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Who will buy Cutty Sark and Glenturret from Edrington? - Comment

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The opportunity to acquire an established, well-known Scotch whisky brand doesn't come along very often. So, you'll forgive our brown spirits commentator, Neil Ridley for being a bit excited right now.

Shortly after opening its futuristic distillery for The Macallan earlier this year, Edrington put the Cutty Sark and Glenturret brands up for sale

Shortly after opening its futuristic distillery for The Macallan earlier this year, Edrington put the Cutty Sark and Glenturret brands up for sale

When I saw the news last month that Edrington had decided to part company with two brands in its Scotch whisky portfolio - the Cutty Sark blend and single malt Glenturret - I can't say I was remotely surprised. I did, however, feel a tinge of disappointment about the move, particularly the group's plan to sell Cutty.

Dating back to 1923, Cutty Sark was, in many ways, way ahead of its time. Here was a blend that, under the direction of wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd, approached the palate of the whisky drinker in a totally different way to other, broader-shouldered whiskies of the time. The brand was developed to be lighter in style, delicate almost, and, most importantly, to be mixed, so as not to overpower the senses before dinner. It was a whisky for a new generation; an aperitif spirit, which rather like its namesake logo, represented the changing times, ushering in the golden age of Art Deco cocktails, transatlantic travel and a spirit of modern glamour, not really seen or experienced at that point in Scotch.

Fast forward 95 years and, sadly, the glamour has all but faded. 

In some international markets, for example around Lat-Am, the Far East and in India, blended whisky is still a cool, youthful spirit; but not enough to reverse the significant downturn in the fortunes of the likes of Cutty. In the UK, not to mention in a key market like Spain, it is easy to argue that Scotch has lost a generation of potential blended whisky drinkers to gin.

Despite the obvious differences in colour, both spirits actually share a great deal in common: they are both blends of sorts, bringing together an array of different flavours, which is far greater than the sum of its parts. However, the language surrounding Scotch and the perceived parochial barriers to entry (the unwritten rules which still make Scotch a frustrating beast for so many) have seen the two sprints veer off in opposite directions.

Alas, Cutty no longer feels like the forward-thinking, pioneering spirit setting its course towards uncharted territory. During the later years of its custodianship, Edrington didn't really deliver anything genuinely innovative (except, perhaps, its marvellously-drinkable grain whisky-heavy Prohibition edition, or an all too short-lived exploration into the gin market with Anchor Gin, which used botanicals originally transported by the famous tea clipper,) merely keeping the life support system turned on. 

The truth is that the blended whisky world now covets brands like Compass Box and Monkey Shoulder, not the likes of Cutty and J&B. Whoever the new buyer may be (I suspect it will be an independent company, looking to leverage some of the existing bottling and distribution agreements in place, as well as plumping up the case sales on its balance sheet) it will certainly have its work cut out to reverse Cutty's fortunes.

With Glenturret, I have mixed emotions. On face value, to put not only the brand up for sale but also the actual distillery seems like a completely absurd decision.

Glenturret is one of, if not the oldest-working whisky distillery in Scotland, drenched in provenance, the likes of which newer whisky brands can only dream about. The facility is set in a location easily accessible for international tourists, also being the home for The Famous Grouse Experience, which helped deliver 80,000 visitors through the distillery gates last year. Quite how Edrington expects to extricate and re-home Grouse's visitors' centre (if it can be bothered) is another question, given that the blend doesn't appear to be for sale.

Granted, Glenturret is not a 'top-tier' marque distillery like The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenmorangie or Dalmore. But, what's to stop it graduating into the Big Boy's Club further down the line? I'm reminded of what Scotch whisky entrepreneur Billy Walker and his consortium of financial backers did when they purchased GlenDronach, GlenGlassaugh and BenRiach over a decade ago, turning their fortunes around, before selling the trio of distilleries and brands to Brown-Forman in 2016 for just under US$415m.

Could the same thing happen with Glenturret? Why on earth not?

Every so often over the past couple of years, I have received emails or phone calls from investment companies acting on behalf of overseas interests or wealthy families looking to buy their way into Scotch. Some just want aged stock, others want the whole shebang, distillery cat and all. It's not very often that somewhere like a Glenturret comes up for sale, (hell, it even has a statue honouring its famously ancient mouser, Towser). I would expect the interest in Glenturret from overseas, particularly China and Japan, to be serious. 

It's difficult to find fault in Edrington's development of The Macallan and Highland Park. Both brands are in growth financially (by 7% and 15%, respectively, according to figures for the 12 months to the end of March) thanks to smart investment and innovative products. Focusing more attention and marketing spend on the pair is clearly very sensible. However, by concentrating only on the luxury, premium sector, has the group sealed the fate for the rest of the 'fighting end' of its portfolio, which includes The Famous Grouse?

It also makes me wonder what will become of The Glenrothes, another single malt in Edrington's arsenal. Hopefully, it won't be another casualty in the ever-shifting game of distillery musical chairs.

Click here for more commentary from brown spirits expert Neil Ridley


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