Turnbull Hutton: 19 June 1946-5 April 2015

Turnbull Hutton: 19 June 1946-5 April 2015

Sorely missed but never forgotten

People | 17 Jul 2015 | Issue 129 | By Dave Broom

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With the death of Turnbull Hutton at 68, Scotch whisky lost one of its fiercest advocates. Turnbull wasn't a distiller, a brand ambassador, or a high-profile blender but he was, for a considerable period, the most important man in the business.

I had heard of him by repute - a man who didn't exactly care for the 'parasites' of the press - but I knew that I had to meet him. After some negotiations, I was ushered into his office at Carsebridge. He looked up, grunted, and asked me what I wanted. I, slightly nervously, asked him what precisely his job entailed. He sighed. Sat back. "Well... the numpties in sales and marketing tell me how much whisky they think they'll sell - which I know they won't. The guys at the distilleries tell me how much they can make. I'm the man in the middle trying to sort the whole mess out." His creative use of the demotic was legendary.

At that point he was one of Diageo's three Scottish MDs, his responsibility being distillation and spirit supply. In other words, nothing was made or moved without his say so. It wasn't only the Diageo estate which he controlled, but its relationships with all other distillers. He ensured that Scotch whisky flowed - and kept flowing.

"If someone could lay claim to being the grandfather of the modern Scotch industry it was probably him," says Jonathan Driver, who worked for Turnbull during his time heading up Diageo's malts team. "He worked in the tough times of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Keeping the footprint, disbelieving marketing, challenging innovation, intolerant of numpties and not scared to declare that very publicly. Under his watch came the greatness that was the original JW Oldest / Blue, Classic Malts, Rare Malts and the UDV building work in Scotland."

It was many of Turnbull's initiatives and strategies throughout the 1980s and 90s which are now widely agreed to have successfully steered Scotch through the worst of the whisky loch back into an era of profitability.

He was one of the last of a generation who had worked their way up from the shop floor - in his case as a bond clerk in South Queensferry in 1965 - the whisky equivalent of Bill Shankly or Alex Ferguson, working class, irascible, huge hearted, loyal.

Under DCL's then production director, Ronnie Martin he was promoted to run the Inventory and Supply department. It was Martin who sent him to Harvard Business School after he realised that while all the rest of his team had degrees, Turnbull only had five 'O' levels.

"The worst thing that Ronnie Martin ever did was send Turnbull to business school. He thinks he knows how to run the bloody business now," so says Nick Morgan now head of whisky outreach at Diageo. That, at least, was the view of one former marketing colleague who had fallen foul of Turnbull's unyielding intransigence once too often.

"It wasn't too far from the truth though. Turnbull combined a raft of old-school sensibilities with a uniquely informed overview not just of Diageo's Scotch business, but of how that very large cog drove and directed the engine of the industry itself.

"He rarely spared marketeers from his wrath, nor the 'parasites' (whisky writers and commentators) who provoked his greatest ire. His scepticism could sometimes be a little off the mark ('You'll never sell that Port Ellen in a month of Sundays'), and his criticisms sometimes a tad over-severe, but I owe him a huge personal debt for the time he took to try and teach me how this business worked. He had, after all, been to business school…"

For me, there would be many other meetings and conversations. Co-creating a cocktail of Buckfast and Loch Fyne Liqueur, 'The Buckin Fyne' as he dubbed it, long lunches with hilarious and unrepeatable anecdotes, phone calls when I asked him for advice. "I'm too long out of it now Dave," he'd always start, "but…" and off he would go. He became for me a touchstone, the conscience of the industry.

"I first met him a few weeks before he suddenly quit, leaving his surprised colleagues floundering in the mire of their proposals for which he had no more patience," recalls Richard Joynson, formerly of Loch Fyne Whiskies. "We met for an interview for the Scotch Whisky Review that was notably revealing and frank. A cherished friendship developed in minutes." After Hutton's resignation, Joynson immediately signed him up as a Scotch Whisky Review columnist.

"We published nine of his 'Devil's Advocate' articles over four years, each one an uncompromising tirade which, with hindsight, have materialised as very perceptive. Released from the bewildering insensibility of modern corporate life, his writing grumbled and snarled at what irked him, with insight and comic effect.

However he did have kind and generous words for those he approved of, his favoured term being 'A Class Act'. To many, Turnbull Hutton was 'The Class Act.'

He was also generous. "It's likely Compass Box would not exist if it weren't for Turnbull," says John Glaser. "With my business plan in hand, I got a meeting with him in late 1999 to share my ideas, and ask if he would be willing to supply aged whisky to me.

"Having worked with him in the past and being very clear of his reputation for pulling no punches, I gave myself a 50/50 chance of getting a positive reaction, or a boot up my backside. But of course, he got the idea. When he agreed to sell me whisky, Compass Box had begun.

"When I asked if we could draw up a supply agreement, he declined. He said in Scotland, all you needed was a handshake. Even long after he retired, he continued to offer me advice and went out of his way to meet with me. I owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

"I still catch myself thinking 'what would the Big Man have said?'", says his former consigliere Peter Smith. "There will be a load of folk who will nod and smile in agreement at that. Sorely missed but never forgotten."

Turnbull's insight and sense of perspective is badly needed today. We are all the poorer for his passing.
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