The origins of Drambuie are a misty as a highland glen. The MacKinnon family, which owned the brand until recently when it was sold for a rumoured £100m, claim that the recipe of whisky, honey, herbs and spices was passed to them by Bonnie Prince Charlie as thanks for helping him flee from the island of Skye after his defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746.
Sceptics suspect that this glamorous tale might be a marketing ploy for a drink that was first sold in 1873. Whatever the truth, the sale highlighted a growing demand in emerging Asian markets for old world drinks with romantic histories.
Diageo, which owns Johnnie Walker, says whisky sales are up 50% over the past five years, driven by emerging market demand. Pernod Ricard, which owns brands including Chivas and Ballantine’s, plans to increase whisky production by 25% over the next half-decade.
Japan’s Suntory paid $16bn for Kentucky-based bourbon-maker Beam whiskey in January. Emperador from the Philippines bought White & Mackay Scotch for £430m in May. Big drinks makers are on the lookout for others.
It might be easy to paint this as a sad development, with small local brands getting hoovered up by faceless corporations who care little for their roots. Superficially, the Drambuie story supports that picture and the MacKinnons’ sale of the brand might seem like the end of the family-owned era.
But the reality is that the drinks business is a web of family-owned companies, albeit not necessarily ones with the cosy feel of the MacKinnons. Drambuie’s buyers are Grant & Sons, a fourth-generation distiller. They in turn run a joint venture, Highland Distillers, with Edrington, which is owned by the Robertson family.
Edrington is the owner of Cutty Sark, which it bought from family-owned Berry Bros & Rudd. Drambuie, incidentally, will be made by Morrison Bowmore, a Scottish firm owned by Suntory – a family-controlled Japanese company.
It might also be worth pointing out that family-owned Rothschilds advised the MacKinnons on the sale of Drambuie.
Pernod Ricard and Bacardi are also family-owned. Emperador is owned by its founder. De Kuyper, an 11th-generation Dutch firm founded in 1695, is the world’s biggest maker of liqueurs.
New markets and new drinkers are driving change in the drinks sector. But even in the snazziest Asian cities heritage, tradition and the odd tall tale are what sell booze. Families still do them best.