Back in Issue number five, Our Wigtownshire joined the new owner of Bladnoch Distillery to discover his plans for the whisky business. Here we look back at his vision:
A SON sitting with his father enjoying a whisky at the end of the working day and talking about the family business. It’s a scene that would be right at home in Scotland, but perhaps not one that instantly springs to mind when thinking of Australia. But, for new Bladnoch Distillery owner, David Prior, whisky has been a love since he was old enough to drink, Scotch whisky that is.
“It has been a great passion for a long time,” he said. “It was something my father and I did since I was about 18; sitting down at the end of the week and having a Scotch and a chat, often about business.”
Understandably, the chance to buy an independent distillery in Scotland was an opportunity too good to miss. Prior was looking for a new project having sold his yoghurt business for $80 million and saw the beleaguered Wigtownshire firm as having the potential to put his expertise in branding and manufacturing into practice, while realising a long-held dream.
His knowledge in manufacturing began at an early age, starting work in his family’s packaging company at seven years old packing boxes and growing up on the factory floor.
In the nineties, he set up another packaging company with his father, which they ran together for ten years before selling it on in 2007.
Next came the organic yoghurt company five:am. Prior admits he “rolled the dice” with the company, building a factory and taking on a lot of debt from the banks and re-mortgaging his house.
“Organic food and healthy living is pretty much the way I live my life – meditation, yoga and surfing,” he said. “But we went through a lot of tough times with that business as a start-up. Thank god it
went well and was really well received by the retailers and consumers.”
Three years after start-up, the firm was snapped up by a UK company and the question for Prior was what next? Once again he wanted to partner a business and passion together and his attention turned to Bladnoch.
“There is a great opportunity in Scotch whisky, it’s a strong category and there is room for innovation,” he said. “I am really thrilled to be able to invest into Bladnoch and bring this great 200-year distillery back to life. When I visited here for the first time at the start of last year, I could see the great history and provenance of the beautiful distillery, picture perfect in this great area.
“Obviously, there had been a lack of investment and a lack of direction, a halt on production so the team didn’t know what their future was. I really sensed that, so one of the things I am most excited about is giving them a vision for the future and a strong and vibrant distillery as a centrepiece for this community.
“To bring back that vibrancy and to have Bladnoch as a bigger generator of income for this region, it’s something I’m really excited about and I was amazed at how the team, despite being in this period of limbo for so long, are still very passionate and proud.”
It was that passion that convinced him he had made the right decision, even commenting to his wife that night that he was amazed at their enthusiasm for the business after such an uncertain time
“We are going to relaunch Bladnoch, take it back into its position of being a great single malt again,” Prior said.
“Many of my favourite whiskies are blends. I am not a whisky snob. I like to drink good whisky but I drink blends, drink single malts. I do tend to drink Scotch over any other type of whisky. I’m a big fan, which is one of the reasons I wanted to make my investment here. I still believe Scotland makes the best whisky in the world.
“I do believe there is some room there in terms of innovation. Scotch whisky has been so successful for such a long period of time, such a big part of the local economy that sometimes it is good to come in and have a fresh look at it.
“Our products are very innovative in the way they are packaged and the way they are branded and communicated to the consumers, very different. So, whilst we have got the history, provenance and hopefully the great taste of the Scotch whisky, we are communicating it in a very different way. We bring a fresh and innovative approach to our products and brands. Probably a bit more contemporary tasting than a lot of other products – not heavily smoked or peated. Fresh, floral, accessible tasting products and with all the quality and expertise of our team.”
Bringing a massive amount of that expertise will be Ian MacMillan, former head of distilleries and master blender with Burn Stewart Distillers. Pure Scotch, a blended Scotch whisky, will be sold in Australia by the end of this year.
The aim will also be to make the premium single malt one of the most regarded in the market, with unique tastes and characters.
“The product we are looking at releasing is the first expression of Bladnoch, the single malt is fantastic and Ian has done a great job of pulling that together,” Prior said. “It is a lovely, lovely single malt and we tried a fair few competitors and it was the best one. You have to back your product but it doesn’t matter what you’ve got, it has to stand up and stack up as a great tasting product, which is what it is.”
Back at home, production at Bladnoch will be reaching new levels jumping from 250,000 litres of alcohol to 1.5million.
“We are putting in four new stills, relocated back to where they used to be, and we will invest to reach the new output and to bring back the staff in support,” Prior said. “We currently have ten people, I imagine this time next year there will be 20 and maybe by the same time the next year there will be 30.
“I don’t think we will go much beyond that as you don’t need too many people to run a distillery but with the yoghurt business we went from zero to 100 people in three years so it is great to be able to create that employment.”
To back this, money will need to be spent and a lot of energy expended. This will involve the distillery but also, longer term, the visitor centre.
“It’s a big project to bring this back to what we want it to be,” he said. “I’m pretty sure in a year we will see the place back and humming. I like to do things in a way that suits the brand and the vision. You can’t do things by half. We want the distillery back, perfect, beautifully, functioning, making a great product and representing Bladnoch the way we want it to be represented.
“The visitor centre will be a replication of that and we can start taking tours when we are ready but we are not at the moment.”
And the new owner is looking forward to bottling the enthusiasm of the staff, with promises of exciting times ahead.
He said: “I think it’s going to be fantastic because they are a great team. I can see they are really excited to have a vision laid out for them. We are all heading somewhere. People like to be involved in a project that is exciting and moving forward. Great results will be shared and they will be rewarded in that journey. That’s the way I have built my teams in the past and everyone gets to share in that success.”
First published: November 2015
Pictures: Stephen Jolly Photography