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Walking Tall

Giles MacDonough
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

Once upon a time, a colorless firewater called usquebaugh was produced by numerous licit and illicit stills in the Highlands, islands and lowlands of Scotland. The Scots either swallowed it neat or with a little water, or steeped it in herbs, fruits or spices to round off a few of its rough edges. Then, in the nineteenth century, canny grocers turned usquebaugh into whisky, transforming what had been a coarse hooch into a refined drink. They are the unsung heroes of Scotch.

Scottish grocers bought quantities of whisky from the farm distillers and carted them back to their shops in town. They divided up the lots and ran the young spirit off into the second-hand casks: wine, Port, brandy, Madeira or sherry; anything they had on hand. Then they observed the results. They were the men who determined how well a whisky could age; they became aware that certain casks provided some spirits with a little added fruitiness and sweetness that was not necessarily implicit, but that made it taste better; and they were the people who decided that Scotland was the sum of its parts: that the best whisky was blended.

To achieve those blends, the Scots would combine several grain whiskies with a variety of malt whiskies. To make malt whisky, barley is soaked until the starch has been converted to sugar, then dried, usually over peat-fueled fires that give it a smoky quality. The dried barley, called malt, is mashed with hot water, forming a sugary wort that ferments into beer and then is distilled twice. After the aging process, in oak, the grain and malt whiskies are ready to be blended.

Some of Scotland's heroic blenders have become household names, while others have been unfairly forgotten: William Edward of Aberdeen, the founder of the grocery business that became Chivas Brothers; George Balantine of Edinburgh; Francis and Walter Berry of London, the grocers who formed Cutty Sark; John Dewar and Matthew Gloag of Perth; Robert McNish and William Teacher in Glasgow. The most famous of all, however, "born 1820--still going strong," was John Walker. He was born in 1805 on Todrigg's Farm near Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, in the Western Lowlands of Scotland. (Johnnie Walker whiskies are still bottled within sight of Walker's old dairy farm.) Walker was every inch a grocer, trading in anything and everything. Tea was his specialty; at a time when the British were planting China tea bushes in India, tea had had become a patriotic drink. He also sold raisins, vinegar and, of course, Scotch. By 1850, he was offering customers Walker's Kilmarnock Whisky, which soon attracted a small but loyal following. Its reputation grew as merchants and travelers on the new London to Glasgow railway line (which went through Kilmarnock) spread the word.

Although he gave his name to the whisky, John Walker was a far less important figure to the brand than his son, Alexander. A disastrous flood in Kilmarnock in 1852 had destroyed all of Walker's stock, and when Alexander joined the business in 1856, he persuaded his father to abandon the narrow realm of the grocery trade and to go into wholesale trading.

At the beginning, the firm offered a range of spirits: Campbeltown whisky from the Kintyre Peninsula; whisky from the Inner Hebridean Island of Islay, with its pungent smoky flavor; patent still, or grain, whisky; and "Glenlivat" (sic), Speyside whisky. Even so, whisky sales under John Walker represented just 8 percent of the firm's income; by the time Alexander was ready to pass on the company to his own sons, that figure had increased to between 90 and 95 percent.

Scottish-based United Distillers, the present-day owners of the brand, possess the complete series of Alexander's stock-taking books from 1857 to 1886. The books show the transformation of a small grocery business to an international firm; they also give insights into Alexander Walker.

Alexander Walker was an astute businessman. In 1867, he registered his label, a design almost identical to the present Black Label, with the Stationers' Hall in the City of London. As soon as "trade marks" became available in 1876, Walker was quick to avail himself of that added protection. By that time, Walker's whisky was already in its characteristic square bottle with its distinctive (and easily seen) slanting label. There were no advertisements at the time, and it was important that the whisky's growing following could identify it at a distance. The shape of the bottle, incidentally, had nothing to do with marketing; it allowed the maximum number of bottles to be packed into the freight car of a railway train.

The blend of whisky that Alexander Walker created in the late 1860s, which later became Black Label, was a spirit for the serious whiskey drinker who wanted nothing more than a drop of water to enhance the taste of his favorite drink. He had timed it right. The 1870s in Britain was a period of great prosperity. The British Empire was in full swing, and it was thirsty work running a realm on which the sun never set. As Britain's paladins sweltered in the midday heat, they made sure they had a tumbler of soda and whiskey, Scotch or Irish, at their elbows. It was, after all, cheaper than brandy, and it was British.

There were few flights of fancy about Alexander Walker as a person. In public, he was a dour Calvinist Scot who worked hard. Yet in private, he loved getting together with friends, enjoyed the company of children and horses, and built himself a house in Troon where he could indulge in a little golf.

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