Scotland's great whisky distilleries are often at the whim of changing tastes, and not all of them survive. Tax hikes, prohibitions, wars, fires, oversupply and mismanagement can put an end to even the most established distillery.
A similar fate could have befallen the Bladnoch Distillery, Scotland's most southerly outpost, when bitter disagreements between its Northern Irish owners ended in a court-ordered closure of the business in 2014. But as there were no financial difficulties associated with the closure, investors around the world saw an incredible opportunity to snap up one of Scotland's oldest working distilleries.
Enter Australian businessman David Prior. This week it was announced that the Melbourne-based entrepreneur purchased the Bladnoch Distillery for an undisclosed figure with the intention of investing substantially in the site and resuscitating the Bladnoch single malt brand.
The purchase signals quite a shift for Prior. Only a year ago he sold five:am – an organic yoghurt business he founded with $4 million in 2009 – to a large UK-based consumer products company for $80 million.
But it was a passion for whisky and a strong business case that attracted him to this unique project. "If you're going to devote most of your waking hours to a business, then you want to be sure it's a good one," Prior says. "And for me personally, the Scotch category definitely ticks all the boxes."
Your chances of finding an active distillery with all its history and provenance in place are incredibly rare.David Prior
Playing with the big boys
While there's a little over 100 operating distilleries in Scotland, only half a dozen are independently owned. Multinationals have long dominated the space, purchasing and offloading distilleries through mergers and acquisitions, or closing them if a buyer can't be found for what are capital-intensive operations.
Prior says he feels incredibly lucky to have acquired the distillery in this environment, especially when the whisky industry is experiencing consistent rates of growth. "Your chances of finding an active distillery with all its history and provenance in place are incredibly rare, so we're very lucky that we had this opportunity come up at the right time."
The opportunity doubly appealed because of Prior's long-held love of whisky and building brands. "I've always been a whisky drinker since I was allowed to drink - and maybe a touch before - and my love of brands pushes me into more consumer-type industries where there's often room for innovation."
In with the new
When asked about the challenge of working with an existing brand, Prior says that he's intent on preserving the history of the near 200-year-old distillery, while moving it into the future. "We'll very much be honouring the Bladnoch brand, but we'll definitely be bringing our own flavour and edge to it as well."
A new look Bladnoch single malt will be re-launched by the end of this year from the inventory of casks maturing at the distillery. A blended Scotch whisky, sourced from multiple Scottish distilleries, will also be released before the year's end, which will allow the company to target a new customer.
"I've seen a lot of younger consumers coming into the market over the past five years. So the blended product is going to be a much more accessible tasting blended Scotch whisky to engage that market," Prior says.
The spirit of the Lowlands
Blended whisky has long been a feature of the Lowlands region where the Bladnoch Distillery is located. The population centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh also fall within the region, where a lighter, dryer style of whisky is what consumers most enjoy.
Prior's own tastes lean towards lighter styles, making his purchase of the Bladnoch Distillery all the sweeter. He's also confident that the blended whisky category, which he thinks has been somewhat neglected in recent times, has a particularly promising future.
"If you talk to my executive chairman, Gavin Hewitt, who was head of the Scotch Whisky Association for the last decade, he says the whole art of Scotch whisky production lies within blending. Single malts are fantastic, but there's absolutely a place for both styles, and I'm certainly not one who buys into the argument that one is better than the other."
By releasing both a blend and a single malt, Prior's Bladnoch Distillery Limited company will effectively bypass the argument by setting a foot in both camps. It's a sound strategy, and it'll be fascinating to see how the whole enterprise matures.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment.