By Scott Wright

HE is celebrating his 50th year in the Scotch whisky industry. But the passing of time has not dimmed the passion that Billy Walker has for making high-quality single malt.

“You are lucky if you wake up in the morning and a/ you have a purpose, and b/ if that purpose is quite enjoyable,” said the celebrated distiller, who since 2017 has been majority shareholder of Speyside’s GlenAllachie Distillery. “Working in this industry has never presented itself as a job to me. It has just been fun, particularly when you get your hands on the levers yourself. There are so many interesting things that you can do and played around with.

“I still wake up with enthusiasm, maybe a little bit later than I did before, but still waking up with enthusiasm.”

Reaching the five-decade milestone has naturally caused Mr Walker to reflect on a career that began when he joined Hiram Walker & Sons, then owner of Ballantine’s blended Scotch whisky, in his hometown of Dumbarton. He marvels at the way single malt whisky has emerged as a sought-after luxury product in markets around the world, most notably in the “dynamic” economies of Asia.

READ MORE: Scott Wright: More Scots firms losing independence as investors swoop for big names

“What has happened over the last 50 years is just amazing,” he said. “If we could have drawn the future of where the market would be 50 years ago, I think we would have been amazed. The break-up of the USSR, the emergence of China as a free market, Taiwan, South Korea, Asia generally, where the energy and dynamic is just amazing. People’s wages and available money have improved enormously in these parts of the world.”

Mr Walker graduated with a degree in pharmacy from the University of Glasgow in 1967, after which he had a rewarding role in research for a Dutch pharmaceutical company.

But he said it was almost preordained that he would join the distilling industry in the historic whisky town of Dumbarton.

“I came from Dumbarton, so it was inevitable that I would end being involved with Ballantine’s and Hiram Walker group, and that is how I started,” Mr Walker said.

After 50 years at the sharp end of the industry, it is impossible to list all of the highlights of Mr Walker’s career. He said each role he has occupied has offered its own opportunities to learn and grow, though he does single out his time at East Kilbride’s Burn Stewart Distillers as pivotal. Mr Walker joined the distiller in 1982, following a six-year spell as master blender at Inver House Distillers, and stayed for 20 years.

READ MORE: Scott Wright: Fears of slew of bar and restaurant failures across Scotland

During this period, the distiller resurrected the Deanston and Tobermory distilleries, and Mr Walker would become part of the team that completed a management buyout of the business from the Hillman family, who now own the Tomintoul and Glencadam distilleries, in 1988.

Mr Walker remained with Burn Stewart until it was acquired by Trinidad-based CL Financial in 2002, with the sale giving Mr Walker the impetus – and firepower – to purchase the BenRiach distillery in 2004. The BenRiach Distillery Company was formed and went on to add the GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh distilleries to its stable. All three were rejuvenated after having been either been in mothballs, closed or under-exposed to the market prior to their acquisition.

Reflecting on his time at Burn Stewart, Mr Walker said: “It was kind of life-changing because it opened up the opportunity to have some capital to play with, and that allowed us to move on to BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh.”

He added: “That was a wonderful opportunity [that] you could never possibly have imagined when you set out on the journey.

“It also opened your eyes. It gave you burdens and responsibilities that maybe you did not want. But these were great times.”

READ MORE: Monday Interview: Scottish tourism chief embraces new decade at industry alliance

The latest chapter in Mr Walker’s career opened five years ago when, along with long-standing Trisha Savage and Graham Stevenson, acquired GlenAllachie from Chivas Brothers. The investment marked Mr Walker’s return to the industry following the sale of BenRiach to Brown-Forman for £285 million in 2016, and he explains that it has been exciting to work with the stock inherited as part of the deal. Today, GlenAllachie offers a core range of eponymous single malts as well as blended malts and Scotch whiskies under the MacNairs and White Heather brands.

“In the last five years, to have been given the opportunity to acquire GlenAllachie from Chivas, it has been a really, really smashing time,” he said. “We are doing a lot of things based on what we have learned over these many, many years in the business.”

GlenAllachie is marking Mr Walker’s 50-year milestone with a trilogy of special releases, with the first of The GlenAllachie Past, Present and Future range released last month. A fully sherry matured single malt, it is available in the UK at the recommended retail price of £225 per bottle. The bottling celebrates Mr Walker’s early career, when he built his reputation by releasing heavily sherried whiskies to critical acclaim.

Asked what further ambitions he has for GlenAllachie, which exports to scores of markets around the world, Mr Walker replied: “I suppose my ambition now is that we continue to build GlenAllachie into the business that we wanted it to become. And I have to say we have been very fortunate. The journey that we have been on since we have had it has worked out extremely well.

“But we know where we are strong, we know the markets that we can engage with – private importers and distributors into private independent retailers. That is where our strength is and that is where we will continue to play the game.”

He does acknowledge, though, that the industry faces several challenges at present, from supply-chain upheaval to soaring input costs and the cost-of-living crisis.

“We have to be aware of the orbit that people are living in, there is no question that inflation is going to be a challenge; price increases and supply-chain disruption are going to be a challenge. But in a sense we operate on the basis that we cannot make the situation. We tend to take what the situation says and build our plans and strategies round about that.

“Sure, it will be affected by what is happening, but the market is so strong just now. In spite of all these barriers and obstacles, people are still energetic and buying into the category, thankfully more than ever. Right now everything we are bottling and planning for bottling is virtually on allocation or pre-sold.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring Asia throughout my career; in particular, South Korea, China and Taiwan really captivated me. 
The dynamic energy there is incredible, plus they love single malt Scotch whisky which is an added bonus!

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal? 

My dream job when I was growing up was definitely to become a professional football player. I made it to a semi-professional level, but then the whisky world called!

What was your biggest break in business? 

This would undoubtedly have to be the opportunity to purchase BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh Distilleries. What a wonderful and unexpected surprise that was! 

What was your worst moment in business? 

To be completely candid, I’m lucky to say there haven’t been any terrible moments (yet!). I hope I haven’t jinxed it!

Who do you most admire and why?

I deeply respect and admire the late Raymond Miquel CBE who was the head of whisky firm Arthur Bell & Sons for many years and the genius behind the revival and success of some of Scotland’s most famous brands. 

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to? 

I don’t have a book on the go at the moment, but my music of choice would be anything by the wonderful Jim Reeves.