From Tobermory to Tobago

From Tobermory to Tobago

Burn Stewart has a global presence after its recent purchase by a Caribbean based company. Peter Mulryan finds out what its plans are.

News 25 Sep 2003 | Interviews | By Peter Mulryan

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I don’t know about you, but I just hate traffic jams, which is why I am sitting on the M9 distracting myself by compiling a list of the World’s best bars.There’s Abaco in Palma, Neary’s in Dublin and Smokey & Bunty’s in St James, Trinidad – where the seats aren’t that soft, the air conditioning is non-existent and glasses aren’t always that clean. But on the up side, parties that start there on a Thursday night usually go on ‘till way past
bedtime Sunday.Although it’s a while since I’ve been there (and to be honest my last visit is a bit of a blur), I know for a fact the place has got even better.How? Well Smokey & Bunty’s is rightly proud of its local Caribbean produce, which is why alongside some of the best rums you have ever tasted and an amazing fresh lime drink cut with Angostura Bitters, right now the bar is probably stacking its shelves with the latest drink to come from the islands of Trinidad & Tobago – Scotch.You see the reason I am now speeding out of Stirling is that I am on my way to meet Ian MacMillan, who is distillery manager and Burn Stewart master blender; to discuss life, whisky and the recent company takeover by the Trinidad and Tobago based CL Financial.This development is big news for what was one of Scotland’s last remaining independent whisky concerns, as C L Financial intends Burn Stewart to become a key part of a new global brands business headed by Ian Bankier, current Burn Stewart managing director.If like me, you sometimes wonder if all these mergers are for the benefit of shareholder or consumer, then you might take some comfort in Ian Bankier’s thoughts on the subject: “While there is inevitably some local anxiety when a Scottish company falls to foreign ownership, I cannot think of a better home for Burn Stewart. We have a genuine opportunity to be at the heart of a dynamic and ambitious organisation.”Sounds good, but where does the marketing spin stop and the truth begin? Deanston Distillery itself was the subject of a take over in 1991 when Burn Stewart bought the plant from Invergordon. Maybe this visit will give me a chance to see if change can be positive, something to be
embraced rather than be afraid of.Deanston distillery was founded in 1966, (though some of the buildings go back to 1785) and the majority of the site, including the tiny village of Deanston itself, was designed and built by Richard Arkwright, famously known as one of the fathers of the industrial revolution.Although a little over an hour from Edinburgh, I am now north of that rather annoying Highland line. This makes Deanston a Highland Malt, so it battles it out with the Highland heavyweights rather than its Lowland neighbours, which somehow seems unfair.It’s a beautiful summer morning so Ian MacMillan and I start with a walk along the trout rich waters of the river Teith, which runs alongside the distillery.The plant is not automated, and Ian likes things done the old-fashioned way. To him time is an important factor in the making of fine whisky, which I guess is why he has taken the morning off to take the air with me. “Time and tradition...” Ian repeats these words like a mantra.“There’s a canal that runs right under the road,” he explains.“You can travel along it in a boat, though I wouldn’t, it’s full of bats!”Under our feet you can just make out the rumble of water. This is how Deanston generates its own hydro electricity. It even sells excess capacity back to the national grid. So 18th century technology, via a 19th century canal, drives 20th century turbines that generate environmentally friendly 21st century electricity.“In a way this sums up Deanston,” smiles Ian. “Here the old and the new sit happily side by side.”There is no doubt that under Burn Stewart, Deanston has prospered with a 12 year-old and an 18 year-old expression. However the great irony is that the previous owners made all these whiskies. Back in his office, Ian pours two drams from an unlabelled bottle.“When Burn Stewart acquired Deanston in 1991 and put me in charge, I decided to make a whisky that was very different.” He raises his glass.“You won’t have tried this…”This was Ian’s Deanston, which had just celebrated its 12th birthday. It is a much more complex and subtle dram than the Deanston I was familiar with, which puts Ian in the unusual situation of making and maturing a malt whisky that is considerably different from the expression on sale. This ‘new’ Deanston will be available from July, though the label and packaging won’t have altered.I guess that here at least is liquid proof that takeovers can be healthy for the consumer and C L Financial has a track record of solid investments.It is headquartered in Trinidad and is the holding company of more than 62 companies whose primary interests are insurance, financial services and real estate. What’s even more amazing is that one man, Mr Lawrence Duprey, controls this billion-dollar enterprise.During the mid-90s Duprey showed just how astute his instincts were by not jumping on the dot-com bandwagon. Instead he started to invest in the ‘old economy’ industry of alcohol.In 1997 CL took over Angostura, a brand so famous even my computer’s spell checker recognises it. Ayear later it started to acquire Todhunter Rum, then in 1999 it turned its attention to Burn Stewart, finally buying it three years later.For his £48.9 million Duprey got the Scottish Leader brand and two distilleries, one in Deanston where I am standing and one in Tobermory, on the island of Mull; my next port of call.The 45 minute ferry crossing from Oban to Craignuir on Mull is just enough time for a Caledonian Macbrayne cup of tea and a quick read of some background information on Burn Stewart.The company started life as a London based agent selling bulk whisky into France. After a management buyout in 1988 it started to supply the leading United Kingdom supermarkets with retailer own brand whisky.In 1998 Burn Stewart started to change direction by withdrawing substantially from the private label.Instead it focused on building branded business, which has higher profile and yields a higher return. The strategy clearly paid off as the company came to the attention of the aforementioned Mr Duprey.It’s exactly 10 years then since Burn Stewart took over a rather tumbled down distillery in Tobermory. It had first closed in 1928 and only reopened in September 1972 with a lot of financing coming from the Highlands and Islands Board.In 1989 the plant was sold to a Yorkshire businessman who funded the upgrading by selling off the maturation warehouses as apartments, but under his administration the business had always struggled.The road from the ferry winds and winds and winds, you turn a corner and there it is… the tiniest most compact of distilleries, and across the harbour the famous colourful waterfront of Tobermory.“Mull is a great place to live!”Meet Alan McConnochie, distillery manager. We’ve have had a tour of the distillery (five minutes: this place is tiny, I kid you not) and are now in the conference room. He pours me a Tobermory.“I’m from Glasgow and I used to live on Islay, but this place is special. Slainte.”The whisky has a delicate peat nose, which is bizarre as Tobermory is made from unpeated malt.“I get really mad when people say the kind of water you use in whisky making doesn’t make itself felt in the finished product. Of course it does,” says Alan.“Glenfiddich doesn’t used peated malt either, but our whisky tastes nothing like it. I hate to say it is all down to the water as some chemist will pop up and say all kinds of things. But as far as I am concerned, Tobermory is a peaty island whisky made from unpeated malt, so where does the peat come from if not the water?”So Burn Stewart has been good for Tobermory and in turn the distillery has been good to the island.Out here no one takes anything least of all survival for granted, which is why weeks later there is something else to celebrate when Burn Stewart acquires the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay and the Black Bottle brand.Under its former owners Bunnahabhain started to make an impact as a single malt. The distillery was built primarily for blending and today it can be found in Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse and Black Bottle. Commenting on the deal, Ian Bankier, now CEO of CL World Brands, said: “The
acquisition of such a prestigious and reputable brand as Black Bottle fits well with the shape and attitude of Burn Stewart within the new structure.”It’s going to be at least 10 years before we can fully appreciate if Ian is right. But at least they have got off to a good start as both Tobermory and Bunnahabhain share the same shape bottle.Now there’s synergy.
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