Distillery Focus

Badge of quality in safe hands (Adelphi)

Adelphi distillery, the top-of-the-market independent bottler, has been bought by a couple of landowners in Argyll. Charles MacLeanlooks at the company's history and asks the new owners about their plans.
By Charles MacLean
The first thing you notice about an Adelphi bottle is its minimalist labelling: a rectangular postagestamp, fixed low down on a clear glass standard liquor bottle, with an equally small back label telling you, in type so small you need a magnifying glass to read it, where the whisky comes from, its date, strength and cask number.The whole ensemble speaks of modesty, quality, style and honesty – and as such, perfectly matches the company’s ethos. Bar staff hate these bottles – but Adelphi is not aimed at the bar trade. Consumers with a developed aesthetic sense as well as a developed palate love them. Indeed, the packaging won a clutch of international design awards, including silver awards from Clio and the Art Directors’ Club of New York.The guy behind Adelphi was Jamie Walker; the designer was Graham Scott. I was introduced to Jamie by Graham’s boss in 1992. I had just taken delivery of 30-odd samples of malt whisky, and in the interests of science the three of us applied ourselves vigorously, over several hours, to examining these whiskies. Jamie and I have remained firm friends ever since. Indeed, shortly after this organoleptic orgy he invited me to chair the Adelphi nosing panel a task I have happily undertaken ever since.Close scrutiny of the Adelphi label reveals the date 1826. This was when the original distillery was founded in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, by a partnership which, by 1857, was controlled by Jamie Walker’s great-greatgrandfather, Archibald.“Walker was one of the most dynamic entrepreneurs in the Scottish distilling industry,” writes the Oxford historian, Dr. R.W. Wier, and from the late 1860s he also controlled Vauxhall distillery in Liverpool and Limerick distillery in Ireland.He was succeeded by his son, Jamie’s greatgrandfather, also named Archibald, who joined the Distillers Company Limited in 1902, becoming the only director of distillers with a professional knowledge of chemistry – he had obtained a first class degree in natural science from Trinity College, Oxford.Adelphi was a large distillery, making both malt and grain whisky, and in the climate of over-production at the beginning of the 20th century its days were numbered. Its death-toll was sounded dramatically by an event reported as ‘The Great Gorbals Distillery Disaster’ of November 1906.Unlike most distillery disasters, this involved not fire but flood. A45,000 gallon tank holding hot wash collapsed through the second floor of the building, upsetting two full washbacks on the first floor and cascaded down onto the draff tank on the ground floor, smashing it to pieces. A torrent of around 200,000 gallons of hot, brown liquid rushed out into the street, sweeping men, horses and carts with it.Survivors described how their clothes were torn from their bodies; one reported how he had seen a horse and cart flung violently against a stout timber door, which shattered on impact; a dough-making machine in a neighbouring bakery, weighing more than half a ton, was swept 20 feet.When the flood subsided, the brown tidemark left on the draff-house wall was 20 feet above the floor, and more than 10 feet above street level. Miraculously, only one man was killed.Malt distilling ceased at Adelphi soon after the disaster, although grain distilling continued until 1932, and the bonded warehouses remained until the early 1970s. Somewhat ironically, the City of Glasgow mosque was built on part of the site in 1984.The next two generations of Walkers devoted themselves to the law and merchant banking, but, as Jamie says, “whisky was in the blood”, and after Eton and Edinburgh University, he served an apprenticeship with Inver House Distillers and revived the Adelphi name as an independent bottler.Over the past 10 years or so the Adelphi name has become highly respected among specialist retailers and connoisseur consumers. The cask selection procedure is unusually rigorous – I should know, as chairman of the nosing panel! Jamie’s ambitions for the company were always limited.“I am determined not to sacrifice quality for volume sales,” was his watch-word when we were discussing samples that were good but not excellent. Un-prompted, one of the new owners of Adelphi, Keith Falconer, used exactly the same words when I interviewed him recently for this article.The death of his father and additional family responsibilities persuaded Jamie Walker, reluctantly, to look for a suitable buyer earlier this year. Keith had just resigned as head of sales and marketing at Martin Currie, the independent Scottish investment managers, to spend more time on his Highland estate, Laudale, in Morvern, Argyll.”My neighbour in Argyll, Donald Houston, and I wanted to buy a hogshead of mature whisky,” Keith told me. “Jamie was recommended to me. I took some samples away to show Donald, and you might say we were so impressed that we bought the business!”In truth, after 25 years of working as a chartered accountant and fund manager, Keith had decided, aged 49, that he wanted a different, more entrepreneurial, kind of challenge. He had retained a number of directorships and was in no hurry; nor had he any idea what area of business he wanted to move into.“Within half an hour of talking to Jamie about his business, I knew this was an area I would like to work in. The focus was so simple, compared with the diverse distractions of larger businesses. My friend Donald Houston was easily convinced.”I knew that Donald Houston came from the Ardnamurchan peninsula, the westernmost part of the British mainland, and when I met him, I asked which part he owned. ““Most of it,” he said, modestly. Donald is an engineer and has made a fortune designing and manufacturing machine tools and other components for the motor-car industry. Like Keith, he has now backed off from full time involvement with his business and is equally excited to be involved in the whisky trade.The third member of the team is Alex Bruce, son of that great Scot, Lord Elgin (the man who made the Keepers of the Quaich what it is today), who was lured out of the wine trade to become sales and marketing director.Alex trained with Rémy Martin, then worked for seven years with Justerini & Brooks, and later with Friarwood Wines both top end wine merchants so brings to the party useful experience of appealing to discerning palates.Liz Macdonald is the final member of the team. The former secretary to the Beatles heads up the administration team of one! A testament to her abilities.”Our intention is to grow the company on the back of its current reputation to about three times its present size,” says Keith. “In other words, to bottle around 50 casks a year. On present performance, this will mean the nosing panel examining around 600 casks.”But the quality of the goods is sacrosanct. Our reputation depends upon it. There will be no fancy tactics, no ‘woodfinishes,’ no tricksy offers. Just top class, well matured malt whisky, bottled straight from individual casks.”Happily, I can report that the Adelphi distillery is in safe hands. *If you would like to see Adelphi’s current list, write to: The Adelphi Distillery, Glenborrodale Castle, Ardnamurchan, Argyll, PH36 4JP. Or visit: http://www.adelphidistillery.com