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The fine art of selling Drambuie July 26, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Drinks & Beverages.
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The troubled drinks company is putting its exquisite art collection under the hammer this week in a bid to boost its profits and image.

Look on a bottle of Drambuie and you’ll find the Gaelic legend: Cuimnich An Tabhartas Prionnsa, “remember the gift of the prince”.

The prince in question was, of course, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Fleeing after the 1745 rebellion, he is reputed to have given his secret recipe for a restorative whisky punch to Captain John MacKinnon of Skye. So, it is said, an dram buidheach, “the drink that satisfies”, was passed down through generations of the clan MacKinnon, until it became the heather-honey and herb-flavoured whisky liqueur known today.

The trouble is that increasingly few people do remember the prince’s gift. In its heyday, Drambuie sold 750,000 cases a year; today the figure is less than half of that. The past few years have been turbulent for the company. In 2001 it reported a £3m loss.

Its owners, the reclusive MacKinnon brothers Duncan and Malcolm, relinquished managerial control, becoming non-executive directors. After a painful cost-cutting process under the new chief executive Phil Parnell, the company has managed to post a modest £270,000 profit.

This month sees perhaps the most remarkable side-effect of Parnell’s regime. At Lyon and Turnbull in Edinburgh, more than 150 pictures owned by Drambuie will be auctioned, the finest collection of Scottish paintings to have come to sale since the Wemyss-Honeyman collection in the 1970s, and perhaps the finest ever.

Robin Nicholson, curator of the Drambuie collection, prowls round the auction room, a converted church on Broughton Street, beaming. It seems a little strange, given that he is faced by the dispersal of a group of artworks he has spent 14 years assembling at the behest of the art-loving MacKinnon brothers.

“Not really,” says Nicholson. “I’m aware that corporate art collections are an odd beast and have a finite life. You accept that as part of the territory. Company assets always have the possibility of being realised.”

Most of the works will go to private buyers, although public galleries may seek to fill the odd gap in their collections. “But in a way, its dispersal is as significant an event as its collection,” he says. “It’s going to create waves in different ways.”

The briefest tour of the room shows why. It is a treasure trove of 19th- and early 20th-century art. Here a picture of the falls of Clyde by Alexander Nasmyth; there Edward Atkinson Hornel’s striking depiction of children hunting Easter eggs. Nicholson skips between the canvases with proprietorial pride, too many treasures, too little time: a remarkable oil of a village carnival by Robert Gemmell Hutchison; a couple of Francis Cadell’s; Cockenzie harbour by William McTaggart: John Linnell’s brooding romantic masterpiece Storm in Autumn, one of the few English paintings going under the hammer.

Promoting the sale on the banner outside is the Scottish colourist Samuel Peploe’s A Still Life of Pink Roses and Fruit (estimated price: £100-150,000). Nick Curnow, Lyon and Turnbull’s managing director and paintings expert, says during the hanging he found a label on the back stating the insurance price when it was exhibited in Aberdeen in 1951, £40.

Together with a collection of Wemyss Ware, furniture, jewellery and other objects, this week’s auction is expected to raise about £3m. That will be music to the ears of Parnell, the businessman.

Still, history shows that there has always been a hard-headed streak behind the company’s romantic myth. Away from the tales of secret royal potions lies a less familiar narrative about Highland ingenuity and business nous.

In 1900, Malcolm MacKinnon arrived in Edinburgh from Skye, where he went to work for a drinks company named W Macbeth and Sons. MacKinnon was not prepared to labour away in obscurity. A chance encounter in church brought him face to face with Eleanor Ross. In the 1870s, her late husband, John, landlord of the Broadford Inn on Skye, had begun to produce a version of the MacKinnon punch commercially, which was patented as Drambuie in 1893. Sensing an opportunity, MacKinnon bought the recipe from the widow, remixed it in Union Street (almost adjacent to where the Lyon and Turnbull auction house stands today) and encouraged the Macbeths to make up a batch for sale.

There is no record of how successful it was, although one can make a few assumptions from the fact that, on the death of one of the Macbeths in 1912, Malcolm offered to buy the firm, while in 1914 he established the Drambuie company as a separate enterprise.

It was, in many ways, a bad time for Scotland’s spirit-makers: David Lloyd George, the prime minister, was clamping down on alcohol by raising excise duties. For MacKinnon, however, the first world war was an unlikely salvation.

The drink was distributed to the officers’ messes of the Highland regiments. Then when prohibition was repealed in America, in 1933, Drambuie was one of the first to get in on the scene.

MacKinnon died in 1945. For the next two decades, his widow Gina toured the world promoting the brand. Shopping for the ingredients of the secret potion in her chauffeur-driven Bentley, Gina protected the recipe from rivals’ envious eyes by buying herbs and spices she didn’t need. She also made up the highly concentrated mixture herself in her private laboratory in Linlithgow, from where it was taken to Easter Road in Edinburgh to be blended with the whisky. The secret, said to rest in a safe at the Royal Bank of Scotland, has since been passed down the family’s female line and is now kept by her grandson Malcolm’s wife, Pamela.

Now Drambuie is again attempting to reposition and rebrand itself to survive. Its elderly fans are dying off and there is no queue of young people lining up to replace them. Hence a new campaign to push the drink in a new cocktail, with soda, ice and two wedges of lime. Traditionalists might be horrified. But you suspect that the entrepreneurial Malcolm MacKinnon of old would have understood that tradition alone doesn’t shift crates of spirits.

The money raised from next week’s sale of art will look very nice on Drambuie’s balance sheet. Yet their disposal is about corporate image as much as profit and loss. Asked why the firm is doing it now and Jonathan Brown, the director of brand heritage, is blunt: “Drambuie are manufacturers and marketers of a famous Scottish drinks brand, not art collectors.”

Nicholson would be entitled to feel a little peeved, but he has no regrets. “I hope the sale is going to edge Scottish art up to a new level in terms of appreciation.” In particular he hopes that artists such as William Quiller Orchardson, who today are hugely undervalued, could achieve a new level of recognition.

Shortly after the final lot is disposed off, Nicholson will, like Bonnie Prince Charlie before him, make his own escape over the sea — not to Skye but to America, to work for a public gallery on the east coast (“I can’t tell you which one yet because they haven’t announced it”).

He says he doesn’t know the fate of the Drambuie-owned collection of Jacobite glassware and artefacts. Certainly, the company denies any intentions to sell, and, for all their youth marketing, they might be shrewd to hang on.

The story of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s recipe may or may not be true. But nobody can deny he has given them the gift of publicity.

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1. panth3r - December 19, 2007

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