Bruichladdich – Sold?

[The sale has now gone through – there’s an update at the bottom if you’re interested]

So, the buzz on the whisky interwubs over the last few days has been all about Bruichladdich (other than the potential for a Twitter organised cask-share, that is), ‘in negotiations’ to be bought by Rémy Cointreau. No numbers have been announced, other than The Scotsman saying that analysts had said that £25m ‘was a number’ (I paraphrase), but it looks like Mark Reynier and the other investors will be getting their money back, having spent somewhere between £5m and £10m on the distillery back in 2000.

However, rather than everyone slapping each other’s backs and doing the happy dance there’s a lot of downcast eyes, wailing, blatant and annoying metaphor, and gnashing of teeth. For why?

It comes down to a simple fact – Bruichladdich have sold out. The bastion of outspoken independence against the big boys of the industry has rolled over, eaten a giant money biscuit and fallen asleep behind the cupboard (I assume that is how dogs function, I had a cat as a child).

We believe that the Scotch whisky industry is turning out an increasingly bland, industrial product – for profit, not passion. The domination of global mega-corporations has led to homogeneity, predictability and the worship of the status quo… because at massive industrial scale, predictability equals profitability.

From the Bruichladdich website, retrieved 2012-07-11

Bruichladdich has a lot of fans and the independent nature of the distillery has been a big part of that. Unfortunately distillery boss Mark Reynier has made himself a self-appointed spearhead of the independent distillery movement and the move to sell to ‘a global mega-corporation’ is a bit of a kick in the teeth for those who have championed his corner. As such he’s been getting a bit of a kicking online, oftentimes a bit of revenge from some of the people who he’s called out.

I can see their point – many people have bought into his schtick, paid potentially over the odds to support the concept of an independent distillery and they now feel vaguely betrayed. I’m still trying to work out if it’s enough of a backlash to seriously impact post-sale turnover, although I assume that was all factored into the sale (and sale price). However, there’s a point that I’ve only seen pop up once so far – he’s not the only person involved in the decision.

There are, it seems, 60 shareholders and while I don’t know the voting structure that the company will have used for deciding whether to accept the offer I suspect it wasn’t a ‘What Mark says goes’. Having stated last year on John Hansell’s Whisky Advocate Blog that he wasn’t interested in selling the distillery and with more recent rumours that they were looking to sell independent bottler Murray McDavid instead to give them time to focus on the distillery, it could well be that he was outvoted. Then again, there have also been rumours that the distillery has been on the lookout for the right deal for a while so he may have run into Rémy’s arms at speed. It doesn’t matter though, as we don’t know and he is (quite rightly) keeping quiet, standing his ground and taking the flak that is being pinged in his direction for the apparent about face.

It’s especially sad to see him take the abuse and see the cries of “That’s the end of Bruichladdich!” as one of his tweets pretty clearly says that he won’t be involved in the future of the distillery, and by the sound of it not by his choice:

One other thing that hasn’t helped is a single tweet from the Bruichladdich twitter account that sums up why people are annoyed. Bruichladdich was made out to be doing what they did as a matter of principle, no matter the cost:

That’s not what you want to hear, even if it looks to be a very Reynier-like dig at John Hansell for selling Malt Advocate (the previous incarnation of Whisky Advocate) a year or so back. It’s even a bit poignant, as Hansell is still at the reins of Whisky Advocate even though he no longer owns it.

So, if the sale goes through (and I suspect we wouldn’t have heard about it if it wasn’t almost certain to do so) it looks like Jim McEwan, the distiller behind the distillery’s rebirth, will retire soon (with rumours already going around that he was going to do so anyway) and I suspect we’ll see Reynier hide from the world of whisky. Which will be a pity, as while I disagree with large amounts of what he says and have often found him to be immensely annoying in his pronouncements, he has kept the big boys on their toes and encouraged the smaller distilleries to do what they want. He’s said that the distillery will carry on as it currently is (hopefully including all the jobs) and I hope Mark gets a chance to step back from the limelight and have a bit of a rest after 10 years of pretty impressive work, whether he was behind the sale or not.

Now to sit back and wait to see what happens if and when the sale goes through…

Updated: The sale has now gone through for a total of £58million, £10m of debt and £48 to the shareholders. Mark Reynier posted his side of things on the Laddie Blog, but the post has since gone walkies. It was posted up on Facebook but it’s also disappeared from there, which makes me suspect that Mr Reynier has hidden it or at least just made it only viewable to his FB friends for the time being.

The operative bit for me was that the decision to sell was made by the 8 person board of directors and the vote was 7-1 for selling, with Reynier the only vote against. He’s taken a lot of flak seemingly unnecessarily and already there’s been a bit of contrition appearing online. He’s also said that he’s taking some time off after the deal completes in three weeks but may return to something involving Bruichladdich in the future.

The Voltaire quote on the front page of the Laddie blog pretty much sums up my feelings towards Mr Reynier and I hope to see him saying more things in the years to come:

I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it

6 Replies to “Bruichladdich – Sold?”

  1. Good post Billy, I think I agree with most of what’s been said.

    I mostly hope that apart from who’s at the reins, nothing else will change since Bruichladdich was my favourite Islay distillery for being who they are/were and what they do/did (independent of whether I like their product or not).

    I hope the quality will remain the same and will continue to grow with the Laddie 10 as a starting point.

    Unfortunately, I do feel a wee bit betrayed since I did buy some bottles because it was a Bruichladdich, and they were cool and indie and all… 🙁


  2. Well the progressive Hebridean distillers have progressed to the mega-corps, After having finally produced a great 10yo it seems that now is the time to cash in the chips and retire. I hope the quality of the product remains, we will hopefully see less weird casks being used, but lets see. Nice post Billy, it will get the whisky world chatting.

    1. They’ve already calmed down (as far as I know) on the weird casks now that they’ve hit the 10 year mark and have enough whisky to start building a proper range, but who knows what might happen in the future. Hopefully things will just keep rolling on at the moment, with a solid core Bruichladdich range complimented by slight craziness from PC and Octomore. We’ll see…

  3. Excellent post, Billy. I was there for those tweets but missed the fine nuances. Thanks for the education. It is a bit of a sad story. But, as you said, McEwan was retiring anyway and the line was being pared back anyway. Part of the joy was all those wild finishes – but partly that was a strategy to cope with a huge back stock and a 6 year gap. It was creative, effusive, exhilarating, wild and fun. Most probably that fun wouldn’t have happened if a big corp. was reviving Laddie. Ultimately, however, some of that indie attitude may have just been good marketing. As Sjoerd said, he actually bought some bottles just for that. I certainly bought more than my share – but partly because of the stamp collector urge to “have ’em all” and partly because many of them were absolutely delicious. In any event the party was ending anyway and settling down to some excellent core expressions. The Laddie 10 is a superb interpretation of the classic Laddie – one I will happily drink and give as gifts for years to come. Remy’s products are solid as rocks, give them that. I have little doubt that they won’t mess up what’s great about those core expressions. So, in the end, the brouhaha is less about the whisky than about the love of independence itself. Reynier is like the Scottish king who agreed to a truce with the Empire – hated for doing anything but resist to the last gasp. For me, it’s what’s in the glass that counts and I’ll withold judgement until I taste what actually happens.

  4. @Josh: I was actually glad that most finishing lines were stopped. A few years ago I counted the annual releases to be over 30 and that was just too much and the quality went down hill as well. Luckily, they can be far more selective now. Even then, some bottles just shouldn’t exist.

    I hope they continue cleaning up their range and bringing out quality products. The best wine finishes were the Octomores, IMHO.

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