The Fixer

South African drinks company Distell has always seemed a bit of a sleeping giant. Christian Davis meets Fraser Thornton, the man tasked with changing that, certainly in Europe.


FRASER THORNTON may not seem like a number-crunching firefighter, but a cursory look at his CV tells a different story.

A chartered accountant, he joined Burn Stewart Distillers in 1996 as business development manager for North America. The company was then taken over by CL Financial, that intriguing Trinidad-based conglomerate that, for a few years, became very acquisitive in the drinks sector.

Basically CL got caught out and overstretched in the global economic downturn, having to be bailed out by the Trinidadian government in 2009. Thornton was seconded by the government-controlled board to become acting CEO of Angostura, one of its acquisitions.

Then, in 2011, the affable Glaswegian was sent to sort out a dispute between the CL board and the board of Lascelles de Mercado, which owned the Jamaican rum company Wray & Nephew, which owns the Appleton brand. Thornton was seconded to replace the CEO and “develop an exit for CL”. He sold off non-core assets and convinced the CL board to sell Burn Stewart to Distell. This was 2013.

Distell poached him and, in July 2015, he became head of its European operations. Distell is a significant player these days, owning Burn Stewart Distillers, Bisquit cognac, Amarula cream liqueur, Savannah cider and a wine division including Nederburg, Durbanville Hills, Alto, Fleur du Cap, Plaisir de Merle and Cape fizz Pongrácz.


On the spirits side, it has Black Bottle, once thought the successor to The Famous Grouse and sixth-largest blended scotch brand in the UK (80% of its sales are in Scotland), and single malts Bunnahabhain (Islay), Deanston (Highland), Ledaig (Mull) and Scottish Leader. It has South African brandies Klipdrift, Van Ryn’s and Oude Meester.

“My father taught me the core values of loyalty, respect and hard work and they have served me very well,” Thornton says.

“As part of the Distell group, there is an opportunity to step-change our wine and cider business in the UK and across Europe. These are new categories to me and our opportunities to grow are substantial. Helping to widen the distribution base and premiumise our brands in these categories is my main goal,” he says.

So Thornton is on a mission to put market share on all his major brands across the board. Last November, Distell launched its Bain’s Cape Mountain single grain whisky globally.

Its Nederburg wine brand is heavily involved with the Tour de France pro-cycling team, Team Dimension Data, in helping the African Qhubeka charity to buy bicycles to help people in remote African villages.

Riding a bike is said to increase a person’s carrying capacity by five times. For every 16km, a person on a bike saves three hours. A bike will get a youngster to school so he or she can get an education.

Through Thornton’s CL contacts, Distell has taken on the agency for Angostura’s bitters and rums and it is looking after Stock Spirits’ Amundsen and Keglevich Polish vodkas and its XO Italian brandy. Thornton has overseen bringing all the Distell brands in house, instead of being distributed by third parties.