Profile: Ronnie Cox

Ronnie Cox cut his whisky-selling teeth in the often inhospitable environment of 1980s Latin America. Hamish Smith meets the Berry Bros charmer

"I'VE STARED DOWN the barrel of a gun a couple of times in my life,” says Ronnie Cox, brands heritage director at Berry Bros & Rudd Spirits – and he’s not talking in the figurative sense. “In the 80s in Latin America, if you sacked a distributor they wouldn’t take to it very kindly. On one particularly alarming occasion, the moment I checked into a hotel in Paraguay I got a call from a distributor I’d sacked the year before. He said to me: ‘I told you never to return to this country, what are you doing here?’ I checked out.” 

That was just one of Cox’s scrapes. Thirteen years of pedaling scotch in the then “wild west” of Latin America is bound to give rise to a predicament or two. But judging by Cox’s countenance as he recalls his memories, there were more good times than bad. His travels as a young man, mainly at the behest of The Distillers Company (acquired by Guinness in 1986, forming United Distillers), certainly taught him a thing or two about selling whisky. “After shaking 5,000 hands you could tell by the handshake and looking the chap in the eye whether you were going to do business with him,” he says. 

Making a deal

The first of those handshakes came over a deal for Black & White – one of the Distillers Company’s scotch blends at the time. Cox picks up the thread: “It was with a chap who was starting up a small wholesale business but didn’t have much cash. He said he wouldn’t be able to pay for another six months and that I would have to trust him. I told him I wasn’t going to ship 500 cases to someone I didn’t know without some sort of guarantee. 

“To this, he opened his desk drawer, dumped a plastic bag of white powder on the table and told me again to trust him. I couldn’t believe it. He stabbed the bag with a biro and put some on my tongue… it was sugar. He had got me. We were firm friends ever since and from 500 cases of Black & White he went to 20,000 cases within a few years and ended up buying an enormous amount of Buchanan’s.”

Hand-selling has always been Cox’s business – an approach, he says, which is even more effective in his current role at the upmarket single malt end of whisky. As brands heritage director for Berry Bros, Cox looks after Glenrothes scotch from Speyside, Number 3 gin and The King’s Ginger whisky liqueur. A capacity to wine, dine and do deals has in no small part been aided by his aristocratic charm and immaculate presentation, but Cox also has history in scotch. 

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.   

But back to Cox. After disembarking Cutty Sark he joined the then underdeveloped brand of Glenrothes. According to Cox, the single malt market was starting to take off in the 80s and 90s and Glenrothes “hadn’t been properly marketed or packaged”. Cox and his associates wanted to do something different with the brand so a new philosophy was implemented. 

“Other people had done a one-off vintage but we were the first to apply the concept to our whole range. For commercial people it’s very hard to understand whisky vintages, because once you’ve run out of one year’s product you’ve got no more. But as wine merchants [at Berry Bros], we understood them clearly.” 

Family legacy

There’s plenty more of the Cox story to tell. There’s his love of old English longbows, which he practises “around the back of St James Palace”. Or his retirement plan to become a fossil hunter (“I’ll move down to Dorset where there are some decent fossils”). But one from the family archive ought to do it. Cue Cox: “In 1893 my great, great grandfather sold the Cardow [now Diageo’s Cardhu] distillery to Alexander Walker (of Johnnie Walker whisky) and with the proceeds he bought a motor car. It was only the second one in Morayshire. 

“Anyway, he was driving up the single track drive of the Cardow distillery when Willy the odd-job man was riding the other way on his bicycle. Willy was rather the worse for wear having had his third dram of the day and when he saw the motor car approaching he got a fright and fell into the ditch. Great, great grandfather picked him up, dusted him down and said: ‘Willy you’re a damn disgrace to your family, the distillery and everybody that surrounds you. You can’t hold your drink – what have you got to say for yourself?’ Willy replied: ‘It’s the same whisky, sir, that put me in a ditch that put you in a very smart motor car.’ ‘Good reply, Willy. On your way home now.’”