Tom Bruce-Gardyne talks to Sir James Ackroyd and Ricky Christie, two of the key figures searching for 'little gems' in an attempt to revive Speyside Distillery.
Six months ago the Scotch whisky industry was in a state of fevered excitement as the Speyside Distillery Co. was sold off by its Swiss parent company to the North Yorkshire firm of Alexander Muir & Sons. Speyside was a Glasgow-based blender and bottler, founded in 1955 by the infamous George Christie who spent 30 years building his own distillery beside the Spey. In contrast, Muir’s business was set up by Sir James Ackroyd seven years ago as a small sales and marketing operation for Scotch which he continues to run from his family home – Birstwith Hall in North Yorkshire.The current state of the industry may have had more to do with the fate of the Canadian giant, Seagram, whose drinks division finally went under the hammer for a record-breaking US$8.15 billion a week before Christmas. Although the two events appear totally unconnected, they seem to symbolise the increasing polarisation within the trade. The Seagram sale demontrates further contraction at the top but the Speyside story, and that of Bruichladdich previously, shows everyone that there’s plenty of life further down the scale. And the bigger the major players get, the bigger the crumbs that fall off the high table – as one notable independent noted: “By the time they reach us, they’re bits of toast.”James Ackroyd spent most of his career among the corporate giants, starting with the Distillers Company in 1965 where he ascended to the position of Senior Export Manager before switching to Martini & Rossi, a couple of years before Guinness launched its bitterly-contested takeover bid in 1986. Then in the early ‘90s, with Martini now in the hands of Bacardi and himself poised to become their main man in the States, his life suddenly changed. The death of an uncle left him a title, a country estate near Harrogate and a couple of million pounds – it was time to set up on his own.“We’ve always been a smallish company – we’re not doing very much in this market at all,” he says modestly. And true enough, whiskies like ‘Rutherford’s Britsh Game Birds’ do not exactly leap out at you from the shelves of Britain’s bars and liquor stores. Sir James’ company, which plans to adopt the name of Speyside while the former company name of Alexander Muir is left to lapse, had always focused on exports. For its part, Speyside’s unique asset was its distillery – the building of which is a tale in itself. Sadly four year’s before it was finally completed in 1990, George Christie was forced to sell out to the Swiss. One of the joint ventures that brought the two companies together in the first place was Scott’s Selection, an independent bottling of cask strength malts that began in 1997. George’s son, Ricky Christie (now Sales Director and one of the shareholders in the new venture), takes up the story: “I was approached by a client saying they were having a problem sourcing cask strength whiskies and could we help them out. I said well, we do have our head sommelier or blender, Bob Scott, though he’s retired now, but I’m sure I could ask him.” Before Speyside, Scott had been distillery manager at Bladnoch (Scotland’s most southerly distillery), and is reputed to be one of the finest noses in the business. But there was a problem – it seems that the very modest Bob wasn’t quite ready for the limelight. Ricky has no trouble recalling his reaction: “Oh my God! They’re going to put my name on a label – I might get into trouble.” It took considerable powers of persuasion to talk him into it. By all accounts Scott has managed to overcome his reticence and the septagenerian still takes an active interest in the 3,000 cases of whisky that bear his name. Speyside had its own stocks to set aside for use in the Scott’s Selection, as well as various ‘sources’ to talk to though certain varities are becoming increasingly rare. “It is very difficult to acquire any Islay whatsoever,” Ricky told me. There is also the need to be extremely careful not to upset the distillers. Some, like David Robertson, Master Distiller at The Macallan, are pretty relaxed about independent bottlers who do the job responsibly. Others are not, threatening to sue at the slightest provocation, as Christie himself discovered from a neighbouring distillery on Speyside. He understands their concerns, but sometimes questions their logic: “After all when you buy a Ford and then you want to sell the car – do you have to take off the Ford badges? And to think that many years ago, when you bought a cask of whisky, the distillery gave you the labels to stick on the bottles when it matured. But it remains an interesting business, sometimes you find little gems, sometimes you’re pulling your hair out.”Occasionally it transpires that the “little gems” have been Speyside’s property all along. “We once got a warehouse note in from Bunnahabhain saying there was some ‘69 that belonged to us,” he explains, “‘That’s brilliant,’ I cried, ‘get it in!’ But three of the casks were under strength – so we couldn’t use them.” Ricky had his doubts, it was out of line with his own experience of other malts of a similar age: “You smile and think of the warehousemen on Islay and the smiles on their faces.”When I asked Sir James which of the Scott’s Selection he felt really stood out, his reply was surprising: “We do have one amazing whisky that I don’t think anyone else has, which is actually not a malt at all, it’s a grain. In fact I think it was made from malted barley because at the time that was probably cheaper than other grains.” The source of this single grain whisky that everyone mistakes for a malt is the North of Scotland distillery at Cambus in Clackmananshire. Originally the Forth Brewery, it was bought and converted into a distillery in 1957 by George Christie. He abandoned his original idea of producing a patent still malt to concentrate on grain whisky until selling out to DCL in the late ‘70s. At its peak the distillery, now mothballed, was pumping out 60,000 gallons of 95% spirit per week from its three EPV grain stills. To put that in perspective, it would take Speyside almost six months to produce the same quantity of alcohol from its
solitary pair of pot stills.
Everyone connected with the distillery is looking forward to the day, some time in May or June, when Speyside will launch its first ever 10-year-old. There is still plenty to do, but before saying goodbye Ricky can’t resist one last anecdote. Years ago he received a bizarre phone call from Laphroaig which began: “You probably can’t help us, but there’s been a landslide in Japan ...” It seemed someone’s backgarden had been exposed and with it a case of Laphroaig that had been bottled by Christie’s. This had led to the man on Islay calling Ricky wanting to know if there were any records. “When he mentioned the year – 1928 – I thought there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell!” he exclaims. However the documentation was found and it showed that it was an ‘open account’ – with two cases still lying in bond. This meant there was a small matter of unpaid rent to discuss, so a deal was struck. One case went to Laphroaig where a bottle sits in the distillery’s museum and the other was kept by the Christie family. Little gems indeed.
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