The go between

The go between

Angela Muir MW goes in search of those most elusive of creatures, whisky brokers, and finds them constantly slipping fron her grasp

Collections | 04 Aug 1999 | Issue 5 | By Angela Muir

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What an elusive breed whisky brokers are. Nobody ever quite admits to being one: ‘Oh, no, I’m not really a broker,’ goes the refrain. ‘Brokers are a dying breed.’ ‘You want to find out about them?’ went another conversation. ‘Come and see me and we’ll taste one or two samples.’ My host selects, bottles and sells single cask Scotch whisky for a living, loves what he does and has a turn of phrase that would do Oz Clarke proud when it comes to describing his wares.His offfice was littered, not just with paper, but also with those little sample bottles covered on one side with Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise’s official stickers allowing a commercial sample out of its premises, and on the other with a heiroglyphic code identifying the cask it came from. But he was not, of course, a broker. Not really.The second sample we tasted was one of the most extraordinary spirits I have ever come across. It was Longmorn 30-Year-Old: the nose was like walking into the herb and spice store of a vermouth factory, a really good old-fashioned grocer and a top-class cooper all at the same time. Lifted clean by the alcohol came dried citrus peel, star anise, wormwood/ liquorice, autumn smoke, roasted hazelnuts and much, much more. As for length and complexity on the palate, it was a textbook example of both elusive qualities, even for a jaded wine taster like me. How are little gems like this discovered? Just who has the job of cruising gently round the Highlands and Islands,
drinking in the scenery, chatting up the distillery managers, staying in friendly guesthouses with great home cooking and bloodhounding their way round the oldest and rarest casks of the finest distilleries in Scotland? Furthermore, do they really appreciate how lucky they are? And how does one get a job like that anyway?Well, it appears that it’s not quite like that. In the wine business, the equivalent scenario is absolutely correct. I’ve spent time with wine brokers. Every major region in the world has them. They make it their business to taste every vat at every farm on their lovely rural stamping ground, to understand almost too well the financial circumstances of every vigneron, when he needs to pay his taxes, buy the new press, repair the roof. They assess the young wine, know which négoçiant (merchant) will like that style and whether it is good enough to command a premium. They know when the prices locally are going up or down; they draw the samples, deliver them to the prospective buyers, write the contracts, sometimes ride shotgun on the delivery tankers and always guarantee that the négoçiant will get the wine as sampled and the vigneron will get the payment as agreed. They register the sale with the local wine trade authorities and take a known, agreed percentage commission, usually somewhere between 0.5 and two per cent of the price.Among all this prosaic business activity, they are likely to take a glass with their growers, listen to tales of their aches, pains, woes and family cares on a shady terrace or round a cosy kitchen table and stop the car at a pleasant provincial café to catch up with a croissant, a grand crème and that day’s Journée Vinicole newspaper. It can indeed be a nice life.
In Scotland though, thanks to all those wretched excise men some centuries ago insisting that any still had to be big and immobile with a chimney to blot the horizon like a Cellnet mast, distilling is a big, expensive business. It’s not done by small, idiosyncratic peasant-owners. We also owe a debt to these same excise men for so strictly guarding each precious drop and stopping any possibility of it getting out unduly young. Thanks to them, ageing in cask is accepted as a level playing field for the industry and no-one is seriously tempted to sell stock too young. This near-perfect policing of the minimum age and the industry’s voluntary acceptance that in fact, it takes at least five years to achieve a decent harmony for most well known blends, are actually the major reasons why brokers existed at all in Scotland. In the wine business, when we harvest, we take what nature gives us: the quality and the quantity. Most of it is sold and consumed within a year or two. In the whisky business, the quantity to distill each year is a business decision and depends on your cash flow and your view of where the industry is going to be five to ten years’ time. Make too much and your sought-after luxury malt could become a drug on the market. Make too little and you’ve missed an opportunity. You wouldn’t want to admit to either mistake. However, if you’re fast on your feet and you quietly tell a chum who knows everyone but also knows how to keep his mouth shut, that it would be helpful if he could move a few hundred casks through the trade, you may yet make a quiet profit on the fat little overrun you distilled when the whisky market appeared to be in balance nine years before the Far East decided to have an economic crisis. The chum makes a living as a broker.Where will the overrun finish up? Maybe someone’s brand or own-label has a higher average age right now than it had two years ago. That’s something only the most astute palates are going to spot. The brokers are certainly not going to tell.Right from the beginning these people didn’t simply take a commission; they bought and sold stock. In an industry with very few players, it was their business to protect the identity of seller and buyer. Before the Second World War, each brand, each blend, big name and small, would be owned by a different business and there were lots of them. Many wine merchants had their own label. Virtually all the whisky that went into these blends was supplied through brokers. Often the brand owners themselves didn’t know exactly where some of their components came from. Their blenders would call for samples and these would be sent by post. The broker didn’t need to be there to guarantee the authenticity of the sample. The excise bond system does that for him. So he didn’t need to tramp the glens. He simply needed a tasting room, a telephone and a post office.So if the broker wasn’t out cruising round the Highlands, what was he doing? Lunching, keeping up his contacts and keeping up his paperwork, apparently more or less in that order. The founder of one of the most successful broking firms ever – and the firm that everyone directed me to – finished up in Scotland well before the war with the very tough job of selling advertising space in Harpers, the wine and spirit trade journal published in far-off London, on commission. This was not a job that offered instant prosperity. However, he proved to be a howling success. He had that first vital ingredient that makes any good broker; a very astute, lateral-thinking mind. He made contact with his prospective clients by blueing a huge proportion of his income on first class rail travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow. There they all were, the distillery owners, the blenders, the bottlers, living in Edinburgh, working in Glasgow and commuting in comfort. They not only bought advertising space; they gossiped about their businesses. They also quickly realised that here was the archetypal chum who listened well, kept his mouth shut and knew who might help out when they had stock to sell or wanted stock to buy. Mr Russell became a broker.His talents have been inherited. His son took over the firm in the mid-Fifties and quickly saw what direction the whisky industry was taking. In any field it is natural for a brand owner to want to control his more vital sources of supply. The last four decades have been like a game of Risk with distilleries instead of countries at stake. One of my typically charming and discreet sources on the board of one of the handful of dominant companies said exactly what Russell’s grandson was to confirm: ‘These days, we [the big companies] normally talk amongst ourselves direct if we want to sell or buy some of each others’ stock. Brokers are a dying breed.’ The Russell family continue to broke whisky; they make the market and are the chief source of price information for the definitive annual guide, The Scotch Whisky Industry Review, but they do it all from airy modern offices next to their bottling plant. They started buying and maturing their own stocks a generation ago, and this is now over 90 per cent of their business. Mr Russell père mildly mourns the passing of the business lunch but his fit, bright son has survived and adapted completely to the Nineties.So I continued my hunt for real brokers. My host with the cluttered office told me that they are almost always bred into the business if they are to have the contacts they will need. Discretion and charm apparently need to be in the genes. I asked him how he found the casks he bottled. He said he knew a few of the distillery managers personally and they sent him samples from time to time. He buys only mature casks, ready to bottle so that the authenticity of the distillery they come from can still be claimed. He also said that the brokers who did deal with him now knew his tastes. When he started his business, only four of them would deal with him and all these were personal friends. Now, 12 of them send him samples. When he started, only one in 15 samples had the individuality, balance and concentration of flavour he needed; now the strike rate is far, far better. So there are at least 12 people out there who know where those exceptional casks are hidden, but it’s going to take me a lot more than one sample of Longmorn 30-Year-Old to find out who still belongs to this discreet and dying breed, what makes them talk and whether they really do cruise the Highlands in clouds of exalted fumes. Meanwhile, what was all this about knowing one or two of the distillery managers and buying direct? Could my host – discreet, charming, astute enough to know his market – actually be a broker? Had I unwittingly stumbled upon one after all? Surely not.
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