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Saints alive – it's all change!

The Scottish Liqueur Centre is set for a new lease of life. Ian Buxton reports
By Ian Buxton
Located at Bankfoot just off the main A9 north of Perth, the Scottish Liqueur Centre was for years a low-key part of the Scottish drinks business.The family-owned company ran a small visitor centre; blended and bottled a pleasant but unassuming range of fruit liqueurs and produced Columba Cream liqueur, a modest competitor to Baileys.That’s all about to change. Following a management buy-in in February this year the business is being transformed. New management is at the helm; the products have been reformulated and relaunched in striking new packaging; the visitor centre is being revamped and the scale of ambition moved up several notches. The target is a £5 million business within five years.The new boys have come from Morrison Bowmore. Following management changes there in Autumn 2004, a complete team arrived at the Scottish Liqueur Centre and, with backing from the Morrison family, set about this dramatic remodelling.The team is led by Kenny MacKay, former brands managing director at Morrison Bowmore. His new non-executive chairman is Brian Morrison and Rob Starling is export director. The team is completed with another Morrison, Brian’s son Jamie, as United Kingdom sales director. All the previous staff have stayed on and the new team are providing a sales and marketing drive to the business.A bullish Kenny MacKay explains the changes thus: “I had been looking for the opportunity to do something privately and did not want to directly compete with my old company as I feel you can lose a bit of credibility suddenly changing horses. I felt that there was definitely an opportunity for a small specialist Scottish liqueur company and Columba Cream liqueur was an added bonus.” So Kenny’s battle-charge will be led by the signature brand Columba Cream liqueur.This is now made solely from single malt Scotch whisky, fresh cream and honey (plus some natural annatto for colour enhancement). It is 100 per cent natural and, the team proudly claim, “100 per cent delicious”. Naturally, they draw comparisons with other cream liqueurs and point to their exclusive use of single malt whisky as the spirit base.“It’s a natural product and we think that this will be the major consumer appeal both at home and abroad,” explains Kenny MacKay. “Single malt whisky, honey and fresh cream from Graham’s Dairies of Bridge of Allan is a compelling proposition. It just makes a huge difference to the taste.” So Columba Cream is being positioned as the premium cream liqueur.That’s a tough call. Brand leader Baileys has a massive entrenched advantage; huge marketing budgets and legions of loyal drinkers. Whether the promise of 100 per cent single malt whisky will be enough to sway them to Columba Cream remains to be seen.And quite what an early Christian monk would make of having a whisky cream liqueur named after him is anyone’s guess.However, he’s on the label, looking a little like Darth Vader, alongside some elegant Celtic symbols and perhaps he’ll bring the ambitious venture some luck. Perhaps the force will be with them.At the same time, the company have totally relaunched their fruit liqueur range.Previously called ‘Solas’ it’s now known simply as ‘S’, with some lower-case lettering describing the variety. Sbr is the bramble version, for example. Sounds confusing, but it works when you see it.These too start from a malt whisky base, but with real fruit, mainly Scottish, giving the distinctive fresh flavours. There’s bramble, blueberry and cranberry and raspberry varieties. S is targeted very much at the cocktail set, and seems to be finding friends in some of London’s smarter bars.Dave Broom, who is evidently a fan, recommends simply mixing Sbr 50:50 with the whisky of your choice. In addition, the range lends itself to some interesting cocktails based on sparkling wines and variants on many classics will no doubt follow. However, at 19% abv S it’s easy to drink neat and it’s a shame not to try that first. With loads of ice, tonic and friends it’s a pleasant summer alternative to Pimms.While all this is happening, Kenny and his team have plans for their Perthshire base.Out will go the non-drinks related tourist items (goodbye, then, tartan gonks).The centre will be remodelled with a room each themed for S and Bruadar (their malt whisky, honey and sloe liqueur) and the new Columba Cream café.This will feature Highland Latte, or coffee with a dash of Columba Cream, in Perthshire’s version of an upmarket Starbucks. They’re hoping this will become a popular roadside stop, much as the folks at Tullibardine some 40 miles down the road have developed their 1488 café.Behind the scenes, production capacity is being substantially increased.The old hand bottling line has given way to a semi-automated line capable of handling a substantially larger volume and the storage space has been remodelled to accommodate the hoped-for growth in business.“We make all the products ourselves in Bankfoot and also bottle them here. They really are hand made luxury products,” argues MacKay.It all represents an investment of well over £1 million over the next three years from an all-Scottish team, determined to give the big boys a run for their money with a distinctively Scottish product.St Columba was famous for facing down the Loch Ness Monster.His biographer, St Adamnan, records an incident in which a monster in the River Ness which had killed a man, was threatening one of Columba’s party.The saint commanded Nessie to stop and, as Adamnan records, “then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes.” I don’t suppose Bailey’s will retreat quite as easily. We can hope, though, that Columba’s power has not been totally diminished by the passing of the centuries and that his blessing will follow this exciting new contender.