Famous Grouse finds itself in the sights of a predator

FAMOUS GROUSE, one of the UK's best-selling Scotch whiskies, is in the sights of a predator just one day after the Glorious 12th signalled the start of the grouse-hunting season.

Highland Distillers, which makes the flagship brand, confirmed that it had received an approach from an unnamed suitor. Analysts say the most likely candidate is a management buy-out team which could make a leveraged offer through Highland Distillers' associated business Robertson & Baxter.

A move to take the group private would avoid the possible complications of a third-party takeover, which would have to take into account Highland's cross-share arrangement with the French company Remy-Cointreau, and would have to accommodate recently announced distribution agreements.

Remy has a 9.5 per cent stake in Highland, and the Scottish firm holds pounds 105m of convertible debt in the private company that controls Remy.

A takeover bid would have to be agreed by Remy and Highland's other major shareholders: Edrington, a private family trust has a 27.9 per cent stake in the company, Britannic Assurance has a 5.3 per cent share and Prudential has 3.7 per cent.

Analysts also point to Highland's announcement on Thursday that it had signed a joint venture distribution agreement with Remy and US company Jim Beam Brands Worldwide, which they believe suggests a buy-out would be the preferred option.

Remy itself is not thought a likely contender for the Highland bid as the company is recovering from losses last year caused by unsuccessful derivatives trading. The firm recently sold its flagship Krug champagne brand and the firm's 350 per cent gearing also makes it an unlikely bidder. But Highland has a 35 per cent stake in Robertson & Baxter, a leading, unquoted Scottish biscuit firm. Highland acts as a supplier to the firm and the two companies have long had management links.

If Highland's shares are not taken up by a management buy-out, then the most likely contender is Pernod. The company recently raised pounds 2bn in debt, which analysts originally thought would be used to buy some of Allied Domecq's businesses. Another possibility is Bacardi, which recently bought the US-focused Dewers brand.

Jim Bean or Browns Foreman, the US company that owns Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort, have also been named as possible bidders. But analysts ruled out a potential UK buyer because of the size of the Famous Grouse brand, which is the country's second best selling blended whiskey after Bell's, owned by Diageo.

Outlook, above

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