Apart from its ‘Original Collection’, bottled for a customer in Switzerland where there are restrictions on levels of alcohol, all Cadenhead whiskies are bottled undiluted from a single cask. The result is a glorious inconsistency between bottlings, and runs completely contrary to the industry’s 120 year push towards reliable blends that never vary from one year to the next. For a long time the big distillers were far too busy promoting their world-beating blends to worry about what some cranky operation like Cadenhead was up to with malt whisky. “In the good old days, distillers were distillers and bottlers were bottlers,” says Murray. “Now they want to control everything right through from the distilling to bottling to distribution.” Having spotted a small, but potentially lucrative niche, they have moved in with a deluge of limited release, cask strength whiskies of their own. For the independent bottlers the attitude of the big distillers seems to be: “Okay guys, thanks for showing us the way – you can go home now.”In the mid-90s Cadenhead found themselves on the wrong side of Allied Distiller’s team of lawyers, landing them in the dock alongside Gordon & MacPhail. Though the case against Cadenhead was thrown out, the company now deals mostly with brokers who assemble various whiskies into parcels which invariably contain one or two casks that everyone wants. Once these have been bottled, much of the rest is tipped back into the food chain for another round of pass the parcel. Some 30 years earlier, Cadenhead made the bold move of opening a shop in an old doctor’s surgery on Edinburgh’s Canongate which was then a pretty run down part of the Royal Mile. Interest in malt whisky was restricted to a tiny minority. “In those days Glenfiddich had only just started bottling and everyone in the industry thought Mr Grant was off his head,” explains Alan Murray. Today, with the new Scottish Parliament taking shape a few hundred yards down the hill, the area is being transformed: though the shop remains a place to come and browse, somewhat like an antique bookshop where the single-cask whiskies are like rare editions. With the crazy amounts charged for some one-off bottlings of old malts the company seems weary of speculators and label collectors. “It is something we try not to get involved in and so we price our whiskies purely by age. It doesn’t matter if it’s something that can be replaced tomorrow or if it’s the last cask we’re likely to see. Our philosophy has always been that whisky is there for drinking and that’s why we use the same packaging whatever the whisky whatever its age, and we try to keep the price as reasonable as possible.”Looking round the shop the labels are indeed uniform with a coloured ribbon denoting which of Cadenhead’s nine Scotch whisky regions each bottle comes from, and though the name of the distillery is mentioned it is not highlighted. My eye caught some older Speysides that previously belonged to Hedley Wright – the so-called ‘Chairman’s Stock’ – and a display of aged rums from Barbados, Jamaica and Guyana. There are also some half bottles of a 9-year-old vatted Islay, the majority of which is 32-year-old Ardbeg that Cadenhead owned and kept at the distillery while it was shut down. With no-one to top up or turn the casks, all but two of them had slipped below the minimum strength and had to be vatted. “People are amazed when they taste it,” exclaims Murray. I bet they are!Curiously there is no Springbank on offer. “It’s become so popular that any stock they have they can bottle themselves and it’s very difficult for us to get hold of,” he bemoans. Cadenhead are happy for others to have access, but as Alan says: “It would be ironic if we didn’t sell Springbank to other independent bottlers like Murray McDavid. We can hardly complain about the big distillers being selective, and then saying ‘oh no, you can’t have any’.”Yet rather than rely on the dwindling band of Scottish distilleries prepared to accept independent bottlings of their malts,
Cadenhead’s decided to look abroad. “The idea of World Whiskies was to prepare us for the future, with Scotch getting harder and harder to find,” Alan explains. These range from an ‘individual cask’ Indian Corn from Canada to one from the Lammerlaw Distillery in New Zealand but it was the Kentucky bourbons from Frankfort and Heaven Hill that have really excited the American customers who tell Murray that they’ve never tried anything like it before. From making salesmen happy in the early days to making consumers smack their lips today, Cadenhead’s whiskies are now famous in locations far more exotic than Aberdeen. It is fair to say that the company no longer has the reputation that Miss Ann Oliver cultivated for them.
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