Father and Son. Billy Walker and Alistair Walker. Two generations working in the Scotch whisky industry and setting their own path as entrepreneurs. Combined they have a vast amount of experience across multiple companies, whisky distilleries and independent bottling in Scotland. They were kind enough to spare some time to chat with Inside the Cask.
Inside the Cask (to both): Hi Billy and Alistair, you worked together at both Burn Stewart Distillers and later at The BenRiach Distillery Co. prior to the business being sold to Brown-Forman in 2016. As a Father and Son, what is it like working in the same industry and at times, the same company together?
Alistair: Working together as father and son means the professional relationship is slightly more complex – we don’t exactly agree on everything! Although we are now in different companies, it’s good to still be working in the same industry – it means we still get a chance to talk shop over a glass of red wine or two.
Billy: Actually OK. Of course, there were some fractious moments, but that is normal. In the work environment, we were colleagues rather than father and son – no favours.
Inside the Cask (to both): You have both shown to have the entrepreneurial spirit, setting up your own businesses within the whisky industry. What is the motivation behind it?
Alistair: I had been at BenRiach for 12 years, and prior to that Burn Stewart for 6 years. After the BenRiach business was sold, and my part in that story came to an end, I had to decide what to do next. I didn’t want to leave the whisky industry, and of course I knew that Billy would re-emerge with a new distillery at some stage, so there would have been an option there. However, more and more I was gravitating towards the idea of setting up something on my own, from scratch. It seemed like a ‘now or never’ moment.
Billy: I suppose it has to do with drive and motivation: I recall a conversation with a really good industry friend, George Jenkins who was at the time the Financial Director of William Grant & Sons, who told me that I was “unemployable”.
Inside the Cask: Billy, you are originally from Dumbarton and joined Hiram Walker’s InverHouse as a distillery chemist at the age of 26. Could you ever have imagined yourself at that time with the career that you’ve had in the industry? What career path did you have in mind when you first came into the whisky industry?
Billy: No, I could not possibly have envisaged the events of the last 20 years, but sometimes the planets align and opportunities open up. It is interesting to recall that when we acquired BenRiach in 2004, it had been mothballed along with a significant number of other Malt Whisky Distilleries.
Indeed, I recall one of my peer’s in the industry saying I / we were mad to go down the road of acquiring a Distillery – how times have changed!
Inside the Cask: Alistair, since leaving The BenRiach Distillery Co., you have gone on to set up the independent bottler Alistair Walker Whisky Co. What is the premise of the business and what are you looking to offer? How are you looking to stand out in what is a crowded market place?
Alistair: The focus is on single cask bottlings, predominantly single malt Scotch whisky, with the occasional single grain. These are released under my Infrequent Flyers brand. Many of the distillery makes that I release are lesser known, which is where the name Infrequent Flyers comes from.
In an industry as old and established as the Scotch industry, and with pretty tight guidelines as to what you are allowed to do on the production and maturation side, it really is quite difficult to come up with a completely unique proposition that differentiates you from everyone else. So I haven’t tried to do that.
The focus is on quality. As an indie bottler you don’t have your own distillery with which to create a specific ‘house-style’ of product, so instead I want to ensure we are hitting a consistent level in terms of the quality of our releases, so that over time you develop a reputation that consumers trust, irrespective of which distilleries your latest releases come from.
The business at the moment is a very lean operation, with me being the sole employee. That means there is no pressure to achieve certain numbers in terms of volume or revenue, so you can be really particular about what you decide to bottle and when. I’m in no rush, and won’t bottle anything before I am happy with it.
We also have a really intensive re-rack programme, which is ongoing. Re-racking allows me to have some influence over the style of the whisky, and I’m working with a lot of different wood types – sherry, port, Madeira, virgin oak, etc. This is something we built a reputation for when I was at BenRiach, and is a part of the process that I find really interesting. Going forward, our release programme will be a balance between original casks and wood finishes / re-racks.
Inside the Cask (to both): When purchasing a Scotch whisky distillery or setting up as an independent bottler, access to the right inventory of casks is critical. How do you both assess the casks you find and is this something you can learn and/ or do you need to bring others to help? How difficult is it to get hold of great casks these days?
Alistair: Irrespective of whether you’re a distiller or an indie bottler, stock is all important. Everything revolves around the stock. I’m sure Billy would agree that this is one of the main reasons he has always gone down the road of buying existing distilleries that come with expansive inventories, rather than building a distillery from scratch. It allows you to hit the ground running. Of course the huge advantage distilleries have is that they make their own product, and so have control over volume, availability and cost. As an independent bottler, you have to source rather than produce, and therefore have no control over availability and cost.
It is of paramount important to evaluate the casks that you are buying. Fortunately, I’ve been around whisky professionally for the last 20 years or so, so I’ve sampled a few casks along the way!
It is definitely something you can learn, absolutely. Lots of practice helps! That said, a second opinion is always welcome, especially from an industry veteran, and I have on occasion put the odd sample in Billy’s direction to get his thoughts on it.
Speak to any independent bottler and they will tell you that availability of stock is one of their biggest challenges at the moment. As the single malt market has enjoyed a buoyant decade or so, liquid has become less freely available to independent bottlers, and prices have increased. If I had come to this new venture cold, with no previous experience of having worked in the industry, many doors would have remained closed to me. It is those relationships that you develop over time with industry colleagues that are important when it comes to sourcing stock.
Billy: Integral to the purchase of any distillery is the need to ensure that there is inventory included to fulfil the projected plans. It is equally important to ensure that this inventory is / has been in top class barrels since birth – this is quite an ask, and cannot always be achieved.
Once acquired the focus is on getting to understand the personality and DNA of the casks, and decide their direction of travel. In our case, we have used our own resource (me) to sample the inventory. Acquiring top end casks in the current climate is a challenge, but not impossible.
Inside the Cask (to both): Will you be collaborating in future on any projects?
Alistair: I do already have a working relationship with GlenAllachie – I do all of my re-racking at GlenAllachie, so the bulk of my casks end up getting moved to GlenAllachie at some stage. In terms of direct collaboration, maybe, anything is possible, let’s see what happens…
Billy: Yes, we will find ways to help each other.
Inside the Cask: Billy, how would you describe the GlenAllachie Distillery project? What are the ambitions for the brand and what makes it special? Can you tell us more about the blended products you are planning to bring back to market?
The GlenAllachie project is a long term journey. The acquisition of GlenAllachie ticked all the boxes:
- The brand had never been exposed to the market, so we were / are working with a blank canvas
- This gave us license to define / redefine the personality of the core range.
- It allowed us to engage with routes to market which we were both familiar and comfortable with: “The Private, Independent Importers, Distributors, Retailer Network”
We have great hopes and ambitions for the brand, all based on ensuring that quality is the most important driver of our journey. In terms of short – medium ambition, we are hopeful of achieving sales of 600K bottles by the end of 2023.
We are fortunate that we are blessed with an excellent inventory portfolio both in terms of Age Profile and volume. This has and will allow us to maintain the range of expressions which we have released / will release.
We were also fortunate to acquire as part of the deal, the following brands:
- White Heather Blended Scotch Whisky – We will relaunch this in early 2021 as a premium 21yo – we have great hopes for this release
- MacNairs Blended Malt Scotch Whisky – Launched in November 2018 with a NAS, 12yo and 21yo
Early next year, we will also launch MacNair’s Rum as a boutique rum(s) with a twist. Again, we have a real confidence in this opportunity
Inside the Cask (to both): You both studied at the University of Glasgow, how was your experience there, both academically and in terms of extra-curricular activities?
Alistair: I very much enjoyed my time at Glasgow – in spite of the fact that I was studying Mathematics! Glasgow is a fantastic institution, with great history, and it definitely had a special atmosphere, that feeling of tradition. It’s a real old-school university, and quite grand. My extra-curricular activities mostly consisted of visits to the pub, although I do remember a fantastic little record shop called Echo which was on Byres Road, near the Uni, where you could get some brilliant vinyl’s at ridiculously low prices. I lost quite a few hours (and pounds) in there! Sadly it doesn’t exist anymore. There were two student unions at Glasgow, the GUU and the Queen Margaret Union, and the GUU used to put on the most amazing Christmas party, called Daft Friday, which was tremendous fun – it was always the last Friday of term, and used to start at 8pm and run through to 8am the following morning. Not for the faint-hearted!
Billy: I loved my 4 years at Glasgow University, doing an honours degree in Chemistry. Fantastic campus and had a terrific time as a member of The University football team.
Inside the Cask (to both): What would be your advice for anyone else wanting to work in the drinks industry?
Alistair: It’s a great industry. I can only speak for the whisky sector, but the camaraderie between colleagues from different companies is incredible – and maybe quite unique to the Scotch industry.
I think that’s what keeps people in the category, it’s very sociable, and once you’re in, you rarely leave.
Billy: Great industry, competitive but friendly competition: international in every sense with some great opportunities.