Profile: Ronnie Cox

Or should it be, scotch has history in Cox? 

Seventh generation

“On my mother’s side of the family there are seven generations of whisky distillers that we know about – going back to the 1790s. My ancestors leased five acres of land from the Grants. Mainly agricultural farming, but when they had a surplus grain they would distil whisky. One in six or seven houses had a distillery in those days.”

In seven generations of whisky-making there have been a few stories, and if it’s not obvious by now, Cox is a willing raconteur. “In the 1820s one of my ancestors was caught for criminal whisky activity twice in one year. According to the Albion Chronicle newspaper of the time, he was fined £200 and £300 – a massive, disproportionate sum of money for what had been going on semi-legally for 300 years,” says Cox, reavling a little vicarious displeasure. “But I don’t think he ever paid the fines – and he certainly didn’t go to prison. The romantic in me says he must have become friendly with the judge – a local man – and they sorted it out together.” 

Cox was hired by Berry Bros & Rudd in 1989 to look after Latin American territories for scotch blend Cutty Sark. “I took on the role with great gusto but discovered it’s very hard to persuade Latin Americans to drink light, naturally coloured whisky. If they want a whisky they want it dark,” he explains. 

The Cutty Sark pitch may have been tough but Cox was not without his successes. “I once got a telex from our distributor in Venezuela saying: ‘Ronnie, having denied you the pleasure of selling me 12-year-old Cutty Sark for so long – and you having insisted that I take 500 cases – I just want to tell you that the Venezuelans LOVE THIS SHIT! They’ve fallen for it sink, line and hooker’. Quite a character but his command of the English language wasn’t brilliant,” smiles Cox.

By the 80s and 90s Berry Bros’s ambition for Cutty Sark had abated. Without significant investment, the brand never threatened to recapture its 60s and 70s pomp and, after mounting interest from The Edrington Group, it was sold last year. According to Cox, the brand had been under pressure from Diageo and Pernod Ricard’s blends for decades; brands which could afford to squeeze margins and plunge prices. 

Poker face

“The poker table’s a good analogy,” says Cox. “If you walk into a casino and you see a man in one corner with piles of $100,000 chips, you say: ‘I’m not going to play on that table, I’ll go to the $5 table.’ We found ourselves playing with $100,000 chips but we only had a few of them, against Diageo’s pile of chips. Thank god we are out of it.” In the end a swap deal was brokered. The Edrington Group took Cutty Sark and Berry Bros bought the Glenrothes brand, which it had previously just rented.