Meet the Australian entrepreneur who saved a Scotch whisky distillery

Meet the Australian entrepreneur who saved a Scotch whisky distillery

When Bladnoch Distillery, once known as the 'Queen of the Lowlands', went into liquidation in 2014, Melbourne entrepreneur David Prior pounced on the opportunity to fulfil his long-held dream of owning a Scotch whisky distillery

 

Pictured: David Prior (left) with his daughter and father

Interview | 08 Mar 2024 | Issue 197 | By Peter Ranscombe

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Walk around Bladnoch near Wigtown on Scotland’s southern coast and there are subtle echoes of Australia dotted around the distillery: a southern cross flying alongside the saltire and the union flag; a video showing conservation work on the Great Barrier Reef; a bottle of blended Pure Scot finished in Australian tawny casks.

 

Perhaps the most striking Aussie motif is a surfboard hanging on a wall in the visitor centre, built from Bladnoch’s casks. David Prior, the Australian serial entrepreneur who bought the distillery in 2015, took the surfboard’s twin back to Melbourne.

 

“It’s hanging on the wall in my office,” Prior confesses. “I was going to use it – I had it shaped to match the dimensions of boards I ride in Australia – but then the guy-who-shaped-its workshop burnt down, and I said, ‘I can’t surf this board, it’s too good and too precious to use.’”

 

While he may not have ridden his Bladnoch board, surfing still plays a major role in Prior’s life. Combined with his practice of mindfulness and yoga, his healthy eating and outdoor lifestyle produce in Prior an air of calm that his colleagues notice.

 

“I always come off a call with David in a far better mood,” laughs master distiller Nick Savage, who joined Bladnoch in 2019, having occupied the same role at the Macallan. “If David gets stressed then you never see it.”

David Prior noses a glass of Bladnoch spirit

Prior’s focus on a healthy mind and body is a thread that also runs through his career in business. He and his father Malcolm built and then sold the family’s food packaging company, Baroda, to industry giant Visy in 2007. After a pause to go surfing, he used his AU$4 million share of the proceeds to create five:am, an organic yoghurt and granola brand, which he sold to consumer goods conglomerate PZ Cussons in 2014 for A$80 million, giving him the financial firepower to go hunting for a whisky distillery.

 

“It was always Scotland and Scotch for me,” Prior explains. “I never looked anywhere else. I grew up drinking Scotch with my father. Every Friday night, we had a Scotch together and a catch-up. That wasn’t typical in Australia at that time because everyone was really just drinking beer.”

 

Wanting to buy a Scotch whisky distillery is one thing, but finding one that’s for sale is another. Yet the southern stars aligned for Prior — a dispute among its owners over the distillery’s future saw Bladnoch placed into liquidation, creating the opportunity for the Australian entrepreneur to fulfil his dream.

 

“I’ve only ever fallen in love instantly three times — once when I met my wife, once when I held my daughter for the first time, and once when I walked onto Bladnoch,” smiles Prior. “Just walking onto the site, with the river, and the trees, and the stone buildings, and the history. I love old things — our house in Melbourne is 100 years old, which is old for Melbourne.”

The still room at Bladnoch

Bladnoch is even older. The distillery dates back to 1817, when brothers John and Thomas McClelland were granted a licence to produce whisky at their farm. While their mother was teetotal, local legend has it that the brothers were encouraged in their venture by their aunt, who “liked a drink”.

 

The McCelland family ran the site for generations, with distilling historian Alfred Barnard noting that annual output from its six washbacks peaked in 1885 at 230,000 litres, making Bladnoch the biggest producer in the region and earning it the nickname ‘Queen of the Lowlands’. Oversupply in the wider industry forced the McClellands to close in 1905, after which Bladnoch’s list of owners reads like a Who’s Who of Scotch whisky, with all the ups and downs, mothballing, and silence that afflicted Scotch whisky producers over the course of the 20th century.

 

Irish distiller Dunville’s reopened the site in 1911 but liquidated it in 1937 following the damage done by Prohibition in the United States, with whisky broker Ross & Coulter selling its stills to Sweden, while its maltings continued to run until 1949 to supply local breweries. Blender and bottler AB Grant reopened the distillery in 1957, before it passed to McGown & Cameron in the 1960s, Inver House in the 1970s, and eventually Bell’s in the 1980s.

Badnoch master distiller Nick Savage walks between the fermenters

During the series of mergers in the 1990s that eventually led to the creation of Diageo, Scotland’s biggest distiller, a visitor centre was added to the site, laying the foundations for the important role that tourism plays in Prior’s business model and Bladnoch’s important place within the local community. Wigtown was designated as Scotland’s national book town in 1998 and its plethora of book shops and annual literary festival help to draw visitors to a rural part of south-west Scotland.

 

United Distillers, Diageo’s forerunner, mothballed Bladnoch in 1993 and sold the site to Northern Irish brothers Raymond and Colin Armstrong, who initially wanted to turn Bladnoch into a holiday resort, but eventually negotiated with Diageo to allow for a small production of 100,000 litres a year to recommence in 2000.

 

When the Armstrongs liquidated the distillery in 2014, it presented Prior with the opportunity he needed. With help from former Scotch Whisky Association CEO Gavin Hewitt and original master distiller Ian MacMillan of Burn Stewart fame, he began an extensive refurbishment of the site, which sits alongside the Bladnoch River. A lade (or canal) built in the 19th century to supply the distillery and a local creamery draws water from the river around 1.5 miles further north; after three levels of filtration, the water then becomes one of the raw materials for the Lowland malt.

Bladnoch Alinta, its signature peated single malt whisky

While the old farm buildings may still be the same, the equipment inside oozes quality, signalling Prior’s intentions for the brand. An original Robert Boby malt mill in all its red-painted glory produces the grain for 15 mashes each week. Six nine-metre tall, 36,000-litre Douglas fir washbacks ferment for between 40 and 50 hours to feed two pairs of 12,500-litre wash and 9,000-litre spirit stills supplied by the famous Forsyths in Rothes on Speyside.

 

That spirit is then laid down in one of 10 dunnage warehouses. One warehouse has been added to the fleet during the past year, with a further two due to be built in the months ahead. Inside warehouse number two, an eclectic mix of sherry butts and hogsheads, bourbon barrels and port pipes, firkins and quarter casks line the racks — yet it’s a set of five 1,200-litre elliptical or oval cylinders that catch the eye, each stencilled with the words ‘The Wave’.

 

The Wave will be the next innovative creation from master distiller Savage once his current Waterfall series ends this year. Waterfall has involved Savage finishing a volume of whisky in a different cask each year since 2020, releasing 1,000 bottles each year and moving the remaining liquid on to the next cask.

 

“The warehouses are like a playground full of treasure chests,” smiles Savage. “Our single cask bottlings allow me to have fun and learn, and then transfer that knowledge to the core range. But I also need to protect and nurture that playground because, at the end of the day, I’m just a custodian. That’s the challenge – I need to fill interesting casks that can be used by whoever is in my seat in 20 years’ time.”

 

That freedom to innovate was one of the factors that attracted Savage to join. “It was definitely the pull of Bladnoch rather than any push to leave the Macallan,” he said. “There’s an untapped potential in the Lowlands, compared with Speyside or Islay.”

The Bladnoch team outside the distillery

The chemistry between Savage and Prior was clearly another factor. Having earned his doctorate at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology studying the structural dynamics of tennis racquets, Savage’s connection to Australia — along with their shared love of sport and no-nonsense attitudes — meant the pair clicked instantly.

 

“If you have a conversation with David that’s longer than 15 minutes then he’s either really interested or something’s gone really wrong – he’s very quick to move,” laughs Savage. “The first time we met, we chatted for three and a half hours. Everyone in Australia was worried about what might have happened to him because he hadn’t checked in with them every five minutes.”

 

Now, Prior is taking a step back from day-to-day operations, having brought in Glen Gribbon in summer 2023 as CEO, reuniting Gribbon with Savage from their days together at Macallan-owner Edrington. As well as nudging output from 1.5 million to two million litres, the next steps for Savage include a renewed focus on flavour in the distillery’s communications with customers, with many of his childhood favourites appearing as descriptions on labels including custard, jam upside-down cake, and parkin (a ginger cake from his native Yorkshire).

 

As for Prior, slipping into a more traditional owner’s role won’t stop him from enjoying his whisky — or sharing it with his father. “Dad has always been a blended Scotch man — his daily drink was something like Chivas Regal, and when we had a drink together it would invariably be Royal Salute,” he remembers. “He loved our Pure Scot blend, but just in the last couple of years, he’s converted across to Bladnoch. Now, when I go over to see him, I always take a bottle of our Samsara.” 

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