For sale: Drambuie the iconic Scottish liqueur

ITS recipe was gifted to a clan chief by Bonnie Prince Charlie as a reward for helping him while he was on the run after defeat at the Battle of Culloden.
A delivery van keeps Drambuie supplies running in 1958A delivery van keeps Drambuie supplies running in 1958
A delivery van keeps Drambuie supplies running in 1958

Now Scottish liqueur brand Drambuie is to be sold by the family who have owned it for 100 years.

The MacKinnons, who have owned the rights to the beverage since 1914, have put it up for sale in a move that will see them cash in on the growing global demand for heritage brands and the burgeoning popularity of whisky-based cocktails.

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The recipe for the drink, which is made from a blend of whisky, honey, herbs and spices, has remained a closely guarded secret for years and, it is claimed, is known only to a single female member of the family.

Drinks experts said the sale could see Glasgow-based Drambuie snapped up by one of the major global drinks companies such as Diageo or Pernod Ricard. However, it is expected that at least part of the company, which employs 21 staff, will remain north of the Border.

According to analysts’ recent estimates, the company has a market value of £100 million.

Drambuie has seen a major turnaround in its fortunes in recent years, after the family-owned business brought in external management to rejuvenate the brand three years ago.

Its sale would follow the recent £430 million acquisition of Glasgow-based Scotch whisky brand Whyte & Mackay by Emperador, the Philippines-based brandy group.

“It would seem that the family have now taken the view that having turned the company into a much better position, there would be a lot of interest, so it would be a good time to sell,” Alan Gray, a whisky analyst at Sutherland’s in Edinburgh, said.

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“Some of the big companies such as Diageo do not have a great number of liqueur brands, especially whisky-based liqueurs ,and, with their wide distribution networks, they could open up the market for Drambuie quite significantly.”

He added: “Depending on who buys it, they could keep some of the operations here in Scotland, but it is quite likely that it could be moved elsewhere, which would be a shame for a brand with such a great Scottish heritage.”

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It was confirmed to The Scotsman that the sale is in its early stages. The MacKinnon family declined to comment.

The drink is believed to have been handed to Captain John MacKinnon by Bonnie Prince Charlie for helping him escape to the Isle of Skye, after defeat at the Battle of Culloden had ended his hopes of restoring the Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain.

In 1873, the recipe was passed on to John Ross, of the Broadford Hotel on Skye, who started making it to serve in his hotel.

Customers who tasted it commented in Gaelic that it was “an dram buidheach” – “the drink that satisfies” – which was later shortened to Drambuie.

In 1900, Malcolm MacKinnon – an ancestor of the current owner, but no relation to the Clan MacKinnon family who were originally gifted the recipe – travelled from Skye to Edinburgh to work in the wines and spirits business.

He recognised the opportunity that the liqueur offered and in 1909 produced Drambuie for the first time on the Scottish mainland, paying a royalty to the widow of James Ross, John’s son. He bought the recipe five years later and established the Drambuie Liqueur Company.

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Popular in Britain and Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Drambuie also gained notoriety in the US, when it became a regular tipple at the speakseasies of the east coast during the prohibition years.

The mix of Drambuie and the harsh American prohibition spirits became the forerunner to the famous Rusty Nail cocktail, which mixes Drambuie with Scotch whisky and was the 1950s signature cocktail of “Rat Pack” singers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis jnr.

Drambuie also became the first liqueur to be introduced to the House of Lords in 1916.