People

In conversation with Peter Russell

In this issue we begin a series of interviews with celebrated whisky people. Here Charlie Maclean gives the last-frank- word ot broker and blender Peter Russell.
By Charles MacLean
CM How did you come to work in the whisky trade, Peter?
PR My father came up from Kent in the 1920s to sell advertising space in Harper’s Wine & Spirit Gazette – his aunt was a Harper, and it was a family business. He soon began to do a bit of broking on the side and set up his own broking business in 1936. In those days there were many more whisky blenders around, and they often found they had too much or too little mature whisky when the time came to blend. The job of the broker was to balance the blender’s stocks. Since we brokers acted as principals, confidentiality was assured – the sellers did not know who the purchasers were.
CM When was the broker’s hey-day?
PR Our best days were in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when J&B Rare took off in the States. Sales rose from 25,000 cases in 1955 to over a million by 1963. Justerini & Brooks had no distillleries until they merged with Gilbey’s in 1963 , so had to go to the open market to buy their fillings. The price rose. Feeling threatened, the mightly DCL attempted to pre-empt them by offering to exchange one cask of aged whisky for three casks of new make. The price rose even higher, and hoards of speculators here, in Europe and the US wanted to invest. We brokers were in pole position – I bought a huge warehouse in Dundee to house my stocks. But the day we took entry to the warehouse in May 1966, DCL stopped the exchanges and the market collapsed.
CM How has the brokerage trade changed?
PR The last 25 years have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of whisky companies, and a dramatic rise in the number of large conglomerates. The latter own distilleries and secure fillings for their blended brands by exchanging whisky with each other. So the role of the broker, as a middle man, has all but disappeared. By the late 1960s there were only three brokers of any size, now Lundie’s is really the sole remaining traditional broking firm.
CM And yourselves?
PR We went down the road of blending and bottling own-label brands for supermarkets. The big companies weren’t interested in this initially, believing that customers wanted only the big-name brands. Now of course, the supermarkets are calling the shots. Also in 1963 we bought the brand Isle of Skye and began to promote it about ten years ago. It now has a loyal following in Scotland, particularly in the West Highlands.
CM How has the whisky trade changed?
PR Radically, and for the worse. The main difference now is the people involved in the trade. In the old days, the whisky firms were usually family owned, so the people involved were deeply imbued with the culture of the business. There was respect and friendship between rivals; trust, soundness. There was no criticism of the competition, whereas now competitors bad-mouth one another all the time. It was a trade peopled by gentlemen, and now the whisky companies are run by people whose only interest is in share options.
CM What is your favourite whisky, apart from your own brands?
PR I drink gin.