Profile: The Vintage Malt Whisky Company
In an occasional series I’ll be looking at some of the independent companies who don’t make the noise or have the shelf dominance of the big guys but are quietly getting on bottling good whisky under their own company and brand names. They may not all produce it but they select it and create their bottlings very carefully.
The first to be featured is The Vintage Malt Whisky Company, based just outside Glasgow and who were kind enough to give me a couple of hours of their time one wet summer afternoon recently. This is a family concern as a number of these companies are. In this case it’s the Crook family led by father, Brian (now Chairman). I began by asking why a move from a well-known company to starting up his own.
He was export sales director for Morrison Bowmore , as it then was, owners of Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and a number of secondary brands. He’d had an idea building up to do something for himself especially as he’d had experience in family companies but needed that push as MB was a good company to work in. That push came when a marketing team moved in and Brian was asked to take on development of the company’s secondary and, at that time, smaller malt brands where he enjoyed plenty of success including McClelland’s. He knew with good industry contacts this was something he could do for himself as he had extensive experience of selling abroad. Consumer knowledge about Scotch Whisky was not as widespread then and he had some sound and, it turns out, pioneering ideas including seeing the boom in Islay malts, as well as malts generally and the regular use of no age statement on them, whether blended malts or singles. Brian reckoned there was room for a further player from Islay and a good liquid source and name was needed. Hence the birth of The Vintage Malt Whisky Company. He set up in 1992 with wife, Carol, who looked after finances and they were then joined by son Andrew.
The first brand was Finlaggan (named after an area of Islay) when a broker found them a supply of Islay malt. Their tack has always been to sell to independents via importers and it was all for export – and largely still is as only around 6% of turnover is from UK sales. They were able to demonstrate that Finlaggan was good quality and at an affordable price. They have never been a high profile company and sales developed at first from word of mouth and the high quality reputation of the whiskies. They focused on margins and followed what was profitable. Nothing was done without a clear business reason. Right from the start they concentrated on malt whiskies rather than blends of malt and grain. Brian knew how difficult blends would be as likely competitors tended to look in that direction. Others also tended to think they should start selling in the UK assuming it would be easier. Not true. Brian also wanted to be a brand company from Day 1 and not use distillery names. He says he was laughed at but those people must be regretting that now. Twenty-seven years on, they have a much bigger brand base as well as filling contracts for own label whiskies.
The first export market was France where Brian had plenty of experience. Finlaggan, Tantallan, Tambowie and Glenalmond were early brands developed and supplied. Holland, Switzerland and Germany followed and the company now exports to over 35 countries. The Ileach was another early brand. It is now the No. 2 malt in Sweden and the leading Islay there. Top markets for VMWC now include USA, Sweden, Netherlands, Taiwan and Germany. I asked about Travel Retail as that would seem a good place to expose the VMWC whiskies to consumers returning to their own countries or to UK residents seeing them overseas. Andrew replied that they don’t have much in that sector except for miniatures in airport gift shops. It’s also a sector where it certainly used to be expensive to get a listing so maybe costs would hinder benefits there. Andrew added that they’ve always preferred to be low key. Most sales round the world are via good independent stores but in a few places there is a little bit of product in supermarkets. Also, some does find its way into bars e.g. in Japan. On Islay, source of much of the precious liquid, they’re in the Ballygrant Inn (2018 winner of Whisky Bar of the Year) and The Port Charlotte Hotel.
Carol Crook (Finance Director – above) wasn’t available the day I went in to the office but what of the other family members running the show? Andrew (Managing Director) reckons he has seen only good times in the industry in all the years he’s been involved in VMWC, which is most of them. Turnover has increased year on year and they have invested more in packaging for clear design and standout. A case in point is SmokeStack which I love as a piece of label design. “We’ve ridden the malt wave,” he said, adding that they started out not long before communications were changing and people began to seek out malts more. He pointed out, when I asked about changes they’d seen over 27 years, that over that same time there’s been growth in internet usage for information, bloggers, social media posting and customer engagement via web and e-mail as well as whisky fairs, where they sometimes take stands to meet consumers and offer tasting samples. I wondered if the family had done anything to celebrate their 25th anniversary a couple of years ago and they didn’t, except to bottle a limited edition called Family Silver which was a bottling of some of the rarest distilleries such as Lochside and Garnheath. Andrew says they’re waiting for their 30th year.
Other changes for them have included their Cooper’s Choice range – the only one with distillery names on the labels. It was a little add-on at the beginning of its life but is now a profitable part of the business, though it gets harder to find good casks, Andrew advised. Cask finishes and an interest in older grain whiskies are other developments he particularly singled out since 1992.
These days they also have daughter, Caroline James, who joined only five years ago after some family teasing and encouragement – and an ultimatum. Another person was needed and that opportunity was a “now or never” moment. I first met Caroline when she was a talented young lawyer, just starting out in her career. She went on to become a successful partner and still maintains a foot in the legal world while working most days as Company Secretary for VMWC. She told me she made that move to spend more time with her younger son while he had some more years at home – then discovered teenage boys don’t always want to spend more time with their mums! She wishes she’d made the move years earlier to avoid some of the very long hours in law and have more family – and family company – time. Her Company Secretary role encompasses finance, trademarks, contracts, premises, facilities management and more. She likes to know how things work. Caroline also assists in the choice of casks for all the whiskies alongside Andrew and Brian. A far cry from the woman I met in the Islay ferry queue about 5 years ago – after not seeing her for years – who told me she knew next to nothing about whisky. I suspect she knew rather more than admitted! Or is certainly a very fast learner, as her mentor from her law trainee days mentioned. Caroline was also keen to praise her brother saying that in the last 10 – 15 years so much of the success has depended on Andrew’s hard work. Cue raised eyebrow from Brian – but he did actually agree.
Younger daughter Kim King has also joined more recently on the marketing, PR and communications front as after spending time at Diageo and with Lang Brothers (Edrington), she already knew a lot before joining the family firm. Also, her husband, who works at Gordon & MacPhail, has some 25 years in the drinks industry so she has picked up knowledge from several sources and she uses it well in her part-time position looking after marketing, media and digital matters. My thanks to her for providing photos and other brand info (Like the Cooper’s Choice material below) for this piece, not all of which I have used.
So those are the people, ably assisted in the back office by some non-family members and it’s a happy ship. They are even in the same premises they started in though have taken over a bit more of the space since then. If it ain’t broke…
But what about the brands?
Well, they still have Finlaggan where they have tried out age statements but no longer use them, preferring to let the whisky say it all with none of the preconceptions an age statement might impose. It’s developed a lot since the beginning and there are now red wine and port cask finish expressions, amongst others. There was an admission that finishes are a turn-off for some but these won’t have been bottled if they weren’t worthwhile. Finlaggan and The Ileach are Islay single malts but from different distilleries. Glenalmond has been a blended malt from the start and contains up to 20 Highland malts. Some names from the early days are not in current use but never say never. Another name on the roster is Islay Storm which came about in 2005, developed for a new distributor in France. It’s from one of their main Islay sources but a different age and wood profile from the others. The company now has a third Islay source but hasn’t used it yet.
SmokeStack (46%abv) came about as the VMWC team thought they could do another Islay malt but sourced some peated Highlands too, to pair with the Islays. At peat levels of 30ppm, it sells in around 9 markets including Germany, The Netherlands and Japan with a quirky and refreshing label in an often dull label world, as you can see from the picture. If I remember correctly, this is the label designed by Breeze Creative, another award winning company not far away. I’d say they did an excellent job. Rather than write notes here for all 5 of the samples provided I thought I’d include just one or two so how does SmokeStack perform?
Appearance: Light – medium gold, barley stalk colour.
Nose: Fresh sea air yet smoky at the same time. Some rich stone fruit notes and nuts too; touch of floral plus cooked citrus and sweet spices. Almost smoked ham at first too. Left a little longer, more fruit notes come through. With water there isn’t much change – still fresh with rich, ripe stone fruit with a balanced smoke veil. Sweeter notes and a dab of toffee also come in.
Palate: Medium mouthfeel, not particularly oily. Smoky, a bit peppery at first; liquorice and toasted grain. A bit of almond essence at the back and some wood char.
Finish: Long, smoky, peaty, heathery and dry. Well balanced and richly mellow. This is one the VMWC team thought would work well in mixes and cocktails and I can see a smoky martini here.
Regarding awards, Andrew Crook told me they give credibility to brands without distillery names as they are blind tasting awards. They always put an IWSC sticker on the bottles if one of their whiskies wins an IWSC award. They didn’t do much entering of awards early on – too busy selling the whisky and building the business but they do more these days and just recently won an IWSC Silver medal for their Finlaggan Red Wine Cask Matured Islay Single Malt (46%abv). They always choose carefully what they send to Jim Murray for his Whisky Bible and in 2008 became runner-up in Whisky of the Year with The Ileach Cask Strength. It’s now in his book on the Immortal Drams list. Andrew advises further that 2018 was a good year for the company in terms of awards, including one for SmokeStack. Let’s now try the Finlaggan Red Wine Cask Matured:
Appearance: Rich, light amber with pinkish copper glints. Tears quite slow to form.
Nose: Richly smoky; a sweaty sock note (not a bad thing in whisky!); some dried fruit notes and smoking heather; bit of oak. A soft marshmallow note also and a fine wisp of roses. With water, smokier and a bit sweeter; lovely gentle char notes. The smoke recedes a bit and comes back in gentle waves with ginger and dried citrus peel. Even a hint of pineapple and chocolate.
Palate: Smoky and rich at first. Lots of tar and char despite the red wine casks. Quite mouth coating but not oily. Burnt caramel and smoked cheese on the palate too.
Finish : Long and richly smoky with abundant toasted grain sweetness but a dry tail.
I’ve already mentioned the Cooper’s Choice range and this is a collection of single cask releases which do mostly bear the distillery name. They are very limited editions and at cask strength with no chill-filtration or added colour. A new set was released just this month and the line-up is:
CAOL ILA 2008 –11 YEARS OLD (Bourbon Cask Matured)
BUNNAHABHAIN – HONEYED SMOKE (Cadillac Wine Finish)
KILNAUGHTON – SECRET ISLAY (Rioja Wine Cask Matured)
THE SECRET ORKNEY 2009 – 10 YEARS OLD (Sauternes Cask Finish)
GLEN GARIOCH 2011 – 8 YEARS OLD ( Madeira Cask Finish)
OLD RHOSDHU 1994 – 25 YEARS OLD (Bourbon Cask Matured)
DEANSTON 2009 – 9 YEARS OLD (Port Wood Finish)
CAMERONBRIDGE 1984 – 35 YEARS (Bourbon Cask Matured)
That’s a very enticing tasting session for any whisky enthusiast with pennies to spare.
I enquired about any ambition to set up their own distillery as a number of others are doing. Andrew says, “It’s an idea we’ve flirted with.” However, there are no current plans for a whisky distillery and they are happy for now to continue investing in stock and their highly reputable brands.
So what of the next generation of the family? I wondered if there is any interest in a third generation joining in. Well, there are seven grandchildren for Brian and Carol but maybe only one younger person showing any hint of interest at the moment. Caroline’s older son has just qualified as a doctor but, as his mother spent years as a lawyer first, there’s still an option there. Other grandchildren are still just a bit young to be thinking about it, I’m told.
This is a delightful little company (little only in terms of the Grant’ s, Edrington etc. leagues), success achieved by hard graft, sound business decisions and good whisky choices. If you haven’t seen or tried their brands before, I’d urge you to seek them out and taste them. If you’re a smoke/peat fan and haven’t got past the distillery names yet, then you should definitely try whiskies from The Vintage Malt Whisky Company. Find out more at www.vintagemaltwhisky.com .
Till next month, happy dramming.