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A new dawn for Bowmore (Brian Morrison)

After 38 years in whisky, Brian Morrison, managing director of Morrison Bowmore Distillers, is retiring from his executie position to become Joint Chairman. He reminisces with Charles Maclean
By Charles MacLean
Brian Morrison joined the Scotch whisky brokerage firm founded by his father at a crucial juncture in its history. The year before, in 1963, Stanley P. Morrison Ltd had bought Bowmore Distillery on the island of Islay, thereby joining the ranks of Scotch whisky distillers. “At that time Bowmore Distillery was at an extremely low ebb. The quality of the make was inconsistent and its reputation was poor amongst blenders. Production was down to 62,000 gallons in the 1962/63 season and all this was made for one filling customer, Robertson & Baxter. This was because Bunnahabhain was undergoing extensive renovation to increase its own capacity given the rise in sales of the Cutty Sark brand, particularly in the US market.

It was agreed that some capital expenditure in the form of new plant and equipment was deemed necessary and, as a result, in the summer of 1964, a new pair of stills, new mashtun and new washbacks were installed.My father’s only caveat was to ensure the equipment and the processes remained traditional. Fortuitously, within five years our output had been substantially increased. As the quality of the make became consistent, so old blending customers returned to fill Bowmore, thereby establishing the make as a constituent part in many of the leading Scotch whisky brands.”Stanley Morrison, Brian’s father, bought Bowmore almost by accident – certainly on the spur of the moment, but then that was in his nature as an intuitive businessman. “He was lunching at the Malmaison in July 1963 with his stockbroker when he overheard a snippet of conversation from the next table which made him strain to hear more. The talk was about the pending sale of a distillery on Islay to a Spanish company. It turned out that the distillery was Bowmore. He knew, of course, that Bowmore belonged to the Grigor family of Inverness and phoned the late Jimmy Grigor’s widow, Kay, and asked her was it true that Bowmore Distillery was up for sale. She replied, yes, and she had plans to travel to Glasgow the next day to conclude the transaction. He persuaded her to come down that afternoon and arranged to have dinner. Before the day was out he’d bought the distillery. Next day he phoned his partner James Howat who was on holiday on Arran and informed him he had just bought Bowmore. ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ was his response. The price was £117,000 for the distillery and £83,000 for Roseburn Bonding Company, a bonded warehouse in Glasgow. Happily, the banks were supportive.”Stanley P, as he was affectionately known, was one of the great characters of the post- war trade. He learned all the facets of the brokerage trade having worked in the offices of Willie Walker of Wm Walker & Company, then one of the pre-eminent whisky brokers of the day. He later married Willie Walker’s daughter. In the 1930s, he set up his own firm and later in partnership with Robert Lundie.Until the late 70s Scotch whisky brokers were a key facet in the industry, helping major blenders and distillers with stock requirements. In those days blending houses were quite secretive as to their needs be they short of stock or in surplus. The brokers acted as principals so confidentiality was assured.“My father was on the best of terms with the principals of the major blending and distilling companies and, as such, was a trusted advisor. Among his friends in those days were Bill Burnett of The Distillers Company, Eric MacDonald of MacDonald & Muir, Bill Farquharson of Bell’s, Cochrane MacLennan of R&B, the Teacher’s family, Charles Julian and so on."When my father re-established his business in 1951 it was with James Howat as his partner. Their respective skills were complementary, father for his Scotch whisky expertise and his industry contacts, combined with James Howat’s financial acumen, thereby allowing the business to flourish, for it was in those days of whisky shortages and the increase in worldwide demand for blended Scotch whisky.“The 1960s were a transition for the company, moving from purely broking business to the supply of bulk blend and vatted malt. They were appointed UK selling agents for Invergordon grain distillery in 1961 and were very much responsible for helping build the customer base for that company. Like others in the industry, they were also suppliers of blends to Justerini & Brooks at that time, as J&B was one of the fastest growing Scotch brands in the important and lucrative markets of the USA. “It was in 1964 while on a visit to Japan that he was given a letter of introduction from the Gilbey family to Mitsui Busan who were then the purchasing house for the two Japanese whisky companies, Suntory and Nikka. It was the introduction to Suntory that, of course, heralded the long-standing commercial relationship that exists today.“One of the largest brokerage deals was, of course, our purchase of the Bass Charrington stock in 1968 for £3.6m and nearly had Auchentoshan distillery thrown in for free (though we bought that distillery later in the 80s).“Given the sizeable increase in the sales of bulk business and the need for increased production and mature stocks, we approached the Distillers Company and enquired if they would sell one of their mothballed distilleries. This they agreed to and in 1970 we acquired Glengarioch Distillery in Aberdeenshire. The reason they were willing to sell was the limit on new production owing to a lack of water; however, with the help of a water diviner that problem was soon solved!“Like other major blending houses, we were one of a number of suppliers to Suntory, providing them with their whisky requirements for their brands in Japan. In the 70s, a decision was taken to market both Bowmore and Glen Garioch as single malts – tentative steps indeed, given our lack of marketing experience of bottled goods.“The 80s were a time of relative upheaval within the Scotch whisky industry with a number of mergers and acquisitions – not least that of the Distillers Company by Guinness, who earlier had acquired Bell’s. We were not alone in being approached by blending houses to acquire inventory and distillation output.In 1988, a decision was taken to rename the company Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd to accurately reflect the changing nature of our business – Morrison to reflect the family values, Bowmore as the company’s flagship brand and Distillers representing the industry category.”Following proposed changes in the duty on spirits in the Japanese domestic market, Suntory had already acquired a shareholding in one Speyside distillery, namely Macallan. In 1989 they acquired 35% of Morrisons, while Brian Morrison retained the remaining 65%. In 1994, Suntory acquired the outstanding shares in Morrisons and with this acquisition became a member of the Scotch whisky industry.I asked Brian how the business had changed during this past decade and what he thought the future held.“I am confident about the future for Scotch whisky. While the success of single malts has helped the smaller independent companies as such, we must not forget that it is blended whisky that still underpins our entire industry and will continue to do so as single malt sales only represent 5% of export sales. We have to continuously innovate in the way that we promote and advertise our own brands. What interests me is that today’s leading market for bottled Scotch whisky is Spain and, I believe, it was the generic campaign launched under the aegis of the Scotch Whisky Association in the mid to late 80s that put in place the dynamics for that particular market. Coincidentally, those drinking Scotch in this market are young first-generation Scotch drinkers. Maybe there are parallels here for other markets.“At Morrisons we have seen a significant turn around from being predominantly a bulk company to one of marketing and selling cased goods, be it single malts or blended Scotch. Bowmore has been a source of particular gratification, now selling in excess of 100,000 cases. I would pay tribute to the many individuals who have all contributed in their own way to this particular success – and let’s not forget the warm welcome and reception that awaits the visitor to the distillery. I am sure father would have been delighted with the transformation of the distillery and its international recognition 40 years on.”