Charles Bronfman’s Memoir, “Distilled”

Charles Bronfman (CB), now 86, son of Distillers Corporation-Seagram czar Samuel Bronfman, wrote a memoir, Distilled, about a year ago that I caught up with over the holidays. The book is written in a clear, accessible style with Howard Green, an author, business journalist, and broadcaster. (It is published by HarperCollins, see Amazon listing here). The book was well-reviewed and below I give my own reaction – in summary, not to be missed by enthusiasts of distilled spirits or business biography.

Green states truly in his introduction that the Bronfmans, “by virtue of their enormous wealth, were equivalent to Canadian royalty”.

The Bronfman family was a legend in Montreal when I grew up, not just for being highly successful distillers of Crown Royal, Seagram VO, Chivas Regal, Martell Cognac, and other fine liquors but for their strong identification with the Jewish community, and Israel, and related philanthropies.

The book makes clear that the Bronfmans’ charitable activities extended beyond Jewish causes, particularly in the area of Canadian history, but support of Jewish need especially in nascent Israel was always a focus. CB’s late brother Edgar also played an important role in this respect, e.g., by heading up the World Jewish Congress. I mention this as both commendable in itself and something not seen as much today, unfortunately.

In addition to his management of the Canadian Seagram business CB was also majority owner of the Montreal Expos, a newly-granted baseball franchise in the late 60s of the National League. His introduction and stewardship of professional baseball in Montreal is still remembered and is conveyed well in a separate chapter. It was also a successful investment for him.

CB describes growing up on the hill in Westmount, the carriage trade section of Montreal then and now. The family resided in a large house and the four children were raised with benefit of retainers such as drivers, maids, cooks, and butlers. They attended private schools either in Quebec or for CB a stint in Ontario.

He describes well the characteristics of father Sam including his legendary temper, great business ability, and less well-known interests such as an addiction to English verse. While the complex mind of Sam Bronfman, e.g., to retain financial details of the business even at a micro level, is well-illustrated, CB also points out his business ethic was based on simplicity and common sense. He believed for example in making products easily understood by people who could buy on a yes or no basis.

Edgar was early seen as the natural heir to the Seagram executive office. Elder brother is described by CB as strong-willed, a natural leader, good-looking: both seem to have known early that Edgar’s fate was to lead Seagram’s business from his office in New York, where he moved in the mid-1950s (era when the famed Seagram Building, a project of sister Phyllis, was erected). This is significant as the book states 90% of Seagram’s liquor business was in the U.S. As CB puts it at one point, Seagram was really an American company run by a bunch of Canadians.

There is relatively little in the book about whisky itself. CB refers to the fact that blending whisky was a mantra of Sam, who was always involved in tasting and formulating the products. Sam was intent on not entering the bourbon business as such and resisted investing in a bourbon distillery when proposed to him by his sons. Of course the business did make those investments in the shape of Four Roses in Kentucky and a distillery in Indiana although this is not covered in the book.*

CB’s career with Seagram started after leaving McGill University mid-course at 19. He was first put in charge of Adams Canadian whiskies, the smallest division, the other two were Calvert and Seagram. Adams derived from a 1950s purchase in Vancouver of a distillery. (As CB puts it later in the book, Sam once said, “I don’t sell businesses, I buy them”).

CB states when the Adams line was acquired the whisky itself “wasn’t very good” but he doesn’t elaborate, e.g., was it too young, too old, not blended properly, etc.? He doesn’t say. His mission was to make Adams a successful brand in the company’s portfolio, which he did.

The whisky discussion emphasizes the importance of sales of course, but also things like labels and bottle shape. Sam was of the view all bottles should be round except Crown Royal. He did finally agree though to an innovative square bottle for Adams which did well. CB mentions the entirely practical approach of the Canadian whisky business then to aging: as he phrased it, the younger the whisky, the more the term old was trumpeted. The idea always was to vaunt tradition and heritage behind the product.

He states there were only two persons in the liquor business whom Sam regarded as fierce competitors: Harry Hatch of Hiram Walker and Lew Rosenstiel of Schenley, both also driven, super-achievers.

The Adams discussion also revolves around executives CB worked with, how to control expenses, how to meet competition firmly but not engage in dirty tricks. If a Seagram account placed Seagram whisky in a competitor’s bottle he ordered it stopped, but the story gives an idea of the (presumably!) wilder days of Canadian whisky. (I’ll discuss the Prohibition era further below).

CB also worked for a time in blending so he clearly knows a lot about distillation and the different types of whisky but this isn’t discussed in the book. If I could ask him one question, it would be:

Did the family ever consider selling one of the straight whiskies used for blending on its own in Canada, say a straight rye? The Pedigree brands qualified circa-1950 but these were only sold in the U.S., correct? Why was no straight rye ever sold under the Seagram banner in Canada?

The answer may be simply what I indicated earlier, that Sam was an ardent proponent of blended whisky, but it would be interesting to plumb CB’s deeper thoughts on this. (True, Distillers Corporation had major interests in Scotch distilling but Chivas Regal was always the main brand, not any of the malts then).

CB comes across as a decent, practical, certainly capable executive, someone as he acknowledges born to great wealth and privilege but who assumed his position well once past the insecurities of youth and inexperience. His success with the Expos shows that, as did his running of the liquor business in Canada for years.

As the book is memoir, not just a business autobiography, there is interesting family history related as well, his marriages, children, travels, etc.

As whisky sales slowed in Canada in the 1970s, Seagram really became a different type of company, and this is well before the debacle with Vivendi. It was 25% owner of Du Pont and received the greatest part of its revenues from that source for many years until the stake was sold.  The need to reinvest company profits in different businesses meant from the 1960s on diversification, starting with the natural resources sector, which lead to the entertainment industry (MGM, later MCA and Polygram), chemicals, and finally communications.

The chapter describing Vivendi, a three-way merger with two French companies in 2000 which resulted in the liquor business being sold, is the heart of the book surely.

That sale was led by Edgar Bronfman and his son Edgar Jr. with CB a reluctant but consenting director. The merger was intended to make a 21st century super-communications company that in many ways, as CB acknowledges, was ahead of its time. But the lack of success of the merged company (the post-merger share price declined steadily and the family sold all its shares) resulted, by CB’s estimation, in a 50-75% loss of the family fortune. He explains in retrospect why the Du Pont stake should never have been sold.

Of course, the family was still very wealthy and this enabled CB to pursue his philanthropic work well-described in the book.

Bronfmans are still in the news, CB’s son Stephen is well-known for his affiliation with Canada’s Liberal Party, which extends to fund-raising, and his friendship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Before I conclude, the Prohibition question: CB acknowledges that Sam was rankled through his life by nagging accusations of being a “bootlegger”, meaning selling whisky that one way or another ended up in the U.S. during the Volstead era as illegal booze. He implies that the Canadian establishment never gave Sam his full due, via e.g. senior board memberships and a Senate appointment, due to this shadow.

CB argues that the whisky sold by Seagram in that period was sold legally, and Canadian distillers even before Volstead parried similar challenges in Canada using legal means, e.g., shipping whisky to another province by mail.

He states that other Canadian distillers including Hiram Walker also sold whisky that ended up in the U.S. as did major Canadian breweries for their product, and further that the Canadian government never tried to stop shipments to the border, no doubt to protect the continuation of industries that fed tax revenues to the coffers.

He implies Sam Bronfman was later unfairly targeted for an unsavoury association with rum-running, and I find his reasoning persuasive. Still, there seems no rancour, he recites the story calmly and after all these are matters now well in the past.

Of the Canadian whisky business today nothing is stated, it would be interesting to glean his thoughts on the resurgence of brown goods as they are termed, whisky and rum – Captain Morgan was another Seagram/Bronfman property…

Final point: when Seagram Spirits and Wine was sold to Diageo and Pernod Ricard, CB states he “briefly” considered buying the liquor business from Vivendi. He does not explain why he didn’t, but perhaps by then he was too removed from it.

You should have done it, Charles!

N.B. I once knew a Seagram executive in Montreal, who, many years ago, brought me into the office Sam Bronfman had occupied in the baronial-style Peel Street headquarters. His large desk was still there, the dark-panelled room pretty much as in his heyday. That was the nerve-centre from which Sam Bronfman created the modern Seagram business. Of course, the Seagram distillery originated in the 1800s in Waterloo, Ontario, a history I’ve adverted to a number of times in the past, but this account deals with the modern (20th century) Seagram. Today, the Peel Street building is owned by nearby McGill University, called Martlet House.


*Used primarily to source elements for the company’s blends.