Drinks giants, fashion tycoons, and the world’s richest man: who owns Scotland’s whisky?

Nearly 70 per cent of malt distilleries are ultimately owned by companies outside Scotland with wealthy people linked to the whisky industry — including a French fashion billionaire, an Australian yoghurt tycoon, a Swiss philanthropist and Thailand’s richest man.

The Ferret can reveal that of the 126 Scots distilleries only a third (42) are owned by Scottish firms.

Companies based in Bermuda, Gibraltar, China, France, Japan, Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand are among those investing in an industry which was worth £3.8bn to the Scottish economy in 2020.

Foreign investment has been welcomed by some commentators. But others expressed concern that profit could flow out of Scotland and domestic industry be excluded.

In 2009, as reported by The Herald, overseas firms ran nearly half of Scotland’s distilleries. By 2016 just under one quarter — 29 out of 118  — were owned by Scots firms. 

New research by The Ferret has found that nearly 33 per cent are owned by firms outwith Scotland. Around a quarter  — 24.6 per cent — are owned by companies registered in England. 

France comes next with 14.3 per cent ownership, followed by Philippines with 6.3 per cent and Japan with 5.6 per cent. 

The main player is drinks giant Diageo, which is based in London. It owns 28 distilleries including brands such as Lagavulin, Talisker and Dalwhinne. 

Chivas Brothers — whose parent company Pernod Ricard Group is based in France — owns 13. Other French companies include La Martiniquaise which owns Glen Turner Company. Based in Paris, La Martiniquaise is France’s second largest spirits group, owned by French billionaire, Jean-Pierre Cayard.

Paris-based LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) controls Ardbeg Distillery on Islay, and Glenmorangie in Tain. LVMH’s chairman is Bernard Arnault, the French fashion tycoon who became the world’s richest man in May.

Photo Credit: iStock/Niall MacTaggart

His estimated net worth then was £134.8bn – putting him above Jeff Bezos, worth £134.6bn, and Elon Musk, worth £106.6bn. Another French company — Rémy Cointreau Group — owns Bruichladdich Distillery, on Islay, while Picard Vins and Spiriteaux, owns Tullibardine distillery in Perthshire.

Beam Suntory owns five distilleries including Laphroaig on Islay. The company is a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings of Osaka, Japan, a multinational that employs 40,000 people. 

According to Forbes, Suntory is controlled by 18 members of the combined Saji and Torii clan, apparently descended from Shinjiro Torii, who founded the company in 1899. Suntory whisky notably features in the 2003 film Lost In Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. 

Inver House Distillers owns five distilleries. It’s part of International Beverage Holdings whose parent firm is Thai Beverage, aka ThaiBev, from Thailand.

A Thai billionaire called Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi — the son of a Bangkok street vendor — controls Thai Beverage. He is Thailand’s richest man with a net worth of around £12bn.

Four distilleries are owned by Emperador, a Philippines company which is the world’s largest brandy manufacturer. 

Emperador is one of three companies within Alliance Global Group, headed by Dr Andrew Tan, a self-made Chinese Filipino billionaire. The son of a factory worker, Tan built his fortune developing apartment complexes around Manila.

US firm Brown-Forman owns the Benriach Distillery Company which operates Glendronach and Glenlasseugh distilleries in the Highlands, and BenRiach in Speyside. Based in Louisville, Brown-Forman was founded in 1870 and survived prohibition to become one of America’s largest spirits companies.

Chinese distiller Jiangxiaobai Liquor owns Glen Scotia distillery, in Campbeltown, and Loch Lomond Distillery Company, whose registered address is in London. In April 2020 Jiangxiaobai became the major shareholder of HH SUM-XII Holdings Limited — registered in the Cayman Islands — and is the “ultimate controlling party” according to its most recent accounts.

Wolfburn  – in Thurso – is run by Aurora Brewing Limited, owned by Fairfax Limited, which is registered in Gibraltar. Bacardi Limited, headquartered in Hamilton, Bermuda, owns five distilleries. 

For an export-facing commodity like Scotch whisky, these international ties are likely to support the development of new export markets, which we have certainly seen in the last few years for Scotch whisky — barring the impacts of recent tariff issues and Covid-19, of course.

Mairi Spowage, acting director of the Fraser of Allander Institute

It is the parent company of John Dewar and Sons. HOE International, from Taiwan, owns Speyside Distillery Company Limited.

Scotland’s most southerly distillery, Bladnoch in Dumfries and Galloway, was bought by an Australian yoghurt entrepreneur called David Prior in 2015. Italian firm Campari Group owns Glen Grant in Speyside.

South African drinks giant Distell International owns Burn Stewart Distillers, which operates three distilleries in Doune, Perthshire, Bunnahabhain on the Isle of Islay, and Tobermory, Mull. 

Lalique Group, a Swiss luxury goods firm, owns Glenturret Scotch Whisky after paying £15.5m for a 50 per cent stake in a joint venture with Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire linked recently to funding in US politics.

Russian businessmen are involved with a Fife distillery. Directors of The Lindores Distilling Company, which operates Lindores Abbey Distillery in Newburgh, include Russian’s Anton Buslov and Sergue Fokin. Its parent firm is Spirex Limited

William Grant and Sons — a Scottish business — operates four malt distilleries. It is owned by Glenn Gordon and family, who are worth £3.59bn according to The Sunday Times rich list.

Edrington Group — another Scottish firm — owns three distilleries. Founded in 1861 the company’s principal shareholder is The Robertson Trust, which has given more than £300m to charities.

Several new distilleries have opened over the past few years including Holyrood Distillery in 2019, the first single malt in the centre of Edinburgh for almost 100 years. That same year Isle of Arran Distillers opened its second distillery in the village of Lagg, on the southern tip of the Isle of Arran. 

Scotland’s first ever community-owned distillery, Glenwyvis, in Dingwall, opened in 2017 after more than 1,000 people invested in the project. Dingwall’s last whisky distillery closed in 1926.

Mairi Spowage, acting director of the Fraser of Allander Institute, said that inward investment in any Scottish industry is “likely to be welcomed by policymakers”. 

She added: “For an export-facing commodity like Scotch whisky, these international ties are likely to support the development of new export markets, which we have certainly seen in the last few years for Scotch whisky — barring the impacts of recent tariff issues and Covid-19, of course.” 

Spowage said there is evidence that such investment leads to “other positive spillover effects in terms of the impacts on skills and productivity, including in the supply chain”. But she added the evidence is mixed and it is possible the “domestic industry can be crowded out”.

She said: “Some will of course be concerned that such an important industry is not mainly in Scottish hands, but this data continues a long term trend of consolidation in the drinks industry.

“However, given the protected nature of Scotch whisky, we know it will continue to be produced in Scotland. Part of the downside of foreign ownership is that some profit income will flow out of the country – but only after domestic taxes have been paid, in this case to the UK Government in the form of corporation tax.”

Matthew Farmer, manager at Glenwyvis Distillery, said the identity of whisky is “protected by stringent regulation” and that even the biggest distilleries “are inherently tied to their location”.

He added: “They will naturally buy barley from Scottish farms, use Scottish water and power and discharge their effluent under Scottish oversight. Outside investment in our distilleries doesn’t have to be a Faustian bargain as long as it is exactly that – an investment.”

Farmer said the biggest concern people should have is “whether the profit from this use of our skilled labour and natural resources is ultimately finding its way back into the country.” 

He continued: “You would think an 18-year-old whisky should be more than enough incentive to invest for future decades, but not every bottom line supports it. At GlenWyvis, we are a community benefit society, owned by our members for our members with an unheard of level of transparency for a distillery.

“People can see exactly where their money is going, and profit (small as it is), goes right back into local social investments.”

At the end of the day Scotch must be made in Scotland and that will never change. It’s not like they can move operations overseas, in the way that other products can be produced under licence in a different market.

Blair Bowman

Blair Bowman, a whisky consultant and broker, said that international companies are “investing heavily in Scotland” and in rural communities to provide jobs that “wouldn’t have been possible to sustain without the whisky industry”.

He added: “Not to mention the wider supply chain that is supported as a result of this. I understand why some might see this as a negative thing but I don’t see it like that. Provided of course that the relevant due diligence is completed (know your customer) in advance of any large foreign investment.

“At the end of the day Scotch must be made in Scotland and that will never change. It’s not like they can move operations overseas, in the way that other products can be produced under licence in a different market.”

Anne-Sophie Bigot, the French writer of the Whisky Lady blog, said there are “obvious benefits” of international ownership of distilleries as it “definitely paves an easier road to some specific oversea markets – Asia, EU or America in particular”. 

She added: “On the other hand, one could, of course, argue that this big proportion of internationally owned distilleries are in fact depossessing Scotland from its culture, know how and heritage, as owners would maybe tend to produce whiskies dedicated to their home markets – and ultimately we may lose the unique character of Scotch whisky? 

A spokesperson for the Scotch Whisky Association said: “The way Scotch Whisky producers export to the European Union has changed now that the UK has left the EU, including changes to customs systems and paperwork as well as the withdrawal of some transport services to the EU. 

The spokesperson added: “Conversely, the UK’s exit from the EU has opened a number of welcome opportunities for Scotch Whisky in other global markets.”

Source: Malt Whisky Yearbook 2021

WHO BUYS SCOTLAND’S WHISKY

Latest figures show that in 2020 the export value of Scotch whisky was £3.8bn, which was down £1.1bn compared with 2019. 

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) reported that exports had fallen in 127 of 179 global markets. It said the figures were the lowest in a decade due to Covid-19 and a tariffs in the US. 

The industry was hit with a 25 per cent tariff on single malt by the administration of former US President Donald Trump, after both countries imposed tariffs in a trade row. The dispute was over subsidies given to Airbus and Boeing. The tariffs were dropped in March.

The EU was the largest global regional market in 2020 with exports amounting to £1.26bn, or 33 per cent of total global exports. Asia and Oceania was second with £998m, while the North American market was worth £904m.

The Scotch Whisky Association says the largest export markets in 2020 were:

Countries% of Global Exports
USA: £729m-31.8% (£1.07bn in 2019)
France: £375m-13.1% (£432m in 2019)
Singapore: £247m-17.6% (£300m in 2019)
Taiwan: £182m-11.5% (£205m in 2019)
Latvia: £176m+23.6% (£142m in 2019)
Germany: £139m -24.9% (£185m in 2019)
Japan: £114m-22.1% (£147m in 2019)
Australia: £113m-3.17% (£117m in 2019)
Spain: £109m-40.0% (£180m in 2019)
China: £107m+20.4% (£89m in 2019)

This investigation is part of our wider series Who Runs Scotland. We will be shedding a light on ownership and power in Scotland’s economy, environment and politics.

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Photo Credit: krisanapong detraphiphat/iStock

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