From Islay to Perthshire: The Morrison whisky dynasty's new beginning

From Islay to Perthshire: The Morrison whisky dynasty's new beginning

Morrison Scotch Whisky Distillers’ Niel Hendriksz on Aberargie Distillery, building brands, and putting people at the heart of business

Interview | 15 Aug 2022 | Issue 185 | By Malcolm Triggs

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Future generations will surely look back on the present day as one of the major boom times for Scotch whisky – but amongst all the public fanfare of what is surely a golden era, there’s one story that quietly yet singularly attests to the industry’s sense of confidence: the founding of Morrison Scotch Whisky Distillers (MSWD).

The Morrison family has been a recognised force in the world of Scotch whisky for five generations and is able to trace its involvement in just about every aspect of production. Notably, the opening of Aberargie Distillery near Perth in 2017 marked the family’s first return to distilling since the sale of Morrison Bowmore Distillers – a company dating from the 1950s that was established by patriarch Stanley P. Morrison and at its height included the Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch distilleries – to Japanese drinks giant Suntory in 1994.

But MSWD’s story doesn’t just concern Aberargie. With the establishment of the company in 2020, the family committed to shaping its future and heavily investing in its people to drive the business forward.

International sales manager Niel Hendriksz is one such person. Joining MSWD’s precursor, Morrison & Mackay, in 2018 from Moet Hennessy, he admits the opportunity needed to be an attractive one. “I didn’t necessarily join the business for what it was then,” says Niel. “But I remember meeting Jamie [Morrison, chairman of MSWD] outside Victoria Station in London over a pint, and, being a Morrison family member with his heritage and background of distilling and his incredible knowledge about the industry, it was clear that his vision for the business was far greater than what the business was at the time.”

Three years later, that vision had become a reality. As MSWD, the family brought its distillation, inventory and branded businesses together under one name. “To bring everything under one roof – to have a fully integrated whisky business – we needed to have 100 per cent ownership of everything,” says Niel. “That would make decision making easier, and it would let us drive our new vision forward.”

Jamie and Brian Morrison nose samples in the Aberargie Distillery still house


Of course, Aberargie would be the business’s bricks-and-mortar flagship, located on a 300-acre farm in Perthshire owned by the family. The first cask of Aberargie single malt was filled in 2017, but no decision has been made as to when the first releases will be available. “I personally don’t think we’re going to see it for another few years,” says Niel. “We’re in an incredibly fortunate position that we don’t have to rush it. The first question people ask is, ‘What gin are you producing in the meantime?’ And, fortunately, we don’t have to. We’re a Scotch whisky business, and that was also one of the key things that we changed. We used to do a lot of liqueurs, but with the exception of Bruadar, we don’t do that now. We’re a family that historically is known for Scotch. That’s who we are.”

Aberargie’s maturing whisky is apparently richer and more fruity than would be typical of the Lowland style, in part due to the distillery’s use of Golden Promise barley, which is grown on site. Maturation takes place in a variety of cask types. “At the moment the idea is to give ourselves as many different variables to work with when it eventually comes to deciding what we want Aberargie to be,” says Niel. “We’ve got to think, where are we now? And what will consumers be looking for three, four or five years from now? That’s something that can change so quickly,” Niel adds.

Aberargie has the capacity to produce up to 750,000 litres of pure alcohol (LPA) per year, although not all of its output is destined for Aberargie single malt. Rather, the distillery plays a crucial role supplying an equally important asset of the business: its inventory.

Since its days as a licensed grocer, the Morrison family has been synonymous with trading and inventory management, and today it remains a hugely influential player in the Scotch whisky industry at large. “To have a distillery and a single malt brand is really important to us,” says Niel, “but we also need liquid for our branded business, and how we get that liquid is through trading. It’s one thing to go out and buy stock from the big boys, but the way Jamie put it to me was, ‘It’s a whole different ballgame if you’ve got liquid in your hand – your seat at the table improves significantly.’ ”

And herein lies MSWD’s third and arguably most exciting business asset. As Niel explains, Jamie’s vision was to establish MSWD as a business dedicated to investing in and building brands – brands with longevity in mind. In addition to the eventual launch of Aberargie single malt, this has included the relaunch of two brands plus the creation of an entirely new brand of Islay single malt.
So it was that the business began the process of completely repositioning its product offering. “We looked at all our brands, put them (literally) on the table and said, ‘What do these mean? Where do they sit? Why do they exist?’ And, if I’m very honest, we realised that some of our products existed for no reason other than someone asked us for something. And so we took a step back and decided to start over, asking, ‘What do we want to be known for, and who do we want to be?’”

First on the table was Old Perth, a historic blend which Morrison & Mackay purchased in 2014 and which, by the time Niel joined, stabled numerous expressions. Resolving to relaunch Old Perth as a blended malt, MSWD had to choose between creating a brand with an exceptionally strong image – “Almost forgetting it’s a blended malt,” says Niel, hinting at the challenge of marketing what is still an often-misunderstood category – or go back to its roots and focus on the liquid.

The Aberargie Distillery


The team opted for the latter, creating in Old Perth a brand with quality, longevity, and volume behind it comprising three expressions – Original, Cask Strength and 12 Years Old. All are exclusively made up of 100 per cent sherry-matured Speyside malts and keenly priced. “I describe Old Perth as a single malt drinker’s everyday dram,” says Niel, “but a blended whisky drinker’s special weekend dram.”

Next up was Mac-Talla, a new brand of single malts which pays tribute to the Morrison family’s longstanding connections to Islay (Jamie’s grandfather, Stanley P. Morrison, having famously purchased Bowmore distillery on Islay in 1963). The range includes Mac-Talla Terra, a classic, heavily peated malt; Mara, a powerful cask-strength expression; and Strata, which showcases both sherry and bourbon maturation.

“The number one question we get asked with Mac-Talla is, ‘Where’s it from?’,” says Niel. “But we don’t want people to drink Mac-Talla just because we’ve told them it’s Bowmore or Lagavulin or Ardbeg. We don’t feel that we need to use another distillery’s name to promote our brand. We want people to drink it because they can see for themselves that it’s good-quality liquid at a fair price and that Islay isn’t one-dimensional, that it’s not all peat and smoke.” It’s undoubtedly a strong proposition for peat heads.
And so to Càrn Mòr, a brand which has done much for the Morrisons’ reputation as purveyors and bottlers of quality whisky over the years. Today, having completely revamped the brand’s packaging, MSWD is continuing to build on this reputation, insisting on transparency, putting the liquid first, and relishing the opportunity to showcase the massive diversity of the whisky they’ve got across three individual ranges.

“With independent bottling, we’ve got to be so close to the liquid, because we’re only as good as our last release,” says Niel, who seems to feel closest to Càrn Mòr out of the three brands. “Some people were concerned that with the new packaging we’d either increase the price or lose sight of the quality, but I’m happy to say that we haven’t done either of those things.”

In these days of milk and honey (at least for the whisky world), it’s easy to be awed by the unprecedented rise in the number of new and planned distilleries, the seemingly limitless investment in whisky tourism, and the veritable advent of craft whisky in Scotland. And yet, beyond its own new distillery and its already acclaimed portfolio of brands, it’s MSWD’s apparent commitment to its people that impresses me the most.

William Walker, Brian Morrison’s grandfather, pictured in the 1934 Glasgow Islay Association (GIA) Annual Gathering pamphlet. William was the chairman of the GIA


Truth be told, that the original plan for a Whisky Magazine interview with the elusive father-son team of Brian and Jamie Morrison was shelved at the last minute, in favour of a sit-down with Neil, is indicative of the Morrisons’ willingness to let the company’s people delight in telling the story of the business in which they are so deeply invested. Had the chat been with with any other member of the MSWD team, it’s likely that the perspective would’ve been slightly different but certainly no less passionate.
“I don’t think either Brian or Jamie want to be industry rockstars or figureheads,” admits Niel. “They’ve done their thing, now it’s the next chapter, and it’s Jamie’s time to build on the legacy of the family. But as individuals, they don’t seek any attention. They want the brands and the distillery and the business to build its own reputations and speak itself.

“We’re a relatively small, family-owned business, but we’ve got great ambition. We’ve got a really nice team of people around us at the moment. When I took over as sales manager, it was myself and one other person in the team. We now have three sales people, two logistics people, a brand manager, a finance director, and myself. We’ve grown quite significantly to support our growth, and while the Morrison family is there to guide us and give us their ultimate vision, they’ve given authority to the people they’ve put in place to make decisions. It’s a great little business, and I think we’re going to grow exponentially in the next decade.”
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