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Walking Tall

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

(continued from page 1)

In those days, Australia was his biggest export market. Once, his agents there reported that they were losing market share to a cheaper brand. Alexander thundered back: "Other brands may come into the market for a while, but as far as we're concerned, we will make John Walker and Sons of such a quality that no other whisky shall come before it."

He passed on the business to his three sons: John, George Paterson and Alexander, the eldest son of his second wife. Jack looked after the business in Australia, where his administration was not a success. George was sent to clean up after him, and that was all to be said of Jack. According to Nicholas Morgan, the archivist at United Distillers, "There was considerable sibling rivalry between the three brothers." George chiefly restricted his activities to marketing, while Alexander mostly confined his interests to blending the whisky.

Unlike other whiskey barons of the day, who graduated from humble grocers and wine merchants to peers of the realm and who lived for the turf and fritted away their money on slow horses and fast women, the Walkers had few such ambitions. The elder Alexander Walker was offered a title but turned it down. His son George married the daughter of the manager of the small Clydesdale Bank in Kilmarnock, showing good sense more than ambition.

From the 1880s onward, the younger Alexander was based in Scotland, while George preferred London. In 1893, Alexander purchased the Cardhu distillery on Speyside from the Cumming family. The Cardhu's output became the heart of Black and Red Label.

The first advertisements for John Walker's whisky appeared in the 1880s. Archivist Morgan notes one of the earliest: a disconsolate Scotsman with a broken bottle of whisky, its contents in a pool on the ground. The real breakthrough occurred in 1909, when the company was looking for a logo. George Walker and another company director, James Stevenson (a friend of Winston Churchill's), commissioned the well-known illustrator Tom Browne to create one; the resulting design was alleged to be a likeness of John Walker. Browne's rendering, with knee breeches, frock coat, eyeglass, hat and cane, has over the years worked its way, with occasional modifications, into the popular imagination. (This past year, the logo underwent a major revision to a more stylized version of "The Striding Man.") The illustration inspired either Walker or Stevenson (the records are not clear) to provide the accompanying legend: "Born 1820--still going strong."

It was now up to Alexander to a make a suitable whisky to match the advertising. He was an indefatigable experimenter. Starting in 1906, Walker offered three blends of "Old Highlands Whisky": the basic blend with a white label, "Special Old Highland" with a red label and "Extra Special Old Highland," 12 years old, with a black label. It had already become common practice to ask for the whisky by the color of the label. In 1909, the brands were rechristened to take this into account: Johnnie Walker White, Red and Black.

But the early 1900s was a harrowing time for whisky. In the unlikely setting of the Islington Court in London, a case was launched in 1905 to find out precisely what whisky was. Samples procured in various pubs revealed that in the main, it was simply grain whisky of the cheapest sort. Three years later came the Royal Commission, and the Walkers, along with all other blenders, had to defend the integrity of their product before Parliament. According to Morgan, Alexander's statements, in which he stressed the Walkers' insistence on the highest quality blends, make interesting reading. His testimony was the most detached of all, fitting in with his severe portrait (with his "intense regard") in the family photograph album and the no-nonsense language that frequently came booming out of his office in Kilmarnock.

By the end of the First World War, Alexander's name had been embellished by a knighthood for his service to the nation in the Ministry of Munitions during the war. White Label had died--the Walkers were trying to target more affluent drinkers--and the company was facing the challenge of "going global." Morgan argues that it achieved this before even Coca-Cola, which he contends in the 1920s had a puny tally of international markets compared to the Walkers.

Curiously, Prohibition was a godsend for the Walkers. Before Prohibition, of the Scotch whisky distillers only Dewar's had secured large markets in the United States, with Americans preferring American or Irish whiskey to the Scotch imports. While the Irish civil war during the early 1920s effectively curbed Irish exports, American whiskey was knocked out by the Eighteenth Amendment.

The quality of Scotch was infinitely more reliable than bootleg local hooch. The Calvinist Sir Alexander was not at all put out by the idea that he was helping Americans to break the law.He referred to shipments in board meetings as "the special trade." (There was talk of Johnnie Walker bottles being concealed in square loaves of bread.) Vast shipments of Johnnie Walker were made to desolate islands off the Canadian coast for easy shipment into the United States. By the time the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933, Americans were truly hooked.


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