INDUSTRY INSIDER: BILLY WALKER
In celebration of the scenic route
From dreaming of becoming a professional footballer to graduating as a chemist, Billy Walker’s life has taken some unexpected twists and turns. He joined the Society’s ambassador Jenna Elie for a chat to reflect on his lifetime in whisky, his purchase of BenRiach, his most recent role with GlenAllachie distillery and why he’s happy not to jump on the express train
I went to Glasgow University and studied chemistry, focusing on organic chemistry, but it’s important to know that I was brought up in a whisky town. I was educated and brought up in Dumbarton, which was then home to Ballantine's Scotch whisky.
They have, of course, their grain distillery there and a couple of Lowland distilleries, Lomond and Inverleven. So there was a whisky presence in the town, and almost everybody in the town was affected by whisky.
It wasn't my initial intention to enter that industry, although it was always in the back of my mind that there would be an opportunity.
In 1967 I joined a pharmaceutical company, but then the opportunity came to join Ballantine’s in Dumbarton and, let's just say, I wasn’t slow to seize the opportunity.
I became involved in almost all aspects of the industry, fermentation and both malting and distillation, blending, the chemistry of that, the analytical side of it, even the bottling and the warehousing.
And they gave me a fantastic opportunity. Then Inver House Distillers came calling. I was with them as a master blender for six years, and they offered enormous opportunities to experiment, push the envelope back a little bit.
From there I moved to a very small company called Burn Stewart, who had very few facilities, but they had very, very clever minds. They understood the dynamics of the industry, and eventually we had a management buyout of the business, and that allowed us to buy the Deanston and Tobermory distilleries, both of which we had to recommission.
Certainly, Deanston had to be recommissioned; we acquired that from the old Invergordon company. And Tobermory was an acquisition from a private investor, but the distillery had been closed for a couple of years, so we’d quite a lot of work to do on it. And again, it was a great time. The excitement of resurrecting distilleries, that in the eyes of the then owners had no future, was terrific. And it’s nice to see now that they are in safe hands and doing very well.
I was with Burn Stewart for about 20 years, and eventually we sold the company. I had a year where I reflected on what to do next. I had two partners, Geoff Bell and Wayne Kieswetter, and we decided to buy a distillery, we thought it was a good time. And it’s interesting that when we were buying, in 2004, there were something like 20 mothballed or closed distilleries.
So we had a conversation with Chivas Pernod, and they were quite sympathetic to the idea. And we acquired BenRiach with, I have to say, some fantastically interesting inventory, and spent a lot of time becoming familiar with the personality of BenRiach, and then recognising in our own mind what it was we wanted to do, the direction we wanted to take it in, and the personality we wanted to evolve from what we were doing. The boutique single malt part of the whisky industry was also beginning to find its own dynamic, and in many ways we were fortunate.
We were in at the right time, and BenRiach was doing pretty well. And then the opportunity to buy GlenDronach came up. The distillery was closed, I think, between 1996 and 2002, so there was an inventory challenge in managing that, in managing that gap. We didn’t see that as a problem, we just saw it as an opportunity to be flexible and work our way around it.
I was familiar with GlenDronach, and it did have a presence and a personality; we didn't need to work at understanding who GlenDronach was and who it should be.
We had some work to do, though. The inventory was not consistent with the kind of plan we had, the personality and the DNA we wanted to build up for it.
We wanted to bring it back to this significantly sherried style of whisky, with a big impact from the sherry maturation. And over the period 2008-2016, we absolutely focused on that. And we took it to a point where it was beginning to be quite successful, I think, and popular.
And people liked the style of the whisky. But it didn’t come by accident, we spent a lot of time, spent a lot of work re-racking and following the development of the maturation process to ensure that we truly understood what was happening between this rich spirit and a rich style of wood.
TO THE COAST
In the meantime, another distillery had come up, Glenglassaugh, and we were really, really keen to get it – the location is beyond spectacular, it’s amazing. It had been in the stewardship of the Edrington Group and then purchased by some Russians, and we were lucky enough to convince the Russians to sell to us. So we bought Glenglassaugh in 2013 and we had a plan for a different style of spirit, a coastal spirit. All of the maturation was done on site, as it was in all of our distilleries. So the expectation was that the microclimate was going to be interesting, and deliver some interesting, evolving and maturing spirit.
As it turned out, we had laid some wonderful foundations in terms of styles of wood that we were encouraging the spirit into. The one thing we've learned, the one certainty, is that if you make good spirit, and you put it into good wood, you have a real chance of something evolving that is going to be at least good, and hopefully, if you handle it properly, and you follow the development and you understand where the sweet spots are, it will be better than very good, it will be spectacular.
And that really is the prize for us. In the case of all of the distilleries that we’ve interfaced with, BenRiach was a lighter spirit, GlenDronach was a bold spirit, and Glenglassaugh was classically a kind of in-between maritime-located spirit.
THE LATEST CHALLENGE
When we passed on the ownership of BenRiach, Glenglassaugh and GlenDronach to Brown-Forman, we were confronted with a need to do something.
So, again, I had a conversation with the people who are my team, and we are a team, it's not just Billy Walker, it’s Trish Savage, Alan Gilchrist, John Watts and David Keir. And that’s when GlenAllachie became a possibility.
From a blending point of view, I was very familiar with GlenAllachie. I knew it was not a shy spirit; it was quite a full-bodied muscular spirit.
BELOW: The GlenAllachie team
ABOVE: Trish Savage at GlenAllachie
So for me that was ideal, because what we wanted to do was to get a distillery and a brand that was totally unexposed to the market. The other plus was that I was familiar with the liquid and I knew exactly the kind of development we wanted and the journey we wanted to go on, and where we wanted to take it.
We had a blank sheet of paper, and our intention was of course to look at the entity, check it out, and be comfortable with it, and then to get it into the right style of wood. In this case, we are very keen that GlenAllachie is showcased as a brand that is spending a lot of time in sherry wood. And in many ways, that’s where the journey’s taken us.
AN ONGOING JOURNEY
We’re now almost three years into ownership and we’ve done a lot of really interesting experiences between the spirit and different styles of wood. We’re happy with where we are today, but the journey isn’t over. First of all, you buy a ticket to get on the train. You’re never sure if it’s the express train or the scenic route. But it’s likely that it’s never the express train, it’s always going to be the scenic route. I think we’ve got the inventory, the GlenAllachie inventory, about 90 per cent of where we want it to be. The next 10 per cent is a challenge, but we’re very happy and proud to have got where we are today. And as I say, the journey will continue. Our ultimate objective is for GlenAllachie to become the best single malt in Speyside. Now, there's the challenge.