When Melbourne entrepreneur David Prior sold his organic yoghurt start-up, five:am, for $80 million in 2014, some people were critical.
“There was a bit of, ‘what did you sell that for? If you hung on a couple of years more, you would have done so much better’,” Prior says. “Sometimes you make those calls, and I think life rewarded me.”
A year later, Prior bought a 200-year-old whisky distillery in the southern Scottish lowlands.
In case you’re wondering, these don’t pop up often. There are only 100 active distilleries in Scotland. Of those, a handful aren’t owned by a major company.
When Bladnoch Distillery – which ceased production in 2009 – went on the market, Prior put in an undisclosed offer. So did close to 100 other parties.
“Four weeks later, we signed the deal. It was an absolute, serendipitous kind of event,” he says.
He inherited an archive of aged stock, which master distiller Ian Macmillan had the “enviable job” of tasting his way through. Prior also took on the distillery’s 10 employees (which makes him the largest employer in the town).
Despite the recent successes of Australian-made whisky, such as Tasmania’s Lark Distillery (a Best World Whisky winner), and Essendon’s Starward Whisky (which just scooped double-gold in an international spirits competition), Prior wasn’t interested in setting up at home.
“I had my heart set on Scotland,” Prior says. “I really like the provenance around Scotch whisky. They’ve been doing it for 400 years, so you get pretty good at making something after that amount of time.”
Prior released Pure Scot into the Australian market in November. It’s a new, premium, blended whisky in what he knows is a crowded market, but also an as-yet untapped one when it comes to millennial drinkers – especially women. A single malt will come out later this year.
Pure Scot doesn’t look like other whiskies. While most established brands trade on a projection of masculinity, tradition and longevity, Pure Scot is conspicuously modern. It comes in an unusual, square-edged bottle. The natural vista on the label is one you’d expect to see on a bottle of mineral water.
Prior noticed an uptick of innovation and differentiation in vodka and gin brands, and recognised an opportunity to do the same with Scotch whisky.
“It’s a much younger, more contemporary-tasting product,” Prior says of his blended whisky.
“We’re finding people’s palates are moving towards a lighter style, such as to French, Italian or Spanish wines, or pinots,” Prior says. “We’re seeing the same thing with Scotch whisky. Not everyone wants that huge, smoky, knock-you-on-the-head type of whisky. This is a very approachable, light, floral-tasting whisky that we think is highly drinkable.”
Pure Scot is typical of a lowlands product – it’s quite fresh and grassy, with a warm, honey flavour. Because it’s not too peaty, it’s a good entry-level whisky. It also gets along well with soda and other mixers.
A self-confessed Scotch lover since the age of 18, the now 45-year-old Prior says whisky is a quickly growing trend overseas, and expects Australia to follow.
“In the US, absolutely it’s the drink of choice. There are whisky bars everywhere, and it’s [favoured] by young consumers, around 25 to 35. And it’s being driven by women.”
His confidence in the potential of Scotch whisky in Australia and beyond (he’ll take Pure Scot to Asia and the US next) ties into greater drinking trends Prior sees across the board.
“People are drinking less, but they’re drinking better quality,” he says. “Whisky fits beautifully into that kind of attitude.”