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Refining a traditional brand name

The Dalmore Distillery has been producing malts for more than 160 years.
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ALNESS, Scotland (CNN) -- Looking out over the waters of Scotland's Cromarty Firth, the Dalmore Distillery has been producing whisky since 1839.

Amid warehouses of traditional Highland sandstone stacked with barrels of ageing malts, it is difficult to imagine much has changed since James Whyte and Charles Mackay started manufacturing the drink here in the mid-19th century.

Yet, behind the veneer of calm and tradition at its distilleries, Whyte and Mackay has just undergone two years of major upheaval, replacing its entire board and spending $130 million on a re-marketing, re-structuring and re-naming strategy.

The effect has been to secure the company's place at the forefront of its industry. This year Whyte and Mackay was named "Distiller of the Year" at the prestigious International Wine and Spirit Competition.

The man responsible for the company's resurgence is South African Vivian Imerman. Two years ago the turnaround specialist bought up 60 percent of stock in the struggling Kyndal spirits manufacturer and renamed it after its most famous product.

"I saw a business that had very good quality products that was not concentrating on its brands," says Imerman.

"I looked at the life cycle of the industry that we were going into and there had been consolidation at the top of the industry. I saw an opportunity where we could be a consolidating factor in the lower end of the market and we could leverage the very good quality spirits that the company had on its Scots side and grow the brands over, say, a five-year period."

That five-year plan involved longer hours at the distilleries and 200 job losses among the 700 staff, most of them at a bottling plant in Edinburgh that is due to close in 2006.

But a $100,000 cash injection to revitalize the company's four premium whisky brands and the promotion of those brands beyond the core British market has taken the company forward.

"Basically we changed the packaging, we changed the idea behind the brand, who we were marketing it to," says Imerman.

"We focused on our target market. We do everything consistent so there is no ambiguity in what we are trying to achieve and we really promote it in a consistent manner."

Despite Whyte and Mackay's newfound internationalism, it's still a Scotsman who's in charge of quality control.

Master Blender Richard Paterson has been the company's greatest asset for the past 35 years. But it's only now that he feels his blends are getting the brand profile he thinks they deserve.

"Since Vivian Imerman has taken control our image, with regards to our single malts and our blended whiskies, has been upgraded," says Paterson. "If we are going to compete we must have the right products but they must be packaged correctly and he is giving us all the support in that area."

With Paterson's blending power, Imerman's branding expertise and a portfolio of newly-packaged products, Whyte and Mackay hopes it can conquer new international markets and improve on its $300 million annual revenues.

Whisky experts believe it's in with a strong chance, providing it can pitch the brand to non-traditional whisky consumers.

"There is no doubt Whyte and Mackay are putting together some of the best blended whisky in the world," says Whisky Magazine editor Dominic Roskrow.

"To associate the brand with the company is a very good move but Whyte and Mackay have ground to cover. They have got to win over and attract the type of person that might have a Scottish country house image that perhaps they don't want. But in Vivian Imerman, with his background, they have a man at the top who is capable of doing that."

-- CNN's Diana Magnay contributed to this report.

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