Keep it in the family

Keep it in the family

Once upon a time it was natural to pass a business down through the generations. Now, though, they are fewer jobs for life and lots of alternatives. Dominic Roskrowspeaks to some whisky folk who have followed in their father’s footsteps

Interview | 23 Jul 2010 | Issue 89 | By Charles Cowdery

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If you’ve spent a good part of your adult life campaigning against nepotism and family inheritance, the world of whisky is something of a choker.

Not only is the concept of handing the family business on to the next generation common in whisky, it’s positively encouraged. And not only do you come to accept this when you immerse yourself in all things whisky, but you find yourself embracing it whole-heartedly. For truth be told, these family links are a cornerstone of the very provenance and heritage which has played such an important role in making whisky the success story it is today.

This was brought home to me with two back to back incidents some years ago. The first came from a conversation with David Robertson, then master distiller for The Macallan, about quality blends. I was singing the praises of Dewar’s Signature.

“And you know the core malt in that is Aberfeldy 27 Years Old,” I raved.

“Aye, I do,” replied David. “And the Aberfeldy in that bottle you’re drinking –well my dad would have made it.”

The other came during the Classic Malts cruise when I arrived at Port Askaig with a group of American Johnnie Walker brand ambassadors and noticed group leader Gregor Cattanach standing apart taking in the view of Caol Ila before him.

“It’s always emotional coming back here,” he said, and then nodded to the distillery manager’s house. “I was born there.”

It’s at moments like these that it dawns on you that this link between the generations cements the special relationship between spirit and people. The world of whisky is like one of those horizontal escalators you get in airports. We step on at one point and we’ll get off at another, but the whisky elevator was moving long before we got on it and it’ll continue to move forward long after we’ve gone. Through family history we can connect with the past, and as we lay down new barrels we can try and glimpse in to the future. There aren’t many industries like that.

Which is all fine – unless you live in the 21st century where people no longer assume there is a job for life, you’re young and tempted by a world of opportunities in new technology and computers; and then you become aware that your name is Beam, Van Winkle, Grant, or Cattanach, and you realise that the expectant sparkle in your dad’s eye is born of the hope that you’re about to join him making whisk(e)y. Not just dad, either.

Whisky families exist wherever the spirit is made, and at all levels of the production process. But never more so than in Kentucky, where many of the iconic brands are linked to individuals – Williams, Craig, Stagg, Beam, Taylor, Pepper, Crow, Weller, Lee – all of whom cast a long and deep shadow over the bourbon industry. And it continues today –Craig Beam works with his father Parker at Heaven Hill, and talks about mucking out warehouses as a young boy and inheriting his grand-father’s obsession with cleanliness. Eddie Russell works alongside Jimmy at Wild Turkey, and Rob Samuels has started another generation of the mighty Samuels family by joining dad Bill in the Maker’s Mark camp.

But what if any of them decided one day that the whisky life wasn’t for them?

Whiskey names don’t get much bigger than Van Winkle but Preston, now marketing manager for Old Rip Van Winkle and working alongside father Julian, thought seriously about doing something else.

“I was always very aware of the whiskey thing,” he says. “There was always talk of the old distillery, the brands and such. I can remember my dad coming home smelling like bourbon on days when he was the one dumping and processing the barrels.

“My sisters and I would occasionally go and give a hand round the bottling hall. We might help on the line, wiping off bottles or stacking boxes of empty glass. We’d slide down the conveyor belt ramps and use the electric fork lift as a go-cart.

“I never felt any pressure to go in to the family business. We never really discussed it though others would bring it up. I started my college career with a very different path in mind. It wasn’t until my freshman year when I attended an event with my father and realised that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I had been in a science-related programme but I changed schools and enrolled in the business programme.

“I think there may have been some disappointment but I don’t think it would have caused a big rift in the family.”

Over in Scotland, Alistair Walker recounts similar experiences. He’s the son of Billy Walker, who built a strong reputation for himself while working for others in large whisky companies. As such Alistair’s experience as a youngster was slightly different – but that changed when Billy linked up with two South African partners and bought BenRiach.

“Two things stand out for me from when I was young,” he says. “I used to keep my ‘steelies’ – ball bearings which we used as marbles – in a Pinwinnie Royal Scotch Whisky drawstring cloth bag, which I think was fairly unique in the Monklands area. And I also spent some time as a child at the production plant in Airdrie.

“When I left university in 1996 I joined Burn Stewart in the marketing department just to get some experience. I was looking at a career in finance, that sort of thing, in this was meant to be for one year. But I stayed for more than six and really enjoyed it.

“My dad never put me under any pressure but remember, although he was managing director of Burn Stewart it wasn’t a family-owned business. BenRiach was a different kettle of fish. As he was tying up the deal with his partners my old man kept slipping in little hints and comments about joining the business. He kept updating me on his whisky project/distillery purchase, but for a while I was so disconnected I kept having to ask him to remind me of the name of the distillery.

“I really had no intention of going back in to whisky but I finally joined in September 2004. Yes, after some gentle persuasion.”

You’d sort of expect family links in the traditional whisky markets, but amazingly Australia, one of the newest whisky nations, has already got a second generation distiller. Kristy Lark had plans to be an air traffic controller and managed to secure a one in 300 place at the ATC school.

“Growing up with a still outside your bedroom isn’t normal for everyone but for me it’s just how it was,” she says. “I have always been involved with the family business but it wasn’t until 2003 that I decided I really wanted to be involved with the production side of things. I realised that whisky was in my blood and while I might go off and be a mum, I really can’t imagine straying far from the stills.”

Already the circle of life is turning once more, and even the young family members who considered shipping out of whisky are turning their hopes to the next generation...

“Continuing the family name and family business would be great,” admits Kristy.

Preston Van Winkle agrees.

“I feel tremendous amount of pride that we have made it four generations, through Prohibition and through the consolidation of many brands,” he says. “I hope that I am able to keep this train rolling and give my son the opportunity to go down the same path if he chooses to.”

The whisky escalator keeps moving.
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