In safe hands

The new owners of Glendronach have big plans for the iconic malt. Dominic Roskrow spoke to Billy Walker
By Dominic Roskrow
Whisky entrepreneur Billy Walker is surveying a range of cask samples. Each of them is from Glendronach Distillery, each of them is old, and each of them is rich in sherry. He is clearly a contented man.“These samples are so heavily sherried you can’t see through them,” he says. “When you talk to people who remember Glendronach with a lot of affection this is what they’re talking about – these big sherried whiskies. Glendronach was big, big dram, all about sherry, and it’s our intention to return to its traditional glory. We have big plans for it.” At moments like these, Billy Walker sounds like an enthusiast and romantic. It’s easy to forget that he’s a level-headed businessman and part of a trio who trumped a £5.4 million purchase of Benriach in 2002 with this autumn’s £15 million swoop for the in-demand Glendronach.Easy, too, to overlook the 35 years of whisky experience and time served as a scientist, operations director and master distiller. Here and now it’s all about the whisky, and the most exciting thing about his involvement in Glendronach is that he thinks like any other enthusiast, and instinctively knows what will get the diehards talking. Try this.“There are some fabulous casks here. The distillery had a very good wood policy and was well looked-after, it’s just that it had drifted a bit because it didn’t fit in with the strategies of some of its bigger owners. It’s perfect for us – its capacity is only 1.5 million litres but we can do something with that.“Our intention is to increase the sherry content in the 15 and 18 Year Olds and they are being revamped and repackaged. We hope to have the new designs finished in the New Year. We need to re-establish the 12 Years Old and establish a proprietary bottling.We will probably launch a range of single cask bottlings.“We have a wonderful selection of whisky here, going back to 1968, 1969, 1970. The 33 Years Old is already in place and that’s a nice whisky but we need to add more like that.” The speed at which Walker and his two consortium partners Geoff Bell and Wayne Kieswetter have attacked their new project comes as something as a surprise.The rumours started in July, the purchase and due diligence was completed by August and by the start of September Walker was checking his purchase. You can imagine him climbing through the warehouses sampling stock like an avid antique collector who has snapped up a new book or record collection.“It was a very different experience buying Glendronach to buying Benriach,” he says. “Benriach had been closed for some time and we were a new company and we had to establish a distributor and a route to market.Glendronach is operating and there are one or two expressions already in the market. There were a few teething problems but basically we were able to get on it with it.“Our challenge is to develop it, take it away from Pernod Ricard and give it our own personality.And it’s not as if there are thousands of casks of whisky. We’ll pursue the premium end of the market and re-establish it.” There is little doubt that Glendronach is something of a misfit distillery, but there is a sizeable core of people who are very fond of it. They consider old Glendronachs as bold and beautiful, feel the current 15 Years Old creditably holds its own in strong company and view the 18 Years Old as a delight. But there’s a sad, little boy lost aspect to the distillery, too, its 70s-drenched old wood and leather visitor centre a place of ghosts, the silent old maltings with tacky cardboard cut out maltsters a wistful backward glance.Established in 1896 Glendronach has been passed from owner to owner, was closed entirely between 1996 and 2004, and was part of the fall-out when Allied was broken up, having its links to Teacher’s stripped away as it moved to Pernod Ricard rather than with its sister distillery Ardmore to Beam Global. All this suggests that there is huge potential for it. Undoubtedly, says Walker.“It’s a beautiful distillery and very much part of our strategy will be to open it up properly to visitors and to re-establish tours,” he says.With that it’s back to those samples. And you just know they’re in safe hands.