Distillery Focus

From monsters to minnows

Pip Hills looks at who owns what in the world of whisky
By Pip Hills
A friend of mine, who teaches economics at a university, tells me that he often uses the Scotch whisky industry as an example of what he calls the post-modern economy. I don’t much like the description, which smacks of daft literary theory, but I take his point. The ownership of Scotch whisky exhibits many of the features which distinguish today’s world of business from that of 50 – or even 20 – years ago.At one extreme we have gigantism, with conglomerate corporations whose turnover exceeds the Gross Domestic Product of several poor countries, whose brands – from booze to burgers – are household names throughout the world, and who own large numbers of distilleries.At the other extreme, distilleries which are owned by small private companies survive and even prosper. Most of these serve niche markets made up of people who are enthusiasts and voluntary ambassadors for the virtues of their favourite whiskies.And in between are companies of all sorts and sizes. Some of these are subsidiaries of conglomerate companies of which they are minor tributaries. Others are fiercely independent and hold their own against the giants in the international arena.The table which accompanies this article shows who owns which Scotch whisky distillery: grain distilleries as well as malt. It shows the companies in order of the number of distilleries owned (in columns from left to right), though that order does not necessarily reflect the size of the company’s business, for some quite large companies – William Grant & Sons Ltd, for example – own relatively few distilleries.In the list, the operating company is named first and, if it is owned by another company, the latter is given afterwards. In some cases this is an approximation, for the detail of ownership is sometimes complicated. There are three giants which own large numbers of distilleries, eight or nine middling to large companies, which own from two to eight distilleries, and 15 or so small private companies, most of which own only one. (My numbers are a little vague, for it’s a matter of opinion as to which are small and which are middle sized companies). The list includes a small number of mothballed (temporarily closed) distilleries, but not those which have been rendered inoperable.The giant, and the doyen of the Scotch whisky industry, is undoubtedly United Distillers & Vintners. It is part of the Diageo conglomerate, in which its whiskies have as stable mates such brands as Guinness, Smirnoff, Hennessy and Gordon’s Gin.The main business of most of the UDV distilleries is to supply fillings for the big brands of blended whisky owned by the group: Johnnie Walker, J&B and Bell’s. The malts range from the very fine, some of which are marketed as bottled single malt, to the nondescript, whose sole business is to supply the blends.Nevertheless, the centralised supply of materials, which guarantees overall quality in the group’s spirits, also produces a tendency to uniformity. The main vehicle for malt sales is the Classic Malts range, though some others are bottled as singles.The Rare Malts bottlings, which draw on the vast cask stocks of malt in the UDV warehouses, are sometimes very good indeed. Besides its Cameronbridge and Port Dundas grain distilleries, the group owns half of North British Distillery in a joint venture with the Edrington Group.The whiskies of Allied Distillers, now part of the Allied Domecq group, also have to coexist with lots of other spirits brands as well as wines and fast-food restaurants. The big brands are Ballantine’s and Teacher’s, both blends.The success of the blends has meant that relatively little effort has gone into the malts, so that apart from Laphroaig, they are little-known. This is a pity, for some, such as Glendronach and Glenburgie, can be very fine indeed.The third big hitter is Chivas Brothers Ltd – its brands and its distilleries recently sold by the Seagram Corporation to Pernod Ricard, which has its company headquarters in Paris. It is too early yet to say how the distilleries will fare under the new owners, but with major malt whisky brands such as The Glenlivet and Glen Grant now in the same stable as Aberlour, there are the makings of a major force in the world of malts.It is to be hoped that the company will reverse the disgraceful neglect which the The Glenlivet suffered under Seagram, and that it may be restored to its rightful place as one of the world’s greatest liquors. The middleweight whisky companies can be divided into those which are independent Scottish companies and those which are subsidiaries of some other corporation.Kyndal has reversed the conglomerate trend and taken the Whyte & Mackay stable of distilleries and brands out of ownership by the giant American Brands into an independent Scottish company by means of the biggest management buy-out ever to happen in Scotland.The results of this are already evident in the attention being given to both malts and blends. My economist friend tells me that we may look for more downsizing in the future. Let’s hope so, for management buy-outs are no guarantee of continued independence.Inver House was created by a management buy-out in 1988, only to be bought by a global beverage company 13 years later. Burn Stewart, which was bought by management around the same time and went public a few years later, is currently the object of overtures by a foreign corporation, having been rendered vulnerable by trading losses and poor share price.The more successful independents tend to be fierce about their autonomy: none more so than the Edrington Group Ltd. This private company is largely owned and controlled by the Robertson Trust, a charitable body set up in 1961 by three Scottish ladies, the Robertson sisters, who had inherited large whisky interests.Not only does the company set a quality benchmark with its ownership of The Macallan and Highland Park, it makes and markets The Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark, both of which are major players in the blended whisky market. It also returns its profits to good causes in Scotland – around £25 million over the last five years. You don’t get much more independent than that.Among the larger middleweight players, William Grant & Sons and Glenmorangie are family-controlled, despite being big enough to compete internationally and own large production facilities.Both companies are malt whisky-led in their marketing: William Grant with Glenfiddich and The Balvenie, and Glenmorangie with its eponymous malt – and, increasingly, with the brilliant Ardbeg. Both companies own only three malt distilleries, but punch well above their weight.Ownership by a foreign corporation need not mean the loss of local initiative and identity. Both Morrison Bowmore and John Dewar are foreign-owned, but in both cases the morale of the staff and their commitment to product quality are evidence of a vital local company culture. John Dewar has a particularly impressive commitment to its staff.Among the smaller companies, we find a very different distribution of ownership. Only two out of 15 are foreign-owned – if you don’t count the English as foreigners.Two, Bruichladdich and Isle of Arran, are owned by groups of entrepreneurs whose relationship is determined by a shared passion for good whisky and a readiness to take large risks over a long time. All of the others are owned by family companies. Some of these are long-established, such as the Grants at Glenfarclas and the Mitchells at Springbank, who have been whisky distillers for generations. Others are relatively new to distillery ownership, though established retailers, such as Signatory with Edradour and Gordon & MacPhail with Benromach.And then there are bold souls, including George Christie who simply built Drumguish from scratch and now makes whisky there. And there are those who have become distillers more or less by accident, as Raymond Armstrong did.He and his family bought Bladnoch as a holiday home. Then he caught the bug and, having restored the stills, decided to use them to make whisky. We are all in debt to these courageous people: a debt which we can pay by drinking and praising their whisky. This is no great burden, it must be said, for the whiskies tend to be as good and as individual as their makers.