By Jim Murray

The writing is on the wall

Jim Murray laments the demise of more distilleries
There is a tradition which says that you can tell the difference between each Scottish distillery just by looking at the individual white-washed warehouses.On them, written large, are their famous old names painted bold and proud in sooted jet. These distilleries can be found dotted throughout the Highlands and are especially noticeable on the islands where they resolutely stand facing out to, and at the mercy of, the shifting sea.As events are unfolding, all this has become sinisterly symbolic because for a significant number of distilleries the stormy waters are gathering and the funereal black writing does appear to be on the wall - this could not be more
chillingly apposite.At a period when the big multi-national distillers have been shedding staff like a tree sheds leaves in the autumn, the news that everyone had been expecting for several years had finally arrived. Seagram was up for sale. Unless there is a management buy out, which is unlikely, the main Seagram brands are destined for a fellow high flyer. And, as one industry executive said to me just the other day, "who the hell needs another nine distilleries?" Quite. The stark fact is that Seagram's collection of Scotch malt distilleries represents one of the least alluring of any portfolio to be found among the world's beverage companies. Take away the historical heavyweights of The Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Longmorn and Strathisla and what are you left with? Five distilleries in Caperdonich, Braeval, Benriach, Allt-a-Bhainne and the already surplus to requirement, Glen Keith. They are so very much of a muchness the industry will shed not one tear for their inevitable demise. These are blending whiskies with barely a sniff of top dressing between them. They are bulk. And the industry does not need bulk at the moment, thank you. Bulk is expensive, especially to store for ever shrinking markets. Even as a champion for the distilling underdog I could recommend only the underrated Braeval as a malt worth bottling as a singleton - which is unlikely to happen who ever gets hold of it.No, the fate of those distilleries are most likely to go the way of the majority of Invergordon's after the Whyte and Mackay takeover. They will be closed and probably quite swiftly. The only thing that may save them will be that they have already been fine-tuned to run with an absolute
minimum number of managers and staff: though if they are closed no-one will be needed at all. Which will suit the industry in its current mood for blood-letting.In the last week I have spoken to five people from three differing companies who have, very recently, either been made redundant or left their position because shrinkage within their department made their positions either
untenable or too frustrating to be true. They had spent between five and 25 years in the job, their experience as floor maltsters, distillery managers or in marketing lost to the industry - probably for good. Elsewhere I hear of distillery managers being moved out of distilleries into marketing and yet further plans for semi-automation. For many years there have been a plethora of predictions within the industry that have all concluded with the theory that there will be a thinning down of brands and distilleries. My own personal hunch is that we might be about to be entering a phase that has not been seen since the early to mid 1980s when one distillery after another closed its gates for the very last time. I sincerely hope I'm wrong. But if you've ever harboured dreams of owning your own Scotch malt distillery, the next few years is likely to be the time to have a quiet word with your bank manager. If, that is, he's not been made redundant .