Obituary: Charles Craig, distiller

Charles Craig. Picture: Contributed

Charles Craig. Picture: Contributed

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Born: 4 October, 1923, in London. Died: 28 July, 2013 in Surrey, aged 89.

Charles Craig was first introduced to the notion of the water of life more by accident than design.

As a teenager during the Second World War, he had volunteered for the Royal Signals and ended up billeted in Glendullan Distillery at Dufftown. There, he was allocated sleeping quarters in a steep, a receptacle normally used for soaking barley during malting.

His view at the time is unrecorded, but whatever the opinion of his unorthodox bed, it proved to be a seminal moment in his life. Later, he would become a wine and spirit sales clerk and go on to chair Invergordon Distillers, ultimately co-orchestrating a management buy-out before writing the industry’s history bible covering 500 years of the whisky business.

Born in Battersea, London, his was an unconventional childhood: after his mother died of tuberculosis when he was six months old, his father vanished to the US and he was raised by his grandmother, who educated him at home. He began his working life at 14 on a bike as a delivery boy for a printing firm in Rye in Sussex, moving on as an office boy for solicitors before going to Fleet Street law book publishers Sweet and Maxwell, where he graduated to a box trike and earned 25 shillings a week as a clerk.

During the early years of the war he was a full-time air raid warden in Richmond, Surrey where he met his future wife, Audrey, whose father ran the local ARP warden post.

But by May 1942, and still only 18, he had enlisted as a volunteer and joined the Royal Corps of Signals. He trained for the next six months before being posted to 80th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, attached to the 52nd Lowland Division whose divisional headquarters were at Aberlour on Speyside, in the heart of whisky country. Glendullan, like many distilleries, was closed during the war due to a lack of barley, and took on a new role as a billet.

After two years of training and signalling as part of the pre-Normandy deception plan Fortitude North – designed to mislead the Germans that Norway was under threat – and in the aftermath of D-Day, the 52nd Lowland Division moved into the Low Countries in the autumn of 1944.

Their task was to help clear the strategically important Scheldt Estuary that led to the port of Antwerp. This was to be the supply route for Allied forced in north-west Europe and was seen to be key to victory.

From there he pushed up through Holland and Germany to the Rhine, via the northern fringes of the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in the bitterly cold winter of 1944-45.

In March 1945 he passed a War Office selection board as an officer cadet and three months later married Audrey. He was commissioned into the Highland Light Infantry that October and posted to the Royal West African Frontier Force in Sierra Leone in February 1946.

Although not officially demobbed until 1948, he had so much extended leave that he was able to start work in October 1947 as a wine and spirit sales clerk at Woodheads Brewery in South London. A few years later, he took a post as assistant manager at Charrington Brewery’s wine and spirit subsidiary, Marshall Taplow Ltd, where he trained in the manufacturing and blending of rum, gin and whisky.

He had rarely drunk as a young man but now found himself handling many major whisky brands, including Mountain Music and Crown Vat, and lecturing on the subject for The Scotch Whisky Association. He continued to be based in London, making his first sales trip to the US in 1960, and becoming a director of Marshall Taplow two years later. In 1964 he was president of the City of London Licensed Victuallers and became a Freeman of the City.

His move to Scotland came three years later, when he applied for the job of managing director of Invergordon Distillers Ltd, a poorly performing subsidiary of London Merchant Securities. Based in Glasgow, he worked with the talented production manager, Dr Chris Greig, and together with their team they turned the business around, acquiring other distilleries including Bruichladdich, Jura, Tullibardine and Deanston.

By 1978, when the company was acquired by the Hawker Siddeley group, Invergordon was the sixth-largest blended Scotch whisky business in the world. However, under the new owners, Craig found his previous free rein somewhat curtailed. In 1983, and on the verge of 60, he retired and became part-time chairman of Invergordon.

He and Audrey, who had three children, then moved to Colchester, where he helped out with their son Nigel’s bookshop.

Never fully retired though, in 1988, three years after Invergordon took over Charles Mackinlay Ltd, he and Dr Greig led a management buy-out, borrowing more than £90 million to complete the deal and take the company off the Stock Exchange.

Craig personally insisted that everyone with more than two years’ service could have shares, and 18 months later the company was re-floated.

He retired as chairman in 1991 and within a few months Whyte & MacKay launched a bid for the company, a takeover that was eventually completed in 
November 1993 for a reported £382 million.

Having properly retired, he then had the chance to combine his interest in both history and industry, writing The Scotch Whisky Industry Record, the
definitive account of the whisky industry’s development from 1494-1993. A former treasurer of the Scotch Whisky Association for many years and a director and supporter of the Scotch Whisky Heritage Society, he already had a lifetime of experience in the business and was assisted in his task by all the industry giants who loaned him their records to pore over. The tome, sponsored by the industry, was published in 1994, making more than £50,000 profit for Macmillan Nurses and Save The Children.

More than a decade earlier he had also written Glenpatrick House, Elderslie: The Story of an Unsuccessful Distillery, a book about the home he shared with his wife and three children, a property he had bought completely unaware that it was formerly Gleniffer Distillery. Latterly he and Audrey lived in Great Bookham, and a few years after her death in 2005 he moved to Weybridge, where his fridge was always stocked with a supply of Highland Spring water to accompany his selection of whiskies.

A generous host and always good company, he was a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, could quote the literary nonsense of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear and was fond of a funny self-deprecating tale. Queries about his health would regularly elicit the response: “Bearing up under the unequal struggle” – accompanied by a wicked grin.

He is survived by his children Michael, Nigel and Alison, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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