Pure Gould: Whyte & Mackay

Patience Gould charts the ups and downs of Whyte & Mackay as the distiller once more goes on the market

It’s business as usual then at Whyte & Mackay – that is the Glasgow-based spirits producer is once more up for sale. Incredibly this is the 10th time since the beginning of the ’70s and in those 40-plus years there have been no fewer than 18 MDs or CEOs come and go, and heaven only knows how many different marketing departments.  

This time around the cause is Diageo’s acquisition of a majority share in United Spirits – the Indian company which acquired Whyte & Mackay for a tad under £600 million back in 2007. Clearly anxious to avoid the scrutiny of the Office of Fair Trading, Diageo has made a pre-emptive strike with the announcement that it is to sell Whyte & Mackay but not lock, stock and smoking barrels – because apparently the world’s number one multinational wants to keep the malt distilleries Dalmore (pictured) and Tamnavulin, but is OK with W&M’s other distilleries – Old Fettercairn and Jura – going under the hammer. 

As Diageo already boasts some 28 distilleries in its arsenal this decision has raised eyebrows in some quarters. “What on earth does it want Tamnavulin for? All its distilleries are expandable and it is pouring colossal amounts of investment into new distilleries like Roseisle,” said one industry observer.  “They must be a bargaining tool.”

Both are good points. Tamnavulin is not a notable single malt and should the ‘competition authorities’ still chafe at Diageo’s share of the Scotch whisky market creeping towards 40%, the drinks giant can offer up both Tamnavulin and Dalmore – which, as a singular spirit, has attracted a wide following among the single malt cognoscenti. 

Of course Diageo’s announcement has ushered forth a frenzy of speculation as to who will be the 11th owner of Whyte & Mackay. And there have been one or two comings and goings at the top which have added to the potpourri. Chief executive at the time of Diageo’s bid for United Spirits, John Beard, has departed. His replacement, Bryan Donaghey, was previously managing director of Diageo Scotland until earlier this year when he moved to the role of Europe supply director, and finally to supply strategy director up until his decision to leave and almost in the same week he took up the reins at Whyte & Mackay.

Whyte & Mackay has offered no explanation for Beard’s going and Diageo is tight-lipped over Donaghey, issuing a terse statement: “Bryan has severed his employment with Diageo and it is not appropriate for us to comment any further, but we wish him the very best for the future.”   The company did add that ‘Bryan had served Diageo with ‘distinction’. Clearly, though, ‘Bryan’ relishes the challenge as one would be forgiven for thinking he’d jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. 

Just one more thing on Beard though. He came from the fused UK distribution arm of Bacardi and Brown-Forman, so perhaps it is no surprise that both Brown-Forman and Bacardi have been mentioned as  possible Whyte & Mackay suitors, as has as has Greenall’s owner Quintessential Brands, and there is speculation that there is growing interest among companies in China. How long is a piece of string?