‘we believe that terroir matters’

The Scottish, Bruichladdich distillery is located on the southwestern part of a remote Hebridean island. On this particular morning it was clear skies and sunny – everything was looking its best.

After a short, scenic and pleasant drive through pastures, woodlands, across stone bridges, past whitewashed buildings and along the banks of Loch Indaal I arrived at Bruichladdich Distillery. Bruichladdich’s distillery can be thought of as old yet new  – a marketing renaissance – and one of the great marketing stories where a brand is rescued and restored – and becomes even stronger.

In the Bruichladdich shop I met Chrissie who has worked in the ‘new’ Bruichladdich Distillery since 2001 and is now involved in exports. She explained that the ‘old’ Bruichladich was founded in 1881 by three brothers and eventually fell on hard times. She explained that the buildings were derelict when ‘a group of investors bought the place and virtually raised it from the dead’. The shop, she indicates with a wave of her hand, was in the old days a warehouse. Much of the equipment and machinery, that you will see in the distillery, was here and obviously it needed repairs and maintenance, but, fortunately Duncan McGillivray the general manager was a mechanic and had a lifetime of experience in distillery mechanics.

Walking through the shop she asks – ‘Have you tried our Gin – The Botanist? … The gin has been a great success and the botanicals that are infused into the gin are from the island. We are the only ones doing gin on the island and it is a big thing now’. Chrissie then introduces me to Carl Reavey.

An interview with Carl Reavey of Bruichladdich Distillery

‘I have been involved since the start of the Bruichladdich renaissance, but I haven’t always worked for the distillery. What happened was I became quite friendly with Mark Reynier and Simon Coughlin when they used to stay at my hotel. In the beginning the private company had very, very little money. But they had the support of the people of the island and most people chipped in different ways to assist and try and resurrect this place and I was one of those who worked in the background. I am not saying that there wasn’t business in it for me there was and my hotel was well used by the distillery. In time, I started to assist with some of the marketing. When I sold the hotel I became the editor of the local newspaper and my wife worked for Simon. Then with time I started to work on a more formal basis, but still as a contractor, websites etc. Then the takeover happened and whilst most saw it as a good thing, as a fantastic achievement, and as inevitable Mark, one of the founding partners, fought the takeover. He is a fantastic entrepreneurial character and a brilliant marketer but would find it difficult to work for a big corporation and all that comes with big corporations – he is amazing and likes to be the oppose the status quo. So when he left I was brought in to do the PR and communications for the organisation.

I feel that the new found interest in whisky is not across the board; sure there is an increase in single malts but sales in blended whisky are probably static. It is interesting that you chose to interview Bruichladdich and Kilchoman and ourselves because we share more in common with Kilchoman than any other distillery – without doubt. Really it gets down to a philosophy and how we make whiskies- we are philosophically similar. Bruichladdich closed in 1994 after a long and to be honest not such an illustrious past as they were basically producing single malt whisky which they sold to blenders of whisky. There was a checkered history of ownership, the original family lost control and it was shuffled from pillar to post until it was acquired in a hostile takeover by Whiteman McKay; when they bought Invergordon. They shut Bruichladdich as it was surplus to their requirement. The distillery was well designed, however, it had little spent on it and it was extremely tired and no one expected it to open again. There was stock and little by little the remaining stock was sold off and it looked like it was ‘curtains’. Then in 2000 a group of private investors led by two London based wine merchants bought the distillery and dramatically changed its fortunes and also the way it was promoted.

I would have to say that the way they promoted Bruichladdich was the profoundly different than the way any other whisky brand had been promoted previously or since. It sent shock waves across the industry in 2012 because the private company had purchase Bruichladdich for 7 million pounds in 2000 and sold it to Remy Cointreau for 58 million pound.  What we can see from the purchase price is that Remy Cointreau were willing to pay a considerable premium simply for the position that Bruichladdich now occupied in the whisky consumers’ mind.  What the private investors did was to stop selling the remaining stock to blenders – they made a decision to only sell the remaining stock as single malt whisky, also they recognised that although the distillery was let’s say – ‘elderly’ they would respect the design of the distillery, not introduce any form of automation, and therefore continue to make whisky by hand the old fashion way using people rather than people. This the opposite of the trend in the industry which said, reduce staff and automate, automate, automate consequently the number of people employed in whisky production on Islay had dropped dramatically because of automation.

So let’s look at what they had just done; they had severed ties with their B2B customers, they had no B2C customers, and owned an unknown brand name. Keep in mind very, very few people new that Bruichladdich existed let alone new that it was a very interesting single malt whisky. But what we had was very principled and passionate people who approached all decisions from a marketing philosophy that belonged to fine wine – in particular burgundy wines. So you can imagine that central to every marketing decision was this idea of terroir. The idea that there was a connection between the land, the climate, the barley, the water the people and the whisky.

So terroir became absolutely central to the product – as it is in burgundy.  So when they found that the connection between place and the product had little or no connection they were absolutely shocked – gobsmacked. Let’s look at barley most distillers were only interested in yield – that means the amount of alcohol that could be rendered from a ton of barley. I believe that even today barley is thought of, in almost every distillery, by quantity of alcohol rendered rather than quality of flavour and the character the barley brings to the whisky.

A number of provocative statements were made by Bruichladdich at the time. They stated that a number of distilleries were accessing the barley on the open market and no one knew where it was coming from – sure some was being grown in Scotland but from many other countries and supplied by grain merchants who consolidated the different barley to be shipped to Islay.Once on Islay it would be malted perhaps by a contract malter, delivered to the distiller, where it would be turned into spirit and transferred to road tankers and shipped off the island to huge mainland filling tanks where it would be loaded into casks and then stored on the mainland until it was bottled. Consider this – it had spent one week of its life on Islay, yet, it was branded as Islay whisky. When this story was taken up by the press, mainstream distillers were furious that a hidden truth about the industry was exposed – that whisky was being sold as brands. Traditionally, whisky distillers were so preoccupied with consistency – it had to look and taste exactly the same; now the only way to achieve that is to take a natural process and industrialise it. Some were adding caramel to appropriately colour their product creating a myth that if the whisky was darker in colour it was older – which is not the case.

Bruichladdich declared that they would never add colour even although it was standard practice – this upset the whisky industry. So what is interesting is that when the company was purchased it was not purchased by another whisky company but by Remy Cointreau , whose concept is fundamentally terroir and understand that what we were trying to do is to produce whisky as if we were fine wine producers. So Bruichladdich went 180 degrees away from the homogenous whiskies and started to celebrate variety, nuance, vintage different cask types, different types of barley different harvests, including organic barleys and ancient bere barleys that were traditional Scottish barleys used by crofters to make whisky – this led to over 432 different varieties of whisky over 11 years.
The other thing that Bruichladdich did was to reject all the typical Scottish whisky icons that adorn whisky packaging – stag heads, and shortbread type tartan and misty Scottish Glens and once again do completely the opposite and adopt a minimalist and modern style. Bruichladdich have a traditional approach to whisky making and a modernist approach to packaging Which is a contrast to other distilleries who have modern industrial approach to whisky making and have Scottish stereotype packaging.

So it is a fascinating story and like many successful marketing stories Bruichladdich is the story of a group of maveriks that questioned and challenged the conventions of an industry. Maveriks who closely listened, researched and analysed the trends and often went their own way.

Quote Carl Reavey: “In many regards Kilchoman are similar as they are very astute and independent thinkers; they too are interested in provenance, terroir, being authentic and hand made and 100% Islay made. Their marketing is what they do and say and not a mainland agency. I can tell you that those guys at Kilcholman have sweated blood to achieve what they achieved – they sweated blood and I may work for a competitor, but I love their story. Their message is simple and authentic and like Bruichladdich the product we make is everything and the message is secondary.”


Task: Identify the Key Success Factors in the above quote and consider how this commitment would shape the strategic thinking of the organisation of the Kilcholman and Bruichladdich distilleries.

Task: When we talked about profits we mentione that marketing is about profits for the customer, profits for the organisation, profits for the channel partners, and profits for the society. Reflect on the exemplar and consider the 4 types of profits.

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