"I'VE STARED DOWN the barrel of a gun a couple of times in my life,” says Ronnie Cox, brands heritage director at Berry Bros & Rudd Spirits – and he’s not talking in the figurative sense. “In the 80s in Latin America, if you sacked a distributor they wouldn’t take to it very kindly. On one particularly alarming occasion, the moment I checked into a hotel in Paraguay I got a call from a distributor I’d sacked the year before. He said to me: ‘I told you never to return to this country, what are you doing here?’ I checked out.”
That was just one of Cox’s scrapes. Thirteen years of pedaling scotch in the then “wild west” of Latin America is bound to give rise to a predicament or two. But judging by Cox’s countenance as he recalls his memories, there were more good times than bad. His travels as a young man, mainly at the behest of The Distillers Company (acquired by Guinness in 1986, forming United Distillers), certainly taught him a thing or two about selling whisky. “After shaking 5,000 hands you could tell by the handshake and looking the chap in the eye whether you were going to do business with him,” he says.
Making a deal
The first of those handshakes came over a deal for Black & White – one of the Distillers Company’s scotch blends at the time. Cox picks up the thread: “It was with a chap who was starting up a small wholesale business but didn’t have much cash. He said he wouldn’t be able to pay for another six months and that I would have to trust him. I told him I wasn’t going to ship 500 cases to someone I didn’t know without some sort of guarantee.
“To this, he opened his desk drawer, dumped a plastic bag of white powder on the table and told me again to trust him. I couldn’t believe it. He stabbed the bag with a biro and put some on my tongue… it was sugar. He had got me. We were firm friends ever since and from 500 cases of Black & White he went to 20,000 cases within a few years and ended up buying an enormous amount of Buchanan’s.”
Hand-selling has always been Cox’s business – an approach, he says, which is even more effective in his current role at the upmarket single malt end of whisky. As brands heritage director for Berry Bros, Cox looks after Glenrothes scotch from Speyside, Number 3 gin and The King’s Ginger whisky liqueur. A capacity to wine, dine and do deals has in no small part been aided by his aristocratic charm and immaculate presentation, but Cox also has history in scotch.