Alan Gray – An Appreciation

The death has been announced of Alan Gray, a leading business analyst and commentator on the Scotch Whisky industry.

For more than 40 years Alan’s annual Scotch Whisky Industry Review charted the successes – and reverses – of Scotland’s most celebrated export and Alan became the media’s go to voice on almost every aspect of the country’s national drink and the activities of the companies producing it.

Within the industry, Alan was respected for his forensic attention to detail – particularly in the numbers – and for his integrity and open-minded approach, even when he clearly wasn’t always in agreement with some aspects of the industry’s strategic direction or individual company decisions.

Alan was born in Lanark in 1939 and brought up in the nearby village of Forth where his parents ran a small business. His education was at Forth Primary School followed by Lanark Grammar.

After school he pursued a career in accountancy, first with the firm of Mann Judd Gordon and later with McGregor Walker, both in Glasgow. Although he qualified as a Chartered Accountant, Alan decided the profession wasn’t for him and he joined the then-Glasgow Herald as a financial journalist working on the newspaper’s business pages.

When Alan’s editor moved to the newspaper’s London office he asked Alan to join him. Alan and his wife Margaret spent the next year-and-a-half in London as the city embraced the “swinging sixties.”

With the arrival of their first child – son Barry – the couple began to think about returning to Scotland and for Alan, this also meant a career shift – from financial journalism to stockbroking.

The Glasgow broker Campbell Neill provided Alan with the opportunity to focus his financial and journalistic talents on business analyses and research.

The late sixties and early seventies saw strong growth and substantial investment in both Scotch Whisky’s global markets and its Scottish production base.

The drinks industry – and Scotch Whisky in particular – became central to Alan’s interests and he rapidly developed as a well-informed and respected analyst and later commentator on an industry he saw as not just an integral component of Scotland’s industrial fabric but also as an important element of the country’s history and culture.

Alan’s regular reports on the industry led to a more ambitious venture – his annual Scotch Whisky Industry Review, the first edition appearing in 1977 just as the industry was coming to terms with the effects of over-optimistic forecasting, capacity investment and stock creation that led to the infamous “Scotch Whisky Loch.”

Alan’s annual review – and monthly newsletters – became established as a credible and reliable source of information on the industry: production and stock levels, shipments, brand performance – even sponsorships and visitor centre information – were all covered in an annual summary often running to 300 densely packed pages of data and insight.

And as the accountants in one leading industry player discovered, Alan’s book travelled well beyond the UK. In a dispute with Korea’s customs service, they were taken aback by the quality and extent of the industry information being quoted by the Koreans, until it was revealed that the customs officials were using a current copy of Alan’s industry review.

In an industry where myth and illusion have been all too evident in the past and where new arrivals often have little solid historical reference points, Alan’s collected work and his unfailing dedication to the truth – and the numbers – represent an invaluable record of an industry and its progress through decades of economic turmoil, regional conflict, government upheaval and changing

consumer behaviours.

Just before he died, at the age of 80, Alan succeeded in completing and issuing his Scotch Whisky Industry Review 2019.

Alan’s contribution to the Scotch Whisky industry and how it was understood beyond the distilleries, bottling halls and boardrooms was unique; his resolute pursuit of the annual updates to his book, his commitment to capturing and recording the truth and his willingness to challenge conventional thinking or what he regarded as specious marketing claims earned him lasting respect in the industry.

Above everything, Alan maintained an unswerving belief in how a healthy and successful Scotch whisky industry could bring economic, social and cultural benefit to Scotland.

And indeed he lived long enough to see the industry return to growth, to witness the arrival of a new generation of distillers and to welcome major investments in production facilities and visitor centres across Scotland.

Deep down, he harboured concerns over the possibility of a return to over-production and the bad old days of the “Whisky Loch” but vigilance was always at the heart of Alan’s approach and spoke to the true value of his contribution.

He was never afraid to ask the difficult question and to remind those charged with running the industry where the lessons learned from past mistakes could to be applied to the creation of a better future.

The industry responded to Alan’s continuing contribution by enrolling him as a Keeper of the Quaich, and later as a Master of the prestigious, international organisation established to honour those whose service to the industry was deemed exemplary.

To the many people in the industry who came into contact with Alan over the years, the abiding memory will be of his warmth, generosity and kindness. While he could always be depended on to challenge the official line, Alan could also be trusted implicitly with off-the-record background material and this integrity facilitated long lasting and productive relationships across the industry.

Away from work, Alan loved travelling with Margaret. In the early days family holidays were often spent on Islay – Scotland’s “whisky island” – where Alan and Margaret retained strong and long-lasting connections with friends made on their visits there. More ambitious trips were made to the United States where Alan had relatives in Georgia and in later years to Australia where son David made his life.

At home in Hamilton, Alan was secretary of his local community council, played a key role in the creation of an annual Civic Week and was actively involved in the re-naming of the Hillhouse Sports Centre in recognition of Jock Stein who was born in the area.

Alan is survived by Margaret, his wife of 56 years, by sons Barry, Colin and David and by six grandchildren who he adored.

Ken Robertson