Monday interview: Billy Walker, BenRiach distillery

The man with a mission to boldly take Scotch to places it hasn’t been before

Billy Walker eschewed retirement in favour of new challenges with the BenRiach Distillery Company
Billy Walker eschewed retirement in favour of new challenges with the BenRiach Distillery Company

IT DOESN’T take too long in the company of Billy Walker to discover that he lives and breathes whisky. But then his passion for Scotland’s national drink should come as no great surprise. Hailing from Dumbarton, a town that once boasted a string of distilleries, Walker has spent more than four decades in the industry. He is a master blender and a Master of the Quaich – the highest honour the Scotch whisky world can bestow.

This year sees him celebrate ten years at the helm of the BenRiach Distillery Company – now a mini-empire that ­encompasses the GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh labels, along with a bottling plant on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Further acquisitions have not been ruled out.

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Easily Scotland’s most famous export, Scotch is rapidly gaining new fans in emerging markets and Walker refers several times to a “golden age” for the sector. Recent figures from the Scotch Whisky Association showed overseas sales topped £4.3 billion last year – flat in value terms, but up 2.5 per cent to the equivalent of 1.23 billion bottles when measured by volume. Top-end single malts are leading the charge.

Walker, who is now in his late 60s, joined forces with two South African businessmen, Geoff Bell and Wayne Kieswetter, to acquire the mothballed BenRiach distillery, which is located in the industry’s Speyside heartland, in a deal worth about £5 million. He had been the operations director and a stakeholder in Burn Stewart, the then-listed East Kilbride distiller, when it was taken over by Trinidadian conglomerate CL Financial, but decided against an early retirement.

“It’s been a fascinating journey over the past ten years,” he reflects. “I’m not sure that when we bought the train ticket we quite knew where the destination was.

“We were lucky in getting into the industry at a very good time. The Grants, Edringtons and Diageos of this world have done a great deal for the industry. They have helped make Scotch the international drink of choice, which for a country of about five million people is really quite amazing.

“These big boys have hugely benefited the smaller independents. As my South African partner always reminds me the best place to be in a stampede is under the belly of the elephant,” he quips.

Production was resumed almost immediately at the Morayshire site and in September 2004 the first distillation under the new ownership was filled to cask. That success led to the purchase, four years later, of the Huntly-based GlenDronach distillery, described at the time by Walker as “a bit of a sleeping giant”. Last year Glenglassaugh, the renowned Highland single malt, was added to the portfolio.

BenRiach’s Newbridge facility offers five bottling lines including the country’s fastest miniature line. It has the capacity to produce two million cases per year for a number of spirits brands and can accommodate up to 150,000 cases in its bonded warehouse.

The whisky industry’s fortunes have always gone hand-in-hand with the strength of Scotland’s domestic economy. Past downturns have led to distilleries being mothballed, or closed for good, though these days it’s the wider global backdrop that matters, with “unprecedented” demand for high-end produce in territories as geographically diverse as Taiwan, South America and the Middle East buoying trade.

Likewise, many famous brands have passed through multiple owners. Most recently, Whyte & Mackay was bought from Indian drinks group United Spirits by Philippines-based Emperador for more than £400m. The Glasgow-based owner of the Fettercairn, Invergordon and Jura distilleries was put up for sale last year to appease competition regulators after Johnnie Walker parent company Diageo built up a stake of almost 28 per cent in United.

Diageo launched a £1.1 billion bid to take control of the Indian group as it seeks to grow its presence in the world’s largest market for whiskies of all description, not just Scotch.

Walker – who began his working life with a pharmaceutical company after graduating with a chemistry degree from Glasgow University – observes: “Clearly people want to be in this industry, though the opportunities are limited. The price of entry to the industry is also very high now. There is an ­opportunity to build from scratch but that takes a lot of patience.”

He adds: “I think we were very lucky that we started the journey at the time that we did. We are in a strong position now. If something else came along and proved to be the right fit with the business, then we would seek to acquire. But we are not going to diversify. I know nothing other than whisky.”

He is enthused by the potential for Glenglassaugh, bought from Russian owners. The most recent expression has been finished in wine barrels from the Russian wine estate that once belonged to the country’s tsar.

“It continues to be the preferred winery for the people who replaced the Russian royals,” notes Walker, who, in his mid-20s, joined InverHouse as a distillery chemist. “We’ve continued the Russian connection and grown it. We are doing our best to make Glenglassaugh a more interesting business model.”

Walker will talk privately about the forthcoming independence referendum and the “uncertainty” it has created. For the record he is content to simply note that “change means that you have to manage things differently”.

The life-long Rangers fan is eager to praise the support he has received from his business partners, saying: “They are terrific guys. They have a much bigger business portfolio in Africa, but have been very important in developing the business, both financially and in providing opportunities to grow.

“You look at the world and wonder where to go next and Africa certainly offers a great opportunity. South America is also an interesting market.

“The reality is that there is almost no country that you can’t export to, except perhaps for North Korea – though there are ways that whisky will find its way in there too.

“Taiwan is the number two market for GlenDronach, but there is still potential for growth in the likes of China, Hong Kong, Singapore. I sees it as our duty and responsibility to tap into all of these new markets.”

30-second CV

Job: Managing director and master blender, BenRiach distillery

Born: Dumbarton

Education: Dumbarton Academy, Glasgow University

First job: Pharmaceutical research chemist, Organon Labs

Ambition while at school: Professional footballer

Car you drive: A Freelander

Kindle or book? Book

Favourite music: Any

Favourite place: Cape Town

What makes you angry? Stupidity

Best thing about your job: It’s my hobby