Production

The Life of Brian

John Lamond talks to the man behind The VIntage Malt Whisky Company, Brian Crook, who is making a big noise with a small, independent, company
By John Lamond
In the sedate Glasgow suburb of Milngavie (pronounced mill-guy), there is a south-east facing corner office that overlooks the local shopping thoroughfare. It is from this quiet location that one of the brightest independent bottlers is making a very big noise in the whisky industry that can be heard all over the globe.In a mere nine years, the Vintage Malt Whisky Company has exported more than £5 million worth of their malt whiskies to 15 countries – more than 95% of the Vintage Malt Whisky Company’s brands are exported to the four corners of the world. They are particularly strong in France, Italy, Sweden and the US with the key to this export success being the appointment of very effective distributors with whom they can work to strengthen their brands.Brian Crook is the man behind this remarkable whisky business yet initially his background was in food: he gained a degree in food science and initially worked for small food companies, latterly assuming a sales function for a Danish company. In 1978 he responded, more in hope than confidence, to an advertisement from the distilling company Eadie Cairns & Company Limited. They were seeking an Export Sales Manager and, within three weeks, he was on a plane bound for Livorno to collect a bad debt for the Auchentoshan Whisky Company. The next year was a hard slog for single malt sales personnel due to the fact that the vast bulk of whisky sales were of blended whiskies. Brian’s toughest task during this time proved to be teaching his customers how to pronounce Auchentoshan such was their lack of awareness.In 1983 he thought that it would be advantageous to move to a larger company and applied for a similar post at Stanley P.
Morrison Ltd, the owners of Bowmore. This was a move which was to have a synergy – shortly after arriving at Morrison’s he was called in to the Chairman’s office and told that they were about to buy Auchentoshan. Brian was gob-smacked: “I couldn’t believe that I was going to get my old job back within six months of having left it!” He describes his time at Morrison’s (latterly Morrison Bowmore) as “enormous fun”. He was made Sales Director of the Morrison Bowmore Scotch Whisky Company, overseeing the repackaging of Bowmore and its introduction into the duty-free market for the first time. Under Morrison family ownership, Brian and his colleagues did not have the budgets to permit Bowmore to take the quantum leap onto the world stage. Following the Suntory takeover, Bowmore’s expanded budgets have rocketed the brand into international recognition.Brian decided that the time had come to leave the Morrison fold in 1992 and pursue new business opportunities. “I enjoyed my 10 years with Morrison’s very much and wouldn’t swop it for anything,” he explains, “but I was coming up to my 50th birthday and had gone as far as I was going to go with the company. I needed a fresh challenge.”The company had set up two divisions: one for Bowmore and the other for all the remaining brands – naturally all the budgets were aimed at Bowmore. Brian was back with Auchentoshan again and, although he liked the brand, felt that he didn’t have the energy to start at square one again for someone else’s benefit. Brian describes how he felt at the time: “If I’ve got to start from scratch again for Morrison’s, why don’t I take this opportunity to start my own company with some of my favourite whiskies and sell them as my own brands?” There’s a permeable feeling of frustration in what he says giving way to the belief that he had discovered a new sense of purpose and direction.This wee seed of an idea germinated and flourished in his head, leading to his decision to hand in his notice. Brian Morrison wanted him to take six months to consider his decision and Brian Crook initially agreed. But within weeks, his excitement meant that the break came sooner rather than later. His departure coincided with the turn of the calendar, a new start in the new year of 1992 – his resolve firmed up over a few drams during the Christmas period of 1991. He reasoned that had if he had to wait a further six months his business idea would not become established until the Spring of ‘93 and he couldn’t wait that long – such was the strength of his desire to strike out on his own. “It became important to me that I had to (leave the company) that year, because every year when you are 50 can be quite important! At the time, it didn’t feel like a mid-life crisis but, looking back on it, it more than probably was ... to walk away from your directorship and your shiny new BMW 3 series all could have been looked on as a little bit foolhardy.” The Vintage Malt Whisky Company Limited was established on 1st April 1992 by Brian and his wife Carol. Four years later and another experienced whisky industry veteran joined the fold. Alastair Ross was taking early retirement from Morrison Bowmore, where he had been Shipping Manager for 30 years. Brian heard of his impending departure, offered him a job with Vintage and was delighted when he accepted the post of Production Controller, looking after maturing stocks and arranging bottlings. It doesn’t take much detective work to find out that Alistair is now an indispensible member of the company’s staff. Tom McFarlane, an old school friend and a whisky broker, was instrumental in sourcing whiskies in the early days. He fitted in well with Brian’s business ethos, which he is keen to share: “For a new company, it is absolutely essential that you deal with quality because if you take shortcuts then you are doomed to failure. From day one we have been quality driven. If it became more difficult to sell at that price, then so be it – we were prepared to deal in very small quantities. We are confident that the product in our bottle is something which our customers can be proud of and to which their customers will return for more.” The names for the Vintage brands came from extensive brainstorming sessions which involved Brian, Carol and their three children sitting in front of the fire with a notepad over the course of several weeks, shouting out names as the
inspiration arose. Brian still has those lists of names and I would hazard a guess that they make very interesting reading. However, one name was already a certain starter in Brian’s mind: Finlaggan was always going to be the name of the company’s Islay single malt. Brian had the name in his head for several years and describes the brand’s creation as a “labour of love”.Finlaggan Castle was situated on a small island in Loch Finlaggan in the centre of Islay, between Bridgend and Port Askaig. The castle is now merely a pile of stones and Brian’s commission of a local artist to design a label depicting what Finlaggan Castle may have looked like drew amusement from the Finlaggan Trust – they were of the opinion of the time was that it had simply been a Great Hall where the Lords of the Isles held court. “Lo and behold,” says Brian triumphantly, “four or five years later The Time Team from the UK’s Channel 4 excavated the site and found it to be a castle!” Brian refers to the single malt he selected for Finlaggan as “the secret Islay”. At 12 years old, it is quite dry, fresh and slightly perfumed with a burnt heather root peatiness. It has good body and a little hint of ozone on the nose; the palate is almost dry, with very good body and is full of smokiness. The finish is big-bodied, long and oak-smoky with a fine edge of richness. The brand is also available in an unaged form, Finlaggan Old Reserve, which won a Gold Medal in 2000’s International Wine and Spirit Challenge. This expression is off-dry with a floral note of violets overlaid with a dark and sooty peatiness and the aforementioned burnt heather root character; it finishes long and quite ethereally with a very gently chewy biscuit character. Finlaggan is also available at 15-year-old and will shortly be joined by a 21-year-old. The whiskies selected for the company’s brands are at the very top of the quality range, Brian selects whiskies that exhibit a high degree of character and individuality. Of Tantallan, their Speyside, he has a slight dig at The Macallan when he says that he believes that Vintage’s choice presents the whisky in its own right, rather than something masked by a sherried influence. The 10-year-old Tantallan has a clean, medium-dry nose with a gentle floral note and a slightly green peat character; its flavour is medium-sweet, big-bodied and powerful. The round, smooth and clean palate has a slightly chewy
peatiness; the finish is long and clean with a green, spicy freshness. Tambowie is a 12-year-old vatted malt which takes its name from the distillery which existed in Milngavie until 1920. Fresh and medium-dry, with a good body and touches of creamy toffee and smooth, oaky vanilla, it is quite lightly peated and has a long, quite sweet cocoa/chocolate finish. Glenalmond 1990 is their vatted Highland malt, the current bottling of which was in 2000. It is medium-sweet and toffeed, with a delicate, but solid peat note and shows a touch of spice.The Coopers’ Choice range was born of necessity, rather than design. The company has a very good Italian
distributor in Va Ma who suggested (or was that insisted?) that Vintage should have a range of single cask bottlings. Brian is indebted to Jim McEwan, ex-Bowmore and now at Bruichladdich, for giving him the name Coopers’ Choice and he hopes that Jim won’t live to regret his generosity! Some of the Coopers’ Choice recent bottlings include: Caol Ila 1980, Clynelish 1983 and Mortlach 1990. Some of Brian’s favourite whiskies have been very reliable and he does not remember having to reject, for example, a cask of Caol Ila. “If you buy from a source that takes a pride in the wood they use, then you are cutting down the chance of rejection. Because we are bottling single casks at a time, we can take time to find a better cask if one disappoints,”
Brian explains.I recently sampled from a cask of Glen Grant 1975 with Brian, Carol and Alastair, they were just about to reject it in favour of a better cask – they had all agreed that the flavour of the rejected whisky had been overpowered by the wood and was drying out rapidly. “Wood is probably the biggest single influence on maturation,” Brian states. “It is hugely important because a good cask can perform wonders and a bad cask can totally destroy a good whisky.”I then took the opportunity to broach the subject of a distillery purchase, which currently seems to be en vogue amongst the independent bottlers, but the company has no plans in that direction at the moment – simply a few fantasies. Brian suggests that this does not preclude a liaison with a distillery owning company, as Vintage has good market
penetration which could be extremely valuable to an independent company which does own a distillery. Recently, a number of the biggest whisky industry players have fortified their position in the market by increasing their brand portfolio, threatening the existence of the independent players. “Although the industry is dominated by the big companies, ‘twas ever thus and there will always be a place for smaller companies with some flair doing things slightly differently,” Brian says defiantly.It seems that noise created by The Vintage Malt Whisky Company will be heard above the din created by the big players for some time to come. Vive la différence!