Fast-forward to the summer of 2013, and Sir Ian has just stepped down as chairman of a whisky company which now has truly global clout and some of the biggest brands on the international stage, including The Macallan, The Famous Grouse, Highland Park and Cutty Sark.
Sir Ian is well aware it could all have been so different.
Glasgow-based Edrington's growth into a major global player was enabled by the bold but essential £601 million acquisition of the then stock market-listed Highland Distillers in 1999, a deal driven by Sir Ian and backed financially by the family-owned William Grant & Sons. This deal came 20 years after the long-time Edrington chief, then at the tender age of 36, appeared before the competition authorities to argue successfully why distiller Hiram Walker should not be allowed to acquire Highland.
And Sir Ian, who will be 70 next month, reveals he also had significant worries that another bidder might come in for Highland around the time Edrington acquired this company. Highland was Edrington's joint venture partner for The Famous Grouse.
In its last financial year to March 31, Edrington achieved a 13% rise in pre-tax profits before exceptional items to £168.6m on the back of a 6% increase in turnover to a record £591.3m.
Edrington's impressive growth into a global heavyweight has been achieved while remaining under the ownership of a charitable trust put in place by the Robertson sisters, Elspeth, Agnes and Ethel (known as "Babs") back in 1961, when they donated their shares in Robertson & Baxter and Clyde Bonding Company to a new parent company, Edrington.
Sir Ian says: "The reason the charity was set up (was) because there were three maiden ladies who held the shares in the family businesses. They were all born around the turn of the century - they would be around the 60 mark. They realised (that) when they died, the company would have to be sold to pay death duties. At that time, death duties were 80%.
"This is where (merchant banking adviser) Morgan Grenfell came in. They took the best advice about what they could do. The advice was they would give up their shares. They would put them into a company. That company they named as Edrington...because that was the name of one of their farms."
Reflecting on more than four decades with Edrington, at The Robertson Trust's offices on Bath Street, Sir Ian notes that the charitable trust has since 1961 given more than £125 million to charities. And he highlights the extent to which the trust's donations, made for charitable work in Scotland, have grown with the expansion of Edrington.
Sir Ian says: "In the early days, the trust was very small because the company was relatively small...In the early days, the donations were pretty small. In fact, in 1969, they gave donations of £90,000.
"In 2013, the year to 5th April 2013, the figure is £15.3 million. That is entirely because the business has grown."
The Robertson Trust supports four areas through its donations. These are care, health, education and training, and community arts and sport.
Sir Ian says: "Education and training is primarily done through The Robertson Scholarship Trust. That is to help people from, I suppose you would use the expression 'poorer backgrounds', who have academic ability and could not afford to go to university. It has been a tremendous success. We have had some very, very clever young people who have really made it as a result of that."
Highlighting the number of people who have been supported through this scholarship scheme, he adds: "It would be hundreds."
Sir Ian also highlights The Robertson Trust's £1 million-plus funding, over a five-year period at the start of the new millennium, of an independent research project on drug misuse, the findings of which were shared with the Scottish Government.
He says of this Drug Outcome Research in Scotland study: "There were a lot of ideas. There was no research...We came out with some very interesting statistics which we then shared with government."
The findings also helped direct The Robertson Trust's giving.
Sir Ian, who was chairman of The Robertson Trust from 2000 to 2012 and has been succeeded in this post by David Stevenson of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill founding family, explains: "We had a situation where we had two teenagers living side-by-side in the same street. One got into drugs and the other wasn't on drugs. In that particular instance, one played sport and the other didn't.
"If young people have activities and interests, they are less likely to get sucked into the drugs thing.
"That seems very obvious. What that then led us into was the whole question of funding sports activities, sports facilities, in areas where drugs are most prevalent."
The Robertson sister who mainly looked after the family's Scotch whisky interests, referred to fondly by Sir Ian as "Miss Babs", was clear that the charitable trust's efforts should be focused on Scotland.
Sir Ian, who retired as chairman of Edrington on July 31 after 19 years in the post and handed over to former president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland Norman Murray, says: "When I say we have spent £15.3m (in the year to April 5 2013) I would be pretty sure 100% of it would be in Scotland.
"That was something, again, Miss (Babs) Robertson said, 'I think we should be giving money to Scottish charities because there are plenty of companies down south who can give money to English charities'."
Miss Babs was also at pains to ensure The Robertson Trust's anonymity when it made donations. Sir Ian recalls one tale, from 1971, by way of example.
He says: "For many years, donations from The Robertson Trust were anonymous, but one of the causes very close to the Miss Robertsons' heart was lifeboats.
"The Thurso lifeboat was donated by The Robertson Trust. The nearest we could get to any recognition...was that it was known as The Three Sisters.
"I remember it was a journalist...who obviously tried very hard to find out who those three sisters were, and wrote a story about those three sisters down near Berwick who had set up this trust. Miss Babs came into the office and said, 'Who is it? They must have got this information from somewhere'."
Sir Ian adds: "I can assure you we wouldn't do it (and) we would know the reaction. We had this situation where this guy had done this research, had found out, I don't know how he had found out. Miss Robertson was furious."
Miss Babs died in 1985 and, a few years later, Sir Ian recalls that he and his predecessor and mentor at Edrington, John Macphail, decided to raise the question of publicising donations with Elspeth Robertson.
Sir Ian recalls he was nominated by his mentor to raise this delicate issue: "I just said, 'We were just wondering if we could use The Robertson Trust's name as the giftor.'
"Miss Elspeth said, 'Yes, certainly. I am surprised we didn't do it before'.
"That would have been 1988 before it became public."
Asked what he has been most proud of, in terms of his time at Edrington, Sir Ian, who handed over the chief executive part of his role at Edrington, which he had held since 1989, to Ian Curle in 2004, replies: "It wasn't me, but we saw a weakness in not owning brands and one of the things I felt we had to do, or we felt we had to do, was have direct control over the brands and the Highland acquisition did that."
Asked if he was worried back then that another bidder might come in for Highland, he replies: "Yes, very much so. There were rumblings."
However, highlighting stakebuilding by Edrington in Highland ahead of the bid, to take its holding to nearly 28%, Sir Ian adds: "If you spend five years...in building up a stake, it is quite a strong bargaining position. We wouldn't have gone for the Highland thing without having that very strong base."
Sir Ian's interest in horse-racing will ensure he remains busy following his departure from Edrington, and he has also been appointed life president of The Robertson Trust. He is deputy senior steward of the Jockey Club, and chairman of Hamilton Park Racecourse.
He owns two horses, Crowning Jewel and Victor Hewgo, in partnership with retired accountant Charlie Anderson.
Revealing how he became interested in horse-racing when he was doing chartered accountancy training with Mr Anderson, which involved classes on a Friday night and Saturday morning, Sir Ian says: "He knew about horses, and we talked about horses. On one of these daft Friday nights, we said 'one day, we will own a horse'. That would have been in the mid-60s. We bought our first horse in 1987. The two of us have had horses right through since then."
Recalling how he came to work at Edrington, Sir Ian says: "I joined the group through an advert in the Glasgow Herald in 1969...for a newly-qualified accountant. I had qualified in 1967. I had spent a couple of years with Price Waterhouse, in London and Glasgow, and wanted to get into business and saw this advert, and was interviewed and got the job. The Glasgow Herald has a real place in the story."
Asked whether, back in 1969, he had conceived of Edrington growing into a company of the scale it is now, Sir Ian replies: "No. You obviously hope you can grow the business. It was a totally different company but, again, there have been some terrific people in the business that have enabled that to happen.
"I make no bones about the fact that, in John Macphail, I had a superb mentor, The Miss Robertsons...just epitomised all that you try to envisage in a company: integrity and philosophy and an interest in people. It is probably old-fashioned. It is still very core to us."