Monday, 23 July 2012

Been a while again

Just time to write a quick entry. Been a while since my last post. Getting HMRC approval for the warehouse was one thing - running it is something else. It has involved moving back to Scotland not just for me but for the Production Manager, meaning a new house, new schools, leaving friends behind etc etc. I'm not complaining as it was my decision and considering the stunning area I now live in, I have no reason to complain.

A lot has happened in the whisky trade since my last post but one occurrence in particular has caught my imagination. Bruichladdich was sold last week to Remy Cointreau (is that their actual company title?) for £58million. It is not the sale that I find remarkable, it was common knowledge that offers for Bruichladdich were quite frequent; no, it is the amount of money the brand and distillery has been sold for. Taking aside Bushmills which sold a few years ago to Diageo for about £250million, this is one of the largest single distillery purchases the world has ever seen.

Now, I neither have the desire nor the time to sit and work out Bruichladdich's profits, turnovers, Remy's potential return on investment etc etc, but I wonder how many years it would take at current profit levels for Remy to return their £58m, never mind turn a profit on the acquisition. And actually, that is not what concerns me - I hope that the £58m price tag is good value for Remy (as it must be for the ex-Shareholders of Bruichladdich). What I find amazing, and what has really been on my mind for the past 2-3 months is distilling. Being a distillery owner; a distiller. As a 19 year old entering into this fantastic industry I had no desire, plan or dream of owning my own distillery. That has changed though in the past couple of years.

There are a few reasons for this, but the likes of Arran, Kilchoman, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich and Glenglassaugh (and even the terribly named St George's Distillery) have all sparked my imagination, kicked off a desire and created a dream. It is the fact that with careful planning, methodical preparation and expertise on distilling, it is very possible to make a go of distilling - and sometimes more than a go - a large and profitable company. Scotland is not doing well at the moment, financially that is and who knows what independence may or may not bring, but one thing is certain, distilleries are doing well, and whisky is in demand. This demand for the niche, small, different and premium has been growing, no, exploding over the past 15 years. The idea that a micro distillery on Islay would make any money in the early 1990s - preposterous, but now totally reasonable.

Anyway, my imagination, desire and dream has to stay just that for now. I know I could make a success of a new distillery, but for some strange and inexplicable reason (!) the lenders that be just don't share my confidence. I think it boils down to the fact that really, you don't have anything to sell for at least 3 years (and more like 5) - investors are a usually looking for their return by this point.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

A bottler I be...

Well, it has taken 10 years of dreaming and over a year and a half of planning, but finally, I am now hand bottling my casks. I'm no longer what was affectionately known as an 'Armchair Bottler'. The very first cask was a 1984 Tamdhu bottled for the Taiwanese market (beautiful label and a beautifully sweet whisky to boot) - this was closely followed by a Macduff 2000 (bottled for Drinks & Gifts in Krommenie who are opening a new shop) and six new Exclusive Malts (Glen Elgin 1995, Mortlach 1995, Auchroisk 1996, Glen Moray 2001, Macduff 1973 & Glen Garioch 1993).

It was a huge feeling of joy mixed with an almost overwhelming sense of relief as I watched the first goods leave - now en-route to The Netherlands and will be on their way to shops next week. Phew! Over the past 15 months I have thrown the towel in several times. Somewhere, somehow, we (Britain) decided that enterprise and enabling business was not to be encouraged. Almost at every turn, the banks and HMRC (the British Tax authority) were determined to prevent this enterprise. I was actually outright told 'that HMRC does not like approving this kind of warehouse'. The fact that I was creating jobs in one of the most deprived parts of Scotland seemed to be completely irrelevant.

Anyway, for one of the few times in my life I persevered and am very happy to be in full control of my own operations. It was a huge learning curve and one I'm very glad I went through with. Granted I now have to worry about fork lift trucks breaking down; emergency call outs; adding the right amount of de-mineralised water to a cask to bring it down to 45.8% etc but I have some great bottlings lined up for this year and look forward to gluing each and every label  on every bottle - and if the label is slightly wonky, its not because I've been drinking, well, it might be...

Monday, 5 December 2011

2011 where did you go

Well that year went quickly! I've been assured by those older than me that the years do tend to go faster the older you get, certainly feels that way. I don't tend to look back to often or remember years specifically but 2011 will be a year to remember for independent bottlers. Demand has never been higher and supply has never been smaller. In particular old whiskies and anything (and I really mean anything) peaty have disappeared, gone, almost over night.

It would appear that the success of certain markets and in particular brands like Smokehead, have meant that the demand for Islay/peaty style whiskies has driven it out of the market. There was a time when Caol Ila was as available as any malt. Not so now. Even whiskies like Ledaig are so rarely available and of course demand such a premium...

I'm not going to moan about it too much though. I have always believed that Independent Bottlers should survive by bottling great whisky. Whether this comes from the largest grain distillery or the smallest malt distillery is irrelevant - it must be great. There will be those privileged independent bottlers who are able through sheer size to buy direct from the distillers but for the rest of us, we must seek out those unusual drams that make us what we are.

So what does this mean for 2012? Well, certainly from my wee organisation, I will take great pleasure in bottling some Fettercairn (for the first time), Glendronach (I managed to get one), some astonishing young malts (5-7 years old) and a couple of outstanding old casks. I may also break with my own tradition and bottle a grain whisky. So, things are different, but I am still looking forward very much to bottling some great whiskies in 2012 and hope to meet you sometime along the way.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Whisky Show, London

I have to report back on this. I went last year and thoroughly enjoyed it and enjoyed it even more this year. I started with No 1 Drinks trying an '81 Karuizawa and Ichiro's Malt both of which were superb - always good to catch up with Marcin too (he once saved me from making a very disastrous mistake... a story for another time). From there I went to The Whisky Show stand that had some extraordinary drams - my pick from the 5 I tried was the Lochside Single Blend (Adelphi also had one and the two could not have been more different).

I tried a unique Balvenie (not really worth telling you about that as you'll never get to try it), a super '71 Benriach which, for me, totally eclipsed the '71 Glendronach. The Glenrothes John Ramsay was also very good but a touch out of my price range. The show really does give you a perspective on value!

The upstairs is worth a mention as there were some excellent food pairings and I sadly did not have enough time to try all of them. Suffice to say that Cashel Blue cheese (made in Ireland) is superb with a Port Charlotte (and if you can do it without spilling, put them in your mouth at the same time). There was a yogurt-based Indian dish that was being paired with... yeah, you guessed it, Amrut! Didn't have time to try that but was told it was a real revelation (good or bad, don't know?!)

Back on the main floor, the Glenfarclas Chairman's Reserve (where have I heard that name before...) was incredible (thanks Kate!) although you may need a few bob to buy one of those. The Shackleton blend was also surprisingly good (and I even told RP as much) - forget the gimmick and get a glimpse of what a blend tasted like 100 years ago (most intriguing part is that the Dalmore provided the peat-smoke to the blend - may we be getting a peated Dalmore in future?).

Things are obviously a little hazy of all that I tried but I have to give a huge shout out to Dr Sam Simmons (of Balvenie fame - or is that the other way around). Sam and I must have very similar tastes. He suggested I tried a Scotch Malt Whisky Society Glenugie. I had previously been a member but left the SMWS 10 years ago after been treated akin to a turd that had made its way into the Vaults in Leith on the bottom of a 'real' members shoe.

The two chaps on the stand, who treated me like Royalty (perhaps because I was no longer a member) forced me, really, to try about 6 of their whiskies and every one was absolutely cracker-jack - but the pick was the Glenugie and I immediately signed up and bought two bottles (and now wish I had bought everything they had). I am in good company here as the world-renowned, and nicest whisky-blogger there is, Serge Valentin gave this Glenugie 92 (I don't usually score but I would give it 95 if I did). Sadly the member's pack included 3 piss-poor whiskies out of 4 but I was not overly-annoyed having got my two bottles of the Glenugie!

All in all, this is THE Whisky Show, certainly for the UK. In fact if you can only do 2 whisky shows in a year and you are whisky mad then the Whisky Fair in Limburg and The Whisky Show in London are the only 2 candidates (note I said 'shows' - for festivals seek out The Speyside Whisky Festival). As soon as the date goes live for next year I will be pencilling it in my diary and I reckon that the boys at The Whisky Exchange may have to have add a session on Sunday.

My only real gripe is that I had so much fun I completely, and rather stupidly, forgot to buy the Kh1 - Elements of Islay... D'oh!!!!!

So well done to Sukhinder and the team (nice to meet up with Tim again too)! See you next year if not sooner.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Forgot what I was going to say

Its been quite a while since my last blog so decided I'd better get my writing cap on. This year, so far, has been fantastic for many reasons but from a business point of view, I think my whiskies are finally gaining a bit of wanted interest and respect from those that report back on such things. Not that there wasn't any before but I believe I am now firmly on the map as an independent bottler - gone are the comments such as 'I've heard of Creative Whisky but never heard about or tried any of their whiskies' etc.

I am also pleased at a very real shift in the buying public with regard to independent bottlers. Not sure how or why this has come about but there is as much talk now about a single cask bottling of Braeval or Teaninich as there is about a new Port Ellen or Ardbeg. I have always been enthusiastic about my lesser-known bottlings but it seems the buying public are now just as keen.

This is good for a whole host of reasons but the Most important one being the availability (or lack) of the more famous malts. My next bottling will include my first cask of Deanston, Auchroisk and Glenallachie - and they are all, for me, stunning (well of course they are otherwise I wouldn't bottle them). I get a much bigger kick out of someone oohing and aahing over a distillery like these rather than an Ardbeg or Macallan. (I suppose I count it as a little victory for the independent bottlers).

So what is in store for The Creative Whisky Co? Well, several things actually. I have a wholly new product on the horizon (and not even a whisky) as well as a change in production. Hopefully both changes will be positive for the future and for helping create what the public want.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Vulgar, tasteless, shameful - yes, but all part of the game isn't it?

(Stolen without permission from the Macallan press release)
So the Macallan LaUnique '57 is worth £500 gazillion and the Dalmore St Trinian's has gone for Twelfty bazillion Dollars and we musn't forget the Glenlivet 70yo worth a paltry central-African country's GDP.

Does it annoy me? Yes, Should it annoy me? No. Am I going to join in? Of course.

The whisky industry is a luxury industry and therefore no different from all of the others. You don't have to buy a Bentley Continental, you can buy a Ford Focus (an ST if you really want to push the boat out). You don't have to buy a Glengoyne 40yo, you can buy an Aberlour a'Bunadh.

However, there are people out there who can afford a Bentley and the Glengoyne and for a company to flourish in the luxury world, it is daft not to create those products available to the privileged few.

So when you see one of the below for sale, don't hate me, it's not personal; it's just business. I'll promise though to keep the prices on planet Earth.

(One day I need to get Mark C. down here to take some proper photos)
[For those interested, the above are odd bottles kept over the past 7 years - left over from bottling special casks for customers all over the world. Each decanter is unique - being 1 of 1 - but the boxes are even rarer considering there are currently only 6 in the world, are hand made from English oak etc etc. For those really interested, there is the following available currently: Highland Park '81 Port cask matured (not finished), Macallan '80, Laphroaig '87, Glenglassaugh '86, Strathisla '69 and a few others...]

PS - for those really, really interested email me:

PPS - it won't happen again. Honest!

PPS - I will pesonally vouch for the uber-premium, limited, awesome, 'take-your-breath-away', stunning, inspiring, must-have, collectable... I will personally vouch none of those words appear on the label. (It does state 'Exclusive' but only as part of my 'Exclusive Malts' range... too late to change that).

What I am currently listening to:
Good to have the boys back and a stunning album to boot. Recommended to anyone who likes Rock.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

A whisky world without independent bottlers?

Duncan Taylor hand bottling one of their single cask whiskies.
I was asked at the Danish Whisky Messen ('festival') in Kolding whether there was a long-term future for independent bottlers. That's a tough question actually. Short-term, yes, but long-term? For those of you who don't know what I am talking about, independent bottlers are companies who buys casks of whisky and bottle them under their own label and more often than not use the distillery name to identify the contents.

There is a lot more to this than a simple blog so you will have to excuse me simplifying the discussion. In a nutshell, the big companies do not like independent bottlers, and even the small distillers, in fact anyone with a distillery, does not like IBs. IBs feed off the reputations of the distilleries to a certain extent (ask anyone which cask is going to sell faster, a Glentuachers or a Macallan - easily the Macallan and that is simply due to reputation) and the distillers see this is as an intrusion to their market share or niche.

There are a number distillers who are also independent bottlers; Springbank/Glengyle, Edradour, Bruichladdich, Benromach & Bladnoch (and of course Moet Hennessey owners of 2 distilleries and also owners of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society). The interesting thing that occurs when an IB becomes a distiller is they immediately prevent any of the whisky from their new distillery being sold to other IBs. Double standards? Well yes and no. Would I do the same? If I could afford to, hell yes.

And here is the overriding issue; if this becomes common place then what future for the IB? Should there even be IBs?


At the moment, we have a real mix of casks being bottled from a multitude of distilleries. Never in the history of whisky has the choice been greater and this is in a large part due to IBs. It is annoying to the large companies who spend millions each year placing their brand only to find that the best scores for their whisky go to a cask bottled by an IB or a really bad cask gets out there and affects the reputation.

St Magdalene Distillery, Linlithgow closed 1983
(To buy bottles of St Magdalene click here)
I personally can't see this availability from IBs continuing. For one, very good reason, certain stocks will simply no longer be available. In the next few years we will see the last of Port Ellen, Brora, St Magdalene, Rosebank, Glen Mhor, Littlemill etc etc. The total number of distilleries with whisky available is going to get considerably smaller (about 80-ish). Of those, certain distilleries never release casks; Oban, Lagavulin, Talisker, Springbank, Glenmorangie, Ardbeg etc. (In some of these cases it is simply because they can sell, usually as a single malt, all they can make and therefore have no need to sell or swap casks).

Distillers are also now protecting brands that were otherwise quite readily available. Whiskies like Aberlour, Glenlivet, Benromach, Bruichladdich & Macallan are going to become quite scarce and command a hefty premium.

So how many distilleries does that leave the IBs for the future? Hard to say, but I would guess in the region of 40. Sounds like a lot, but it isn't. In my 10 years working for IBs (including my own company) I estimate that I have bottled whisky from nearly 100 different distilleries, narrowing the choice down to 40 will make a huge impact on the longevity of IBs.

I don't want to end on a complete downer though. I think the IBs have a hugely important part to play and a part I wish the distillers would pay heed to. Take Amrut Distillery, makers of probably the finest Indian whisky there is. Until Blackadder bottled one of their casks (specifically chosen by Robin Tucek who has at least 20 years experience in picking single casks) which was given exceedingly high praise and marks from the Malt Maniacs no-one had really heard of them. Now they are on everyone's lips. (

Ardbeg, silent for a number of years, was almost completely written off had it not been for the slow but steady stream of casks bottled by the IBs. Once it had re-opened by Macdonald & Muir it was and is a huge success - thanks to the continued interest made possible by IBs. What was the thanks the IBs got - availability of casks was taken away.

The IBs have their fingers on the pulse of the malt whisky zealot; they can bottle casks of whisky that leave big distillers scratching their heads, whilst the malt drinker purrs in delight. I will relate a small story of this; I was invited on the Malts Advocate Course at Royal Lochnagar. We tasted a few casks that were deemed unbottleable. One of them was an ex-Sherry butt and it was superb. To the large distiller though, it was not within their peramaters of acceptability - didn't fit in their 'recipe'. To me, a malt drinker, it was pure heaven. Some of the so-called 'off-notes' were what made it different and exciting.

IBs are also the main draw for regular festival-goers. Imagine a whisky festival without IBs - dull thought isn't it! Imagine the Malt Maniac Awards withouth IBs - very dull. Grain whisky would still be completely ignored if it wasn't for IBs (and you have to include Compass Box in this as they are also an IB). IBs spread the word, keep interest alive, bottle small quantities for clubs, societies, fairs, charities etc (try and get Diageo to bottle 100 bottles for your next whisky festival?!).

Until the distillers realise this and allow greater access to whisky (rather than a select and priveleged few) the future for IBs is certainly murky and I hope you will agree that the whisky world will be much less interesting without Independent Bottlers.

I'm currently drinking:

...actually, nothing, I'm giving my body a rest after some over-indulgence recently.

I'm currently reading:

You're either a fan or you're not. Later on in the month I'll be writing a blog on why I am such a fan of Stephen Fry. Early days in the book but so far loving it.