BenRiach seeks global blended brand with view to more growth

WHISKY distiller BenRiach is on the hunt to buy a blended brand with international credentials as part of plans to expand its business.

Managing director Billy Walker said he was looking for a brand that was no longer a focus for one of the major international whisky producers.

But the brand would need to sell well in one of the company's target regions - such as the Far East or Eastern Europe - to be attractive, he said.

Walker, the former operations director at Burn Stewart Distillers, bought the BenRiach distillery near Elgin from French drinks giant Pernod Ricard in 2004, adding the GlenDronach site near Huntly from the same vendor in 2008.

Later this month Walker will complete a third deal with the French firm to buy its bottling plant at Newbridge, in Midlothian, which will be used to expand production of the single malts from his two distilleries.

About 41 staff will be employed at the bottling plant, taking BenRiach's headcount to about 75. The remaining Newbridge staff will be redeployed by Pernod Ricard.

Walker told Scotland on Sunday: "If a brand comes up that we still believe has heritage and has legs then we will buy it.

"With the big drinks companies focusing more and more on their core brands, I believe there are opportunities with some of the smaller brands, which are very popular in key markets overseas."

Having built the business on malts, Walker said his company's expansion needed to include blended whiskies, which account for about 85 per cent of whisky production by value compared with malts' 15 per cent.

Clan Murray, the firm's existing blend, is selling well in Africa, Walker said, and the new bottling facility would allow him to expand production.

BenRiach has signed contracts with Pernod Ricard to carry on bottling some of the French firm's whiskies at Newbridge.

The acquisition is expected to take turnover from 6 million to 19m this year and Walker said he was confident that the plant would add to profitability as well.

BenRiach has focused on a core range of single malts from its two distilleries alongside a series of limited edition bottling, which have appealed to connoisseurs.

The firm has avoided listing its products in multiple retailers such as Asda and Tesco, instead favouring whisky shops and Oddbins to keep prices and profit margins at workable levels.

Some 95 per cent of the company's sales come from exports, with Sweden, Germany, Taiwan and the United States among its key markets. The company has used a similar model for both UK and overseas sales, targeting independent retailers rather than multiples.

"Countries like Poland are great because the big German and Scandinavian multiple retailers haven't got a big hold over the market yet," said Walker. "We can work with independent wholesale distributors instead." He highlights the Ukraine as a growing market, which would complement his whiskies' popularity in other former Soviet states, including Kazakhstan and Russia itself.

Walker is also keeping his eyes open for a third distillery.

"If you look at our range now then we're obviously missing an Islay whisky," he said pointing to BenRiach's Speyside classification and GlenDronach's Highland pedigree. In the short term, I can't see a distillery on Islay coming up for sale but you never know. We would look elsewhere too. The big companies can only really dedicate time and effort to promoting three or four single malt brands really well and so that presents opportunities for the rest of us."

Yet any hit list of potential acquisitions would have to meet a strict set of requirements for Walker to part with his cash.

"The site would have to be an interesting distillery and would have to have an interesting heritage," he said.

"But what's most important is the stock - if it doesn't have the right stock then we wouldn't be interested."

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