After selling the BenRiach Distillery Company to American giant Brown-Forman for £281m, Billy Walker could have been forgiven for taking things easy, but now he’s back with the purchase of GlenAllachie distillery, writes Peter Ranscombe.
Let me begin with a confession: Billy Walker is the man who got me into whisky in the first place. Sitting and sipping 30-year-old Scotch with Walker at GlenDronach distillery in Aberdeenshire was the moment when the switch was flicked, and I fell in love with our national drink.
Even as a Highlander, loving whisky isn’t automatic. It takes time to move beyond the supermarket blends and find a whisky that is packed full of flavour and doesn’t simply taste of raw spirit. And everyone should have a guide or two on that journey. I’ve been lucky enough that Walker was the first of many talented distillers who have shown me the path towards amber nirvana.
So, when it was announced back in 2016 that Walker had sold his BenRiach Distillery Company to Brown-Forman – the American giant behind brands including Jack Daniel’s whiskey, Finlandia vodka and Chambord liqueur – for £281m, I raised a glass in salute.
Alongside South African investors Geoff Bell and Wayne Kieswetter, Walker bought the mothballed BenRiach distillery south of Elgin in 2004 from Chivas Brothers for £5m. He purchased GlenDronach distillery in Aberdeenshire four years later and a bottling plant at Newbridge on the outskirts of Edinburgh – again both from Pernod Ricard-owned Chivas – and then in 2013 took over Glenglassaugh distillery on the Banffshire coast from Russian investors.
By the time of the Brown-Forman deal, Walker had grown the company’s revenues to £41.5m and its headcount to 165. His achievement saw him honoured with the title of “entrepreneur of the year” at the 2016 Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards.
The sale could have been seen as the crowning achievement in a 40-year long association with the whisky industry. After studying chemistry at the University of Glasgow, Walker joined Dutch contraceptive pill maker Organon before switching to Ballantine’s, then owned by Canadian firm Hiram Walker, and launching a career that took him on to Inver House Distillers and eventually saw him become operations director at East Kilbride-based whisky maker Burn Stewart, which was listed on the stock market.
When CL Financial, the Caribbean-based owner of Angostura Bitters, took Burn Stewart private in 2002 in a deal that valued the business at £49m, Walker’s 3% stake triggered a payday that would have led to many entrepreneurs considering retirement. Instead, he built up the BenRiach Distillery Company and, when Brown-Forman came knocking, he could have been forgiven for retiring with his head held high – so why hasn’t he?
“I was a reluctant seller,” admits Walker, who turns 73 this spring. “We had built BenRiach into a successful business, but I still felt it hadn’t reached its full potential, especially with Glenglassaugh.
“There is so much good liquid in the casks at Glenglassaugh and it just needed longer to reach the right age. But Brown-Forman approached us with a very serious offer and so we gave it the appropriate very serious consideration.
“GlenDronach will become a huge brand. But it was going to take a lot of investment to build up the staff to the necessary size to do it.”
Instead of riding off into the sunset, last year Walker announced that he had bought GlenAllachie distillery on the outskirts of Aberlour in Speyside. No prizes for guessing the name of the seller – Chivas handed over the keys to Walker, triggering a distinct sense of déjà vu. Yet GlenAllachie is a completely different beast to Walker’s previous distilleries. While BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh all have their roots in the 19th century, GlenAllachie is a relative baby.
Designed by William Delmé-Evans – the architect behind Jura, Macduff and Tullibardine – it was built in 1967 by Mackinlay McPherson, the distilling arm of brewing giant Scottish & Newcastle. Set within a 20-acre estate, the distillery draws water from the Black Stank and Henshead burns.
Walking around the distillery, it’s clear that this is a much more-modern operation than so many of Speyside’s Victorian facilities. All the major operations – the milling, the mashtun, the still – are located in the same main building to maximise output, instead of having grown up over time and being spread throughout the site.
From a whisky geek’s point-of-view, GlenAllachie has some interesting quirks too. It has four stills and two spirit safes, one for each set of stills, which could give the new owner the opportunity to make both peated and unpeated whiskies on the same site.
Even the 14 warehouses have a more-modern look to them, with a mix of racks and pallets holding the barrels of slumbering whisky. With its landscaped cooling ponds and wrought iron gates, the distillery has a lot of potential to become a tourist attraction, lying only a few hundred yards from the main A95 road and its Malt Whisky Trail.
I always remember Walker explaining how one of the first things he did when he bought his previous distilleries and the bottling plant at Newbridge was to give them a fresh lick of paint to improve their appearance and raise staff morale. When I visited, the painters were already cracking on with the job.
A whiteboard in the distillery’s kitchen was covered in a vast “to-do” list, ranging from big projects down to the minutia of painting, fencing and drainage. Once the paintbrushes have finished being wielded at GlenAllachie, I can well imagine it becoming a favourite with visitors.
Operations director Richard Beattie – fresh from launching Torabhaig distillery on Skye during his previous role as director of distilling at Mossburn Distillers – is already busy drawing up plans for visitors’ tours of the site, highlighting the growing importance of tourism to the whisky industry at large, as well as steering production in the direction desired by Walker.
For his investment in GlenAllachie, Walker has teamed up with fellow shareholders Trisha Savage, who worked with him at both Burn Stewart and BenRiach, and Graham Stevenson, former managing director at Inver House Distillers.
“I’ve worked with Trisha for more than 30 years,” explains Walker. “Having worked in the corporate world for so long, Graham felt he wanted to do something with a privately-held company – to have some skin in the game.”
The trio’s deal with Chivas didn’t simply consist of the distillery alone. Also as part of the package came warehouses full of Scotch, allowing the new company to release its first bottles this spring.
Walker is not only an entrepreneur but also a master blender. He’s spent the past six months sampling hundreds of casks from the warehouses at GlenAllachie and is preparing to unveil the results to the world.
“GlenAllachie has a much more masculine spirit than many of the other Speyside distilleries,” he explains. “That means it can take wood very well and that’s what we’re seeing in the cask samples.”
This June will see the launch of 12-, 18- and 25-year-old single malts from GlenAllachie, along with a cask strength expression. “These are very much high-end, boutique whiskies,” Walker explains.
The deal with Chivas also included the MacNair’s and White Heather whisky brands. MacNair’s is being revived as a richly-peated blended malt Scotch whisky with 21-year-old and 12-year-old bottlings, as well as a non-age statement blend, while White Heather is being relaunched as a boutique blend, initially in a 21-year-old expression, but with 15- and 12-year-old bottlings expected to follow.
The strength and depth of the stock that came with the distillery has given Walker the confidence that he can produce blends to suit many international palates, and so the UK, Europe, North America, and Asia are all on his hitlist.
“South Korea has the potential to be a huge market, China is still bubbling away and Russia will make a comeback once its political situation settles down,” predicts Walker. “The United States and Canada will continue to be big markets, as will the UK, Europe – especially Scandinavia – and places like Ukraine and Kazakhstan. And don’t forget the massive latent potential of the Indian market.
“Japan is an interesting market and – although it’s very small – so is New Zealand. We’ll work with like-minded boutique businesses that share our focus on quality to bring our whisky to the market.”
In the publicity surrounding the purchase, Walker made a point of highlighting that his latest venture would be under Scottish ownership. But he’s very quick to quash speculation that he found it difficult working with overseas investors.
“Let me spell it out – my South African partners were a dream to deal with,” he says firmly. “Being privately-owned – as opposed to being backed by a private equity company – will allow us to run GlenAllachie for the long-term and not for short-term gains.
“GlenAllachie was never marketed as a single malt brand – it’s always been a component for blending. It’s a beautiful place and a very special whisky. We’re on a journey with GlenAllachie. Whether we’re taking an express train or the scenic route, I don’t know yet – but the key thing is that we’re moving.”