Sunday, March 3, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

History Tasting

History Tasting Pt. 5 – Post-War Rebuild

Whisky: Tormore Distillery Reserve Collection. 16 yrs

  1. For our purposes we can forget about the Second World War – the industry went to sleep. With food shortages all the barley produced was diverted to animal feed or making beer. By government order
  2. A degree of government control continued after the war. Production resumed but sales had to be directed at exports to hard currency areas. This probably had a long term effect of increasing the importance of the American market.
  3. It took until 1948  for output to exceeded the inter war average. Capacity was increased by reopening closed distilleries: Tamdhu in 1947, Blair Athol in 1949.  By 1953 all government controls had ended and the industry could go its own way.
  4. There was a lot of pent up demand and more new building, especially in the 60s. What was the first new distillery to be built since Glen Elgin? Good question. Tullibardine was built in 1947 but it was converted from a brewery. Glen Keith was built in 1957 but that was converted from a mill. However Tormore, finished in 1959, was the first  to be built from scratch,  on a greenfield site.  Not only that it was an architectural statement designed by someone moderately famous, who had once been the President of the Royal Academy – Sir Albert Richardson
  5. Tormore is a very striking building and you cannot but be impressed when you pass in on the A95. With walls a mixture of granite and white render, copper roof, splendid chimney, and ornamental clock, it has a grandeur like no other distillery. It reminds me of an Alpine power station
  6. I could bore you for hours talking about all the remarkable people responsible for this building but I there is no time. I will though say a few words about the owner – Lewis Rosenstiel because one of the the stories of the era is the influx of American money and the ownership of Scotch whisky becoming internationalised.
  7. Whisky is not immune to what happens in the outside world. In this case there was a nation emerging from a devastating war, broke and in need of repair. Investment was needed from elsewhere. The USA had a prosperous economy and great thirst for Scotch. The expansion of their drinks companies was almost inevitable.
  1. Hiram Walker had come just before the war, built a grain distillery at Dumbarton and purchased Ballantine’s. But the most significant post-war arrival was Sam Bronfman’s Seagrams Corporation. They bought Chivas Brothers in 1949 and then the Strathisla distillery, this was followed by the  building of Glen Keith and then the purchase of the Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Longmorn company. In spite of what the marketing men try to tell you, when they spin you a yarn about heritage,  Chivas Regal was Sam Bronfman’s creation, initially made for the American market.
  2. Tormore was built by Sam Bronfman’s great rival Lewis Rosenstiel, who controlled Schenley Industries – they hated each other . Both had explosive tempers that could be ignited at the merest mention of the others name. Their rage was so ferocious  it could damage furniture.
  3. 10.Sam bought into Scotland in 1949, Lewis bought Seagar and Evans in 1956. Glen Keith was built in 1957, Tormore completed in 1959 but as an edge to their rivalry he made it a statement building
  4. 11.There are plenty of stories to tell about Lewis Rosenstiel – how he was close to the gangsters, particularly Meyer Lansky, during Prohibition; how he managed to put Congressmen in his pocket so laws could be changed for his benefit; about a closeness to J. Edgar Hoover; and also his paranoia. (He once arranged for the announcement of his death to a group of executives so he could overhear their reactions).  I think he was a psychopath.
  5. 12. So at the time Scotland was host to two companies headed by caricatures of domineering, American tycoons. But the companies built by dominant characters don’t tend to last long after they are gone. Schenley was sold to a financier in 1968 and then in the 80s to Guiness, Seagram fulfilled Sam Bronfman’s great fear of going from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations. The company was ruined by his grandson whose big ambition was to be a media mogul.  The drinks division was sold, mostly to Pernod Ricard in 2000. The American presence in Scotland today has been reduced to one company: Brown Foreman who own three distilleries.
  6. 13. Big business eh?
  7. 14. But if companies don’t last forever neither do booms.  And so it happened in the 80s.  Tastes changed. Brown spirits were associated with fusty middle aged men – the old guard. White spirits became fashionable and demand for whisky fell, especially in America.
  8. 15. After the EU had created a butter mountain, then a wine lake, Scotland created a whisky loch and once more distilleries were being closed.
  9. 16.We are back to the end of the nineteenth century. And just like the end of the nineteenth century there was a financial scandal that ended with  jail sentences for fraud. This time it was not the straightforward business fraud of the Pattinsons, leaving a trail of unpaid debts and vulnerable businesses. It was market manipulation during a takeover battle.
  10. 17. DCL – the behemoth that dominated the industry had grown old and far too establishment; far too concerned with its box at Ascot. It had lost its dynamism and in the 70s it had been weakened by the thalidomide scandal (it was the UK agent for the drug). James Gulliver of Argyll Foods saw it as a company with more potential than its stock market valuation and put in a bid. DCL was now in play and the momentum in the markets that meant it would be unable to survive in its old form. Guiness had its own ambitions for whisky, having just purchased Arthur Bell, and made a counter bid. There was an unholy, messy battle, which Guiness eventually won but part of their offer was in shares.  Not unusual, except Guiness had artificially inflated the value of those shares by incentivising a group of investors to buy them. Low, underhand tactics.
  11. 18.That would probably been that if it hadn’t been for a tip-off from a Wall Street financier, himself under investigation for shady dealing.  This then led to an investigation and the first big case for the Serious Fraud Office, which had only just been established. The trial lasted 113 days and was big news. Four people, including the chief executive of Guiness, Ernest Saunders, were found guilty and jailed.
  12. 19. Nevertheless Guiness took over DCL to form United Distillers,  a company that later merged with Grand Metropolitan to become the present day Diageo. But DCL had been registered in Scotland, Diageo in London. The ownership of distilleries was moving away from Scotland.
  13. 20. Let’s now go back to the whisky. Tormore is another of those distilleries that has been primarily used as a workhorse for blends. An occasional attempt at a single malt has been made but nothing has stuck. In the future this will change. It has been bought by Elixir Distillers – a company owned by the founder of the Whisky Exchange, and a company focussed on characterful single malts. It will obviously take time before we have a clear picture of their plans  but it wont be anything less than interesting.
  14. The bottling you have comes from a distillery series from the old owners, Pernod Ricard.  It is at cask strength and gives a good indication of the distillery’s character 

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