Star performers

Star performers

Tom Bruce-Gardyne talks to Fred and Stewart Laing, the independent bottlers who are not only brothers and business partners but a potentially successful cabaret duo as well

Production | 16 Nov 2001 | Issue 19 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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Douglas Laing & Company of Glasgow may not be the oldest bottler of single malts on the planet, but as Stewart Laing is at pains to point out: “We’re no johnnie-come-latelys either.”Stewart is a part of a well-known double-act, along with his brother Fred, on the blended Scotch whisky circuit where the two have been plying their trade round the Pacific Rim for decades. The firm was built up by their father, Douglas, in the early 1950s on a solid foundation of premium aged blends – notably the King of Scots. Mention of which leads Fred into a tale of one of their more notorious customers.“Idi Amin was very fond of Scotland, thanks to a Scottish Sergeant-Major who had imbued in him a love of the country. At the time [the mid-1970s] the British Foreign Secretary, Callaghan, was out in Uganda trying to sought out a crisis when Amin decreed that everyone coming to his country required a visa except if they were Scottish. He then proclaimed that he was King of Scotland. At which stage we wrote to him and said ‘if you’re the King of Scotland then there’s absolutely no doubt you should be drinking the King of Scots Scotch whisky. A month later we received a cheque and an order for 200 cases.”It was the start of what was known as the whisky run whereby Ugandan Airway’s fleet of DC8s would divert to Stansted airport to load up with liquor. Fred Laing was not only born into a whisky business he was almost swapped for one: a friend of his father longed for a son and offered the Islay distillery of Bruichladdich, which he owned, in exchange for the newly born addition to the Laing family. How close they came to a deal no-one knows but, as elder brother, Stewart feels miffed that he was never consulted. By the age of 17, Fred, who was then studying Spanish at Kelvinside Academy, was being whisked off to South America by his father to act as a translator on business trips. “You must have come home with all kinds of stories?” I suggest. “None fit to print,” he retorts.Our conversation is over lunch in Fred’s first-floor office in the company HQ, based in an elegant Glasgow townhouse. Listening to the Laings is a bit like being in the presence of a cabaret duo. What with their identical moustaches and deep sun-tans they certainly look pretty similar. There’s also the shared fondness for finishing off each other’s anecdotes. All that’s missing are bowler hats and canes, or perhaps something a little more modern judging by the large, signed photograph of the Rolling Stones that dominates one wall. In fact Fred does tread the boards occasionally – apparently he bangs out a mean cover version of Satisfaction in a number of select Karaoke bars in cities such as Singapore.The picture of the Stones hangs between an old map of Scotland and the Queen’s Award for Export which the Laing’s received at the height of their business in markets such as Japan. Much of the success was down to taking that Far Eastern trinity of age, golf and deluxe whisky to its logical conclusion. The result was a steady stream of containers heading east, packed with miniature ceramic golf bags full of vintage
McGibbon’s whisky.McGibbon was their mother’s maiden name whose family came from Islay and are buried in the churchyard at Bowmore. It was also a company sous-marque, given to Fred and Stewart by their father to cut their teeth on. “It was so that any cock-ups we made, and we did make a few, didn’t accrue to the good name of Douglas Laing & Co,” Stewart explains. “By the mid-1990s things were slowing down in the Pacific. Eventually we acknowledged we had some nice old stocks of whisky, but the market for them as 25, 30 and 35-year-old blends in decanters of ceramic and crystal was ... not to be relied on.” The net result was the birth of the Old Malt Cask series, launched as a range of six at the Cannes Duty Free Exhibition of 1998. The latest monthly offer has no less than 120 single malts on it, including such gems as Mortlach, Rosebank, Lochside and a limited amount of Ardbeg 25-year-old. They are all individual cask bottlings at 50% abv which was felt to be an appropriate strength and avoids the nightmare for the importers of juggling different duty rates. Last year a series of small batch bottlings of slightly younger and consequently less expensive malts were released under the Provenance label.A common complaint in the trade is that blends are becoming a commodity and surrounding discussion is always about price, so, as you can imagine, Fred is happy with the change. “Being in malts is so nice, it’s a bit like doing business back in the 1960s again – it’s a people business.” With it has come the chance to meet the end consumer face-to-face instead of an endless succession of importers and agents. The downside is what the Laings have dubbed the P.I.B factor – Pain In the Butt. This is evident when handling individual cask bottlings, especially when the company is not yet fully computerised. Some of the fillings bought by their father have yet to be transferred onto a floppy disk from the old school jotters they were recorded in. This has led to one or two unexpected surprises – like finding a “wonderful” 35-year-old North Port and some “fabulous” Port Ellen. The sheer hassle involved has helped protect Laing’s, like any independent bottler, from the big distillery owners
deciding to take over the business as a nice little earner of their own. “If the P.I.B factor is bad enough for us, a small, hands-on operation, then for the big guys it would be kamikaze time.” As it is, the company’s relations with the major distillers are good, thanks to having 50 years experience of the blended trade which still accounts for 85% of the business. For that reason alone, Stewart Laing is dismissive of those who say independent bottling of single malts is on its way out and that in a few decades time the supply of casks will have dried up. It also explains why, unlike a number of other indy bottlers, there is no great aspiration to owning their own distillery. “Bearing in mind the blended background we come from where we require 35 to 38 malts for a decent blend,” says Fred, “having a distillery may help us in credibility, but it doesn’t help us massively in terms of our blending programme. I’d love the prospect of swanning into my own property in the Highlands or Islands somewhere, and being master of all that. I’m sure there’s a great thrill, but I don’t believe we need it having existed for 50 years as we have.” However, Fred admits that Laing’s has “come quite close” to buying a distillery “on one or two occasions.” But if money were no object and all commercial factors could be put to one side, the thought of bringing Port Ellen back to life would be hard to resist.
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