In the Limelight: David Prior, Bladnoch Distillery


After the Scottish Lowland distillery Bladnoch was sold four years ago, numerous members of the whisky community excelled each other with evil words and criticism. Last weekend, David Prior, the new owner of the Scottish Bladnoch Distillery, finally made his debut in Germany. In Hamburg’s Hafen Klub, the Australian multimillionaire met with a crowd of journalists and bloggers. What can we expect from Bladnoch in the years to come?

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To be honest, my schedule was rather tight last weekend. But no matter how much I was in a hurry, I certainly didn’t want to miss the opportunity to meet the new owner of the Scottish Lowland distillery Bladnoch on Friday evening. Only twenty minutes after leaving my workplace near Frankfurt on Friday afternoon, I was already in my car rushing to Hamburg. I really wanted to experience David Prior live.

"We are pissed".


Hardly anyone in the whisky scene succeeded  so fast and easily in the past two years to capture the concentrated hate of the whisky community as the enterprising millionaire from Melbourne did.

Overpriced bottlings, watered-down whisky, stylish glass carafes, closed distillery doors, a rude treatment of Bladnoch's private cask owners - the list of offences the nerds accused him off was long, and the insults on the net were waspish and hard. The effect was just as intense. The fans of Bladnoch were "pissed", and they found fault with everything.
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Actually, the Australian entrepreneur had done nothing bad - he had just bought a Scottish distillery. And yet he had done everything wrong, which he could possibly do wrong. At least in the eyes of the Bladnoch Fan Community.

But let's look at some facts first - and let's talk straight. Bladnoch was the last few years anything but "a very fine distillery", as some Internet voices defiantly asserted.

 

Certainly, the first few years under the reign of Raymond and Colin Armstrong were full of hope. After being mothballed in 1993, production was restarted at Bladnoch in 2000, and in the end, the annual production was a staggering 200,000 liters of alcohol. But soon the first cracks appeared. In 2009 - after only 8 years of significant production - , the stills at Bladnoch were fired for the last time under the aegis of the two Armstrong brothers. Raymond and Colin as well as their wives were hopelessly estranged.

Necessary investments and repairs had not taken place in all the years, the distillery was deteriorating. On March 10, 2014, Co-Ordinated Development Services, the company which officially held ownership of Bladnoch Distillery, went into liquidation.

Did David Prior know about the bad state of the distillery? I do not think so. When he talked about his first visit to the distillery after the purchase, his lips formed a smile, but his eyes didn’t. His wife put it in a nutshell: "David, this is going to be an awful lot of work," she said back then. I’m dead sure she was right.

In Hamburg’s Hafen Klub, where "Didi" and "Corry" had invited us in their function as Bladnoch’s German importer, the mood was fine, but we were far from cheers and chants.

David Prior knows that he has not left the dry spell yet.

"Dry Spell"


The Australian with an English-Indian background is neither idle nor silly. He can look back to a fantastic career. When he received four million dollars from his parents at the end of 2008, he spent the next 18 months surfing and thinking about his destiny in life. In June 2010, he founded the company "five: am" and produced yoghurt and granola with a life-style feeling.

When he sold the company in October 2014, his four million dollars had become 50 million. But instead of spending the rest of his life enjoying the surfing beaches of the word, David got  cocky. He decided to buy a Scottish whisky distillery. Or even better, build one himself.

A plot of land was found quickly, and the contract soon was ready. It was only at the very last moment that it dawned on him,  that the property had no water supply.

His instinct and a smart resignation clause in the contract saved him from making an expensive mistake. Two days later, he handed in his application for Bladnoch Distillery, which was being offered
for sale at exactly this time.


 

In June 2015, David Prior became the proud owner of the equally proud Bladnoch Distillery. At this point, David still did not have the slightest idea how much money the renovation of the distillery would actually cost him.

To be honest with you, money was hardly mentioned this Friday evening. Only once when Didi half-jokingly referred to him as a "millionaire from Australia", David played it down: "Ex-millionaire", he corrected. We all laughed. But how many of his millions Bladnoch has  actually swallowed up, you can only guess.

The entire technical equipment of the distillery needed a complete overhaul. David wanted the stills to be made by Forsyths, but they have long waiting times of at least three years. David was able to persuade the traditional Scottish coppersmith to deliver the stills including the remaining utensils to him in just six months. I’m sure he needed more than just a few nice words and a friendly smile.

Today, the distillery features a stainless steel mash tun, 6 Douglas fir wooden washbacks and four brand new stills. Its annual capacity is 1.5 million litres of alcohol, but at present the actual production numbers are far lower.

To get the distillery afloat, David could win Ian McMillan, Master Blender of the Burn Stewart Distillers. Ian has spotted the distillery's inventory over the past three years, buying new barrels for more than $ 1.5 million. 85% of the barrel stocks in Bladnoch's warehouses had to be refilled into new casks due to quality issues.

Unrecognized gems


In addition, the overall stocks were rather modest: only three thousand barrels were laid down in the warehouses when David took over the distillery in 2015. One of the first tasks of Ian McMillan was to buy all of Bladnoch's barrels from independent bottlers or Diageo and Pernod Ricard. By now, only Gordon & McPhail have significant stocks of Bladnoch barrels left, the remaining stocks were more or less all repurchased by David. These were also issues he probably did not expect at the beginning.

But there is also good news to report: many of the barrels have reached a fantastic age over the years. Up to thirty years old are the stocks that are currently slumbering in the warehouses of Bladnoch, other parcels are 23, 26, or 28 years old.

This is perfect news for consumers like me: for Samsara, for example, only fully matured bourbon and red wine barrels were used, of which the youngest barrel was 11 years, the oldest barrel was 17 years old. Other distilleries can only dream about such a supply of matured barrels for their entry level NAS products.

For Adela, the barrels were a lot older. And the stocks even more scarce. How long will this pleasure-ride last? 200 cases are currently left. The end of Adela is in sight. And the new 17-year-old is already sold out in Australia.

Heart's Desire


David has fulfilled his heart's desire when he acquired Bladnoch Distillery. What he did not consider is that he also needs to conquer the hearts of the whisky fans. And with Ian McMillan he had the wrong man in the right place.

Ian is one of the best in his field, but in professional circles,  the Master Blender does not particularly enjoy the reputation of a philanthropist. Ian did not fancy gossipy tourists and curious whisky bloggers, the distillery's doors simply remained closed to outsiders during his tenure. Not a very smart move if you want to win over the hearts of whisky-nerds.

 

But that should change very soon. The new Visitor Center is now completed, and within the next weeks, Bladnoch will begin its day-to-day business. Ian McMillan has already left Bladnoch, his successor is sitting on packed suitcases. In a few days David will announce the name. I’m very curious who it will be.

The whisky


Oh, and there is something else we should talk about. The whisky. Finally, let's talk about the whisky. And I have a confession to make: yes, I'm a big fan of the new bottlings. Ian McMillan may be a misanthrope, but he understands his trade and he is one of the best in the business.

For me, Bladnoch's bottlings are among the most underrated whiskies currently available. And the distillery probably has the most limited stocks that are right now slumbering in Scotland's warehouses. What else could one possibly ask for?

Adela is my personal favorite, and I had more than a glass of Talia that Friday evening. And the new 17-year-old bottling from Californian red wine barrels is so fantastic, that it makes you want to kneel down to the creator of that stuff.

On the other hand, I did not have to wait in vain in front of Bladnoch's doors yet. And I did not buy private barrels from the previous owners. I’ve never taken part in Bladnoch’s distilling summer school, and I never met Raymond or Collin Armstrong in person. So, my modest opinion is probably not representative at all.

 
It will not be enough to spoil journalists and scribblers with fine snacks and tasty drams. David Prior must win the hearts of the whisky community. There are currently enough examples of how to achieve this.
Bruichladdich. Edradour. Kilchoman. And there are plenty of examples of how to make hearts cool. Macallan, for example. Nevertheless, Macallan does not have to worry about its sales figures. But Bladnoch is not Macallan.

Quo Vadis?


What did I learn this evening in Hamburg? David leaves no doubt: the new Bladnoch will be different. He wants to give Bladnoch his own signature. Next year, the first whisky from the new stills will reach the magical three-year limit. Then it we will see where the journey will go.


David Prior was anything but relaxed this evening. He knows how much is at stake for him. And he will have to learn quickly. Whisky is all about passion and emotions. People need to love his distillery. Otherwise, Bladnoch could soon become a lesson to him, how to turn 50 Million Dollars into four Million in only five years time. And that would be a shame. Because Bladnoch really is  "a very fine distillery".





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