Tom Bruce-Gardyne reports on a firm which has flourished bottling fine single malts
This October, Alistair Hart celebrated 40 years in the whisky business, during which time the industry has changed almost beyond recognition, partly because of the technological revolution. Today, Hart Brothers, the firm of independent bottlers he runs with his brother Donald in Glasgow, cruises cyberspace with the best of them. The company went online in the mid-’90s and has been trading single cask whiskies on the net ever since. Back in 1962 at Whyte & Mackay, things were rather different.“At that time we had what seemed to be millions of these reply-paid order forms on postcards that went out with the statements. Due to a printing error it showed a case of 12 bottles of Whyte & Mackay Special at £20/6 shillings, where it should have been £20/16. So my first job was to put a tick where there should have been a 10. This lasted up until March 1963 when I eventually finished. Then the second job I had to do was bin all the cards because the Chancellor, in his wisdom, put another five bob on a case of whisky.”After six months shuffling cards to no avail, a lesser man might well have chucked it in and gone looking for another career. But Alistair rose to the challenge and progressed to greater things along with his assistant, Richard Paterson – named 2002’s ‘Blender of the Year’ at Whisky Live.While Alistair stayed on at Whyte & Mackay to become Director of Blending and Whisky Stocks, Donald and his older brother Iain were busy developing Hart Brothers, the firm they’d set up in the mid- ’60s. Iain, now semi-retired, had joined the whisky trade in 1958 and had worked for Richard’s father, Russell Paterson. In 1976 Alistair left Whyte & Mackay to join the family firm.“If we’d had more brains,” says Alistair, “we’d have followed our father into his profession as dentists.” The connection with the liquor trade came through their father’s side of the family. Aunt Kate had been Paisley’s first female licensee and her relations had been in the pub trade since 1915, a time when publicans regularly bought casks of malt and grain to blend their own whiskies and sell them to regulars. “People forget that in those days you could do that,” says Alistair. “You could just walk in with an old milk bottle or jug and ask for a gill of whisky.”Soon after joining his brothers, the Scotch whisky industry was facing its worst hangover in living memory. Earlier forecasts of future demand proved hopelessly optimistic and by the late ‘70s the whisky loch was overflowing. Among the drastic measures to drain the surplus was the ‘dambusters plan’ by Guinness after their take-over of DCL in 1986. This unleashed a flood of bulk Scotch, sold for as little as 80p a litre to overseas companies. At the same time it effectively wiped out the market for independents like Hart Brothers.Luckily the company had its wholesale trade to fall back on, having bought the Edinburgh firm J&B Rintoul in the ‘60s whose customers were pubs and working men’s clubs in the greater Glasgow area. To supply them Hart Brothers bought direct from the distillers and for a while did their own bottling of Scotch and South African wine. One of Donald’s customers was a particularly cantankerous old publican in Glasgow. “Eventually I got him to loosen his grip and slowly but surely he opened up to me on the subject of whisky, and when I got to look at his papers I realised he had some real gems.”As a traditional pub-owner and last of a dying breed, he had been hoarding odd casks of malt to safeguard his supply. When he died in 1988, Hart Brothers acquired a number of these casks including some Glenugie 23-year-old and Port Ellen 22- year-old. “Now if you had a couple of hoggies of that, you’d be a king!” declares Alistair. At the time Hart Brothers were unsure what to do with their inheritance, though they were aware the market was changing. There was plenty of money about and people were beginning to realise there might be more to whisky than Bell’s, Grouse and Whyte & Mackay. “And it was all happening out with the control of the distillers who were racking their brains trying to find a way to get more people interested in drinking malt whisky.So when the brothers decided to approach Oddbins the timing was spot on. A pioneer of New World wines and responsible for weaning countless Brits onto the luscious charms of heavily-oaked Aussie Chardonnay, Oddbins were keen to promote single malts. Hart Brothers consequently found themselves as independent bottlers almost by default, and were soon dealing in single cask whiskies and delighting in the varied characteristics they had.The single cask malts developed into the Hart Brothers’ ‘Finest Collection’, a range that now runs to over 40 whiskies with vintages stretching back to the mid-’70s for The Glenlivet and Highland Park. One cask, a spectacular 31-year-old Bowmore, was considered too special for mere bottling however, so it was filled into a specially commissioned set of hand-cut crystal decanters. The Dynasty Decanter sits in a solid silver basket engraved with the heads of the Royal House of Stewart, and has a silver stopper with the gold head of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England. “I suppose it was a bit of an ego-trip,” admits Alistair, “but we wanted to show that though we were a small company we were prepared to develop and spend money. We wanted to show that we are offering a superior product in quality and presentation.”As independent bottlers with a lifetime’s experience, the two brothers have witnessed the slow, painful decline in the number of distilleries in Scotland since the 1960s. “If you take the closure of distilleries to its logical conclusion then eventually there will be none left,” says Alistair. “At which point some pharmacist would be making green pills and blue pills. If you wanted a Highland you’d take a green one, for an Islay you’d take a blue. How boring and tragic that would be!”Thankfully this trend is now being reversed. Independents such as Gordon & Macphail, Murray McDavid and now Andrew Symington have all acquired distilleries. Whether for the thrill of producing one’s own spirit, or for the need to guarantee a future supply, surely every independent bottler dreams of buying their own distillery? “Och, we’re far too old!” cries Alistair. Yet the idea appears to catch on. “Somewhere on Islay?” suggests Donald. “Aye let’s go for Port Ellen,” they decide. “That’d be nice!”Hart Brothers
85 Springkell Avenue, Glasgow G41 4EJ
Tel: +44 (0)141 427 6974
Fax: +44 (0)141 427 9300
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