Billy Walker sells Benriach for £285million

Erikka Askeland

A whisky entrepreneur has sold three north-east distilleries in a deal worth £285million.

Billy Walker and his family will collect as much as £95million following the sale of their Benriach Distillery Company to US drinks giant Brown-Forman.

The deal includes the firm’s three single malt brands – The GlenDronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh – as well as a bottling plant in Newbridge and the company’s HQ in Edinburgh.

The firm employs 165 people, including 55 seasonal and casual workers.

Mr Walker and his two partners built up the organisation over the last 12 years after acquiring the mothballed BenRiach Distillery on the outskirts of Elgin from Chivas Brothers for £5million.

Mr Walker along with South African investors Geoff Bell and Wayne Kieswetter, who own equal shares in the business, then went on to added the Huntly-based GlenDronach distillery and the Glenglassaugh distillery in Portsoy to their portfolio.

Kentucky-based Brown-Forman, which owns bourbon brands including Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve, said the deal would allow it them to return to the single malt market after it sold its stake in Glenmorangie to Moet Hennessy in 2005.

Mr Walker, who was formerly an operations director and investor in whisky firm Burn Stewart, said the company had been “courted” by a number of potential buyers over the past two years.

He said: “The people who have previously approached us weren’t the right fit. Brown-Foreman have no presence in the Scotch whisky industry.

“We have taken the business to a very interesting level. It is capable of going to another level.

“It really isn’t about the money. I know that sounds kind of trite. If there was going to be a change of ownership it had to be to people who were sensitive to the people and the work on the brands that we have already done.

“Brown-Forman have a good track record with people and brands.”

Paul Varga, the chief executive of Brown-Forman, which employs 4,400 people, said: “The acquisition of these super-premium brands will allow us to re-enter one of our industry’s most exciting and consistent growth segments, single malt Scotch whisky.

“The Glendronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh single malt brands are rich in history and we believe they will continue to prosper and grow in our hands.”

Sales of the company’s whisky rose 18% to £41.6million in the year to the end of 2014.

In 2014 the firm made a profit of £11.1million, and owed the bank £27.1million.