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Walking Tall

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

(continued from page 2)

Other markets were being developed after the First World War, and the Walkers' reputation continued to spread. In Hedda Adlon's history of the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, the author recounts the amazement of a hotel guest coming away from another room in a stupefied state: "The fellow's got a whisky, something that I haven't drunk these five years." "How was it then?" came the response. "Excellent," he replied. "Johnnie Walker."

That was in 1919, when Joachim von Ribbentrop, the future Nazi foreign minister, was running a German wine and spirits distributorship owned by his father-in-law. Ribbentrop became Alexander's agent and a friend (they even kept the same dogs). When he was ambassador to Britain during the late 1930s, Ribbentrop flew up to Troon to visit the Walkers, landing his airplane on their lawn. The Walkers were impressed. Adolf Hitler named Ribbentrop his foreign minister in 1938, a post he held until the Nazis' defeat seven years later. After Ribbentrop was hanged for war crimes in 1946, the Walkers commiserated with his widow on a visit to Germany.

By that time, John Walker and Sons had merged with the Distillers Co. Ltd., a holding company for a number of large blending firms; each business operated independently. The arrangement, begun in 1925, lasted until the late 1980s, when the holding company, which changed its name to United Distillers, merged with Guinness.

Alexander Walker's retirement in 1939 signaled the family's exit from the whisky trade, but the Cummings, who had worked with Walker since 1893, stayed in the business. Sir Ronald Cumming served as chairman and managing director of the company until the late 1960s and his son was active in the export operations until the mid '80s.

During the Second World War, most of the whiskey available in the United Kingdom was shipped to America. When the United States entered the war in 1941, the GIs assured themselves of a warm welcome in Britain by bringing nylons and bottles of Johnnie Walker.

By war's end, Johnnie Walker had become a fashionable accessory. Duke Ellington ate haggis and drank Red Label on his first visit to the United Kingdom. Ernest Hemingway and Spencer Tracy were photographed in Cuba clutching their respective bottles. Red Label was the No. 1 brand of Scotch whisky. Sales jumped from a million cases in 1945 to five million in 1958.

Red Label was the younger Alexander's greatest legacy. His father had made Black, but Red was to be the drink for another age, for the middle-of-the-road, whiskey-and-soda drinker. In United Distillers' archives there are four pocket notebooks with jottings by Alexander, giving the rough specifications for Red and Black Label, as well as Swing whisky (the bottle rocked back and forth), which was created in 1932 and is still made today.

But Alexander's bequest was not to end there: Gold Label was created in 1995 from some of his notes, as well as from a few experimental square bottles found lying around in Kilmarnock. It has a touch of sweetness to it, an alternative to the light-mixing Red Label or the solid, masculine Black.

Blue Label, created in 1992, was a more ambitious project altogether. It was an attempt to recreate John Walker's original blend, using 15 whiskies of all ages from the distilleries Walker himself most likely bought from, particularly old Islay malts.

With four whiskies marketed in the United States, Johnnie Walker is a status drink for many Americans. As Jorge Hevia, a vice president at Schieffelin & Somerset Co., a subsidiary of United Distillers, puts it, an American can "work his or her way up the Walker ladder." The first step is Red ($18), which despite its comparatively modest price, is seen as a premium whiskey. Its comparative lightness lends itself to mixed drinks, but it is most popular simply with soda water.


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