For all the growing interest and publicity surrounding single malts, blended whiskies are still the volume sellers globally and in the UK. However, it is interesting to note how brands that sell well in the UK do not necessarily repeat that success overseas and brands that sell well globally are, very often, just also-rans on the UK market. There are many reasons for this. Some brands have always been targeted at overseas markets, or are historically well-established there. So, what sells well globally and in what quantities? The most recent figures come from The Spirits Business.com up to 2016 and the standard measure is a case (12 bottles at 75cl, or nine litres), but I’ll give both the case and bottle total for the top 10, in reverse order. At number 10 is Bells, from Diageo, selling 2.1 million cases, or 25.2 million bottles. At Number 9 is Label 5, from the French spirits firm La Martiniquaise, selling some 2.59 million cases, or 31.08 million bottles. At Number 8 is Dewar’s White Label, long part of the Bacardi portfolio, selling 2.8 million cases or 33.6 million bottles. Another Bacardi brand, William Lawson’s, sits at Number 7, selling 2.99 million cases, or 35.88 million bottles. In the Number 6 spot is William Peel, a whisky almost never seen in the UK but a big duty-free and overseas seller from the French firm Marie Brizard. Total case sales 3 million, or 36 million bottles. At Number 5 is J&B Rare, a Diageo brand selling 3.5 million cases, or some 42 million bottles. At Number 4 is arguably the only “de luxe” blend in the Top 10, namely Chivas Regal, star of the Pernod-Ricard portfolio. It shifted 4.26 million cases, or 51.12 million bottles. At Number 3 is William Grant’s Standfast, which sold 4.48 million cases, or 53.76 million bottles. In the Number 2 spot is Ballantine’s, another big seller from Pernod Ricard, which shifted 6.7 million cases or 80.4 million bottles. At Number 1, and miles out in front of the competition, is Diageo’s Johnny Walker who, in his many guises, sold a staggering 17.4 million cases, or 208.8 million bottles. For all he’s nearly 200 years old, wow, is he still going strong.
Two distilleries in the Courier area are undergoing major changes, yet neither is making the kind of headlines one would expect. Edradour near Pitlochry is building a whole new distillery – and Tullibardine at Blackford has recently expanded into the vacated Eaglesgate retail centre, yet coverage of both developments has — it seems to me — been relatively muted. Edradour has long faced a conundrum. For many years it was described as Scotland’s smallest distillery, but it was also one of the most popular, with coaches packed with tourists inching down the single track road to the distillery throughout the summer months. Dotted along a gushing burn, its whitewashed, red-doored buildings were every visitor’s paradigm of a typical whisky distillery. It still received malt by the one-ton bag, while others took it in by the 30-ton artic load, and draff is still hand-shovelled out of the Victorian cast-iron mashtuns. Demand for its single malt increasingly outstripped supply. Hence the need to expand and build a new distillery that should more than double output. Site work started in the spring upstream from the current distillery, with the first new spirit hopefully being distilled in late 2017 or early 2018. Not that the original distillery is being phased out or mothballed. Production will continue, doubtless to the delight of visitors, for decades yet. Tullibardine was for years the main attraction beside Blackford’s struggling Eaglesgate retail centre that never lived up to its original hopes. Baxters of Fochabers had a large shop and restaurant there, along with outlets for shoes and outdoor clothing. All closed some time ago and Tullibardine are converting the entire complex into warehousing and a bottling hall. The distillery was bought several years ago by the Burgundy-based French family firm of Picard, who already owned the Highland Queen brand. The expansion seems a shrewd and logical move, as the distillery needed more warehousing and bottling was for decades contracted out to firms some distance away. The distillery visitor centre remains open all year round, with tours ranging from £8 – including two drams –up to £25 (whisky and chocolates) or £27 (bonded warehouse tour).
The Scotch whisky industry will undoubtedly be seriously affected by Brexit. After all, France is the biggest export market by volume for Scotch, although exports to the US have higher value as Americans tend to buy rare and old malts whereas France buys cheap blends in bulk. Many other EU countries buy big volumes of the cratur, adding up to the biggest single market for it. That would certainly be hit if the current open access to the EU ended. However, it is currently impossible for the industry to make definite plans as no one—including, one suspects, the entire UK Government — has a clue what shape Brexit will finally take. After all the drum beating and tub thumping by the Brexiteers about “sovereignty”, the fact is Brexit will be the longest, most complex and problem-riddled political divorce in history. For a start, one can count the number of experienced trade negotiators in the UK on the fingers of one hand. Why? Because since 1974, all UK trade negotiations with the wider world were conducted by Europe. So we didn’t need any. What’s more, experienced trade negotiators don’t grow on trees and trade negotiations can last forever. One example — it took 300 Canadian trade negotiators seven years to reach their current limited trade deal with the EU. Worse, the trio now charged with implementing Brexit — David Davis, Liam Fox and Westminster’s court jester, Boris Johnson — have so far shown scant appreciation of the Augean task they and the UK face. No wonder Downing Street is keen to delay invoking Article 50 as long as possible. This essentially means the whisky industry — along with all other British exporters — will have to bide its time, make contingency plans, put some projects on the back burner, try to increase exports to non-EU countries and learn to live in a limbo of uncertainty until 2020 and well beyond. It will be tough for the big boys and even tougher for those small distilleries launched amid such high hopes in recent years… What can I suggest? Well, what about pouring ourselves a large dram and trying to forget it all.
Until quite recent times, Irish whiskies came from just three sources – Midleton in County Cork, Cooley at Dundalk, Co Louth, and good old Bushmills in Co Antrim. All three belong to bigger distilling groups, respectively to Pernod-Ricard, Beam Suntory and Diageo. Bushmills claims to be the oldest legal distillery in these islands. Cooley is a newcomer established in the 1980s by Dr John Teeling, today a legend in modern Irish distilling. Midleton is a vast complex and one of the largest industrial sites in the Republic with a high chimney visible from miles around. From Midleton’s army of pot and column stills, it produces every long-established Irish whiskey brand — Jameson, Power’s, Paddy, Crested Ten, Redbreast and Spots of several colours. It also produced the famous Tullamore Dew, but that is now being distilled at the new Tullamore distillery in Co Offaly built by Scotland’s William Grant & Sons Ltd that came on-stream about two years ago. However in recent years, a swathe of new small or boutique distilleries have opened or have added whiskey to their range of spirits. Not all these new whiskies are yet available or widely distributed but on a recent trip to Ireland I managed to sample a couple of the newcomers, plus a few of the old stalwarts. One was the new single malt from Dingle, a distillery in the remote furthermost reaches of Co Kerry. Sadly, it was too young and didn’t set the taste buds alight, but a Hyde 1916 single malt kittled the palate enough for me to try another. Despite its title, it was not a 101-year-old malt, but one marking the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising at the General Post Office in Dublin. It comes from long-established West Cork Distillers in Skibbereen and their distilling experience showed. By the way, another noted name from the Co Cork town was its famous weekly newspaper, the Skibbereen Eagle, absorbed by its rival Southern Star in 1929. Along the way I also sampled a Jameson and a Bushmills and sensed they had shifted subtly away from the bourbon-vanilla tones of the past to a lighter flavour. However, my favourite Irish whiskey remains Connemara, a lightly peated malt from Cooley that is widely available here.
Several times I’ve mentioned two globally best-selling whiskies which we hardly ever see, or have even heard of, in Britain. These are Label 5 (currently Number 9 in worldwide sales) and William Peel (Number 6). The reason is they are both produced by French firms (La Martiniquaise and Marie Brizard respectively) and are virtually not marketed in the UK, although Label 5 can occasionally be found at Morrison’s. However, both are totally Scotch whiskies, being bulk-blended in Scotland and then tankered, 25,000 litres at a time, to France for dilution, final filtering and bottling. I have sampled both and, although they would not set the heather (or any French roses) alight, they are perfectly drinkable blends. Interestingly, large quantities of William Peel are actually blended in deepest Courier Country, namely at Glencadam Distillery in Brechin. Glencadam and Tomintoul are the two distilleries in the Angus Dundee Distillers portfolio, along with a big bottling plant at Coatbridge, offices in Glasgow and head office in London. It is very much a family firm, run by sister and brother team Tania and Aaron Hillman. Angus Dundee tends to keep a low public profile, although it is well known and respected in the industry. Some 5% of all Scotch whisky exports, bound for 70 countries, are via Angus Dundee and for years their Scotch Blue has been the top-selling whisky in Korea. Much of their business is bulk-blended whiskies to be exported by road-tankers or “tanktainers” for bottling abroad. Their blending plant at Brechin has two long ranks of high stainless steel vats, with a long stainless steel trough sunk into the floor between them. Into it, dozens of casks from both malt and grain distilleries are emptied. The different malts and grains are pumped into different vats before being mixed in precise ratios to meet their overseas customers’ formulas for each of their various brands. The blended whisky then sits in another vat before being pumped, possibly a few days later, via a fat plastic pipe to a road tanker parked in the sunken loading bay outside. So, next time you see a bottle or litre of William Peel in a foreign airport duty-free shop, you can nod and say, “Mm, I know where that comes from.”
It has often surprised — and saddened — me to hear so many people, including countless Scots, say they don’t like whisky and would never drink it. I accept that strong-flavoured spirits are an acquired taste and hence may not tickle everyone’s palate. However, to dislike whisky and totally shun it is to blank out a huge rainbow of taste experiences. To me it like saying one would never eat French, Chinese or Indian food — a narrowing of one’s horizons, a denial of one of life’s great pleasures. To be fair, I know a few people whose dislike of whisky stems from bad experience — a dissolute, whisky-sodden father or imbibing too much whisky at an adolescent party and being very ill afterwards. And some people have genuine aversions to certain types of food or drink — my mother, for one, couldn’t thole garlic. However, I wonder if some people’s aversion to whisky is that they have only known poor blends (in the days when some were indeed dire) or perceive whisky as a downmarket, hard man’s drink, whereas whisky today is anything but. I realise that few or no whisky shunners read this column, so the following paragraphs may be me crying in the wilderness. But on the off chance that it may help convert one or two sceptics, may I suggest, firstly, try a whisky liqueur or a Bailey’s or one of its innumerable clones. If Drambuie or Glayva seem too strong, try Stag’s Breath. At just under 20% alcohol, it is mild, very pleasant and available in half-bottles and miniatures so one can sample it without having to buy a whole bottle. Or try a Scotch or Irish coffee — sweet black coffee with a jot of whisky in it, then thick cream floated on top down the back of a spoon. At first add just a spoonful of whisky to the coffee and, if it pleases, add two spoonfuls next time, a good jigger the time thereafter. My favourite late-evening drink is coffee with a shot of Scotch or bourbon in it. Get the balance right and it is, to me, the perfect partnership.
What never fails to amaze me is the enthusiasm for Scotch whisky I see in other countries. Indeed, Scotland sometimes seems to be the one nation that is losing pride and passion for its national drink — whereas, go overseas and in many places Scotchmania rules the roost. I have just spent a week in Germany, where enthusiasm for whisky and Scotland generally verges on the boundless. What is astonishing, too, is that the enthusiasm is German-generated, and not the result of any hefty efforts by VisitScotland. One can debate that Germans’ enthusiasm for Scotland dates back to the 19th Century, when a wide group of artists, composers and writers saw our wild landscapes as dramatic settings for romance and mystery. The German poet Theodor Fontane — in an amazing mix of fact and fable — even wrote a tragic poem blaming the 1879 collapse of the Tay Bridge on the Three Witches from Macbeth. Back to whisky. German enthusiasm is best seen at their countless annual “Whiskymessen”, or trade fairs. Some are vast events that attract the Diageos and Pernod Ricards of the world, others are for the specialist whisky bottlers and importers, plus firms that specialise in one-off bottles of rare malts unearthed in some collector’s forgotten cellar in the darkest Dolomites. Best of these is Whisky Fair at Limburg, near Frankfurt, where every year I do presentations on whisky history. Once the day’s presentation is done, I can browse around the 60-plus stands looking for interesting malts to sample, often at knockdown prices. There are so many that to try them all would seriously endanger the liver. So I draw up a short list and hope some malts that didn’t make it will still be there the following year. I can only urge any whisky enthusiast to visit Whisky Fair (renamed Whisky Festival for 2017), always held on a late-April weekend. Nearest airports are Frankfurt and Cologne, both with on-site rail stations whence superfast trains whisk you to Limburg in minutes. But be forewarned: local hotels tend to get booked up a year in advance, so start planning now and good luck.
Distilling seems to be THE growth industry in these islands. This stems from growing global demand for spirits and to UK legal changes that encouraged the start-up of small, independent distilleries for the first time in two centuries. The new distillery list is formidable, with others being mooted and planned every month. However, to me the really big news is that one of Scotland’s most famous lost distilleries, Rosebank at Falkirk, beside the Forth-Clyde Canal, has been acquired from Diageo by Ian MacLeod Distillers, who are rebuilding it to start distilling again next year. I recall how amazed I was recently to hear that long-dormant Brora and Port Ellen were being restarted. To hear that Rosebank is also undergoing a £10 million-plus phoenix treatment is astounding. Not that others haven’t tried to resurrect Rosebank. A local entrepreneur tried hard about 10 years ago, but was thwarted by a host of factors, including Diageo declining to sell the name and thieves breaking into the moribund premises and stripping out the stills and copper plumbing. Rosebank was renowned as one of the few distilleries in Scotland that triple-distilled, a tradition today upheld solely by Auchentoshan near Glasgow. It also cooled the spirit vapour in spiral pipes in vast timber worm tubs, highly visible from the adjacent main road. MacLeods intend to reinstate both triple distilling and worm pipe cooling. Distilling is scheduled to start in 2019, with the new single malt available some time during the later 2020s. MacLeod’s, who also own Glengoyne and Tamdhu distilleries, have also acquired stocks of Rosebank distilled before its closure in 1993, which will be released in dribs and drabs with price tags well into three figures. Rosebank is actually an amalgamation of two distilleries, Rosebank and Camelon, both built in the early 1800s, which stood on opposite sides of major locks on the Forth-Clyde Canal. With a handful of other distilleries, it was a founding member of Scottish Malt Distillers in 1914, a group fully acquired some years later by DCL (Distillers Company Ltd), one of several firms that now make up Diageo. The distillery was closed, amid loud lamentations, during the industry’s longest post-war adverse period. I thought it would never reopen, but am delighted to be proved wrong.
Most classic cars tend to have long and glorious histories, even if the grim reaper of the car world eventually seals their fate. The DeLorean DMC-12 is different: it was a flash-in-the-pan, here-and-gone car that was built on one man’s Trumpian hubris and abetted by a British Labour government desperate to attract new industry to Northern Ireland. Production should have started in 1979 but it was 1981 before the assembly line was running properly. Early cars suffered major quality problems, caused in part by an inexperienced workforce, and the teething problems that all new plants and cars tend to suffer. DeLorean had to set up special centres in the US to rectify problems before the cars could be retailed. The car got a mixed reception. Despite a rorty V6 engine, it was considered underpowered and the sticker price of $25,000 put it out of many potential buyers’ reach. Gradually the wheels fell off the DeLorean bandwagon. Desperate for money, John DeLorean was caught agreeing to smuggle drugs to try and stave off financial collapse. In 1985 the factory at Dunmurry, Belfast, was closed and its plant and equipment sold off at fire-sale prices. Red ink was only matched by red faces. Amid all the shambles, the car itself was, frankly, not a bad piece of kit. All body panels were stainless steel—expensive but it meant no rust treatment, no primer, no paintwork to go wrong. It had gullwing doors and its mid-engine with rear-wheel-drive gave it good handling. All cars went to the US, so it was LHD from day one – another useful production-line saving. What really gave the car immortality was its central role in the Back to the Future trilogy in which, thanks to its plutonium-guzzling flux capacitor, it could travel through time as easily as lesser vehicles cross the Tay Bridge. Even before the film, the car had a big US fan club which is still going strong today. A Texas-based firm today makes, sources and supplies all spare parts and one can even buy an all-new DeLorean (for $57,000) made from original and replacement parts. It is thought some 6,500 of the original 9,000 cars produced are still on the road and the car has a devoted following, mainly in the US but in other countries as well. One occasionally sees them for sale in British classic car mags or websites. It is interesting to ponder whether the car would enjoy its ongoing appeal without its rarity value and the impact of Back to the Future. As for John DeLorean, he died disgraced and forgotten in 2005 aged 80, possibly still wishing he’d found a financial flux capacitor in 1985 to save his great dream from the scrapyard.
Few established distilleries in Scotland have undergone such radical transformation in the past few years as Tullibardine, at Blackford just off the A9. Since 2013, its owners, the French family firm of Picard, have spent millions installing new warehousing and storage, a blending plant with 10 gleaming steel vats and a bottling, packaging and dispatching line. Two of the distillery’s four stills have been renewed so far, with further upgrades planned in 2018 to the whole complex. The big mashtun gulps six tons of grist every six hours, the worts then ferment with cake yeast for around 60 hours in nine steel washbacks that in turn feed two wash and two spirit stills. Output is currently three million lpa (litres per annum), working 24/7 for 44 weeks a year. Michel Picard, a wine grower and merchant near Beaune in Burgundy since the 1940s, expanded into pastis and eaux-de-vie over the years and, with Scotch whisky a big seller in France, acquired the blends Highland Queen and Muirhead in 2008 from Glenmorangie and Tullibardine three years later. Named after a long-gone 19th Century farm distillery at Tullibardine village north-east of Blackford, it was built by C. Delme Evans in 1948-9 on a former brewery site, which famously brewed the beer for the 1488 coronation at Scone of King James IV. Over the years the distillery had several owners, including Brodie Hepburn and Whyte and Mackay, before Picard acquired it in 2011. In 2013, the Eaglesgate shopping centre, beside the distillery, was vacated and Picard acquired the entire site, converting two former shops to warehousing and the big Baxters of Fochabers shop and restaurant into the blending and bottling plant. A separate antique furniture store became a cooperage with its own on-site cooper. Hence Tullibardine is one of the most integrated set-ups in the industry, with every operation (milling, mashing, distilling, casking, bonded warehousing, coopering, blending and bottling) on one site. Malting is done off-site, with artics daily unloading 30 tons of malt into the receiving hoppers. Draff is hoisted by auger into high-sided trailers and pot ale is tankered away for disposal. The vast visitor centre offers three whisky lines — Tullibardine single malts, plus Highland Queen and Muirhead blends and malts. More about them next week.