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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.
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.
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.
At $25 a bottle, "Black is a status symbol for young consumers," says Hevia. "Black is seen as high quality in the range of contemporary blends." The next in the range, Gold, is a big leap up. It sells for about $65 a bottle, but that in no way deters American consumers; Hevia says the company is hard-pressed to keep up with demand. Gold has "a more honeyed, creamy flavor," he says, with some of the character of the malt from Clynelish, the distillery at Brora on the northern Scotland coast. It has only recently come onto the market, and so far there has been no advertising, yet its fame is growing.
Then there is Blue, which at $160 to $180 a bottle makes it an aspirational drink. Hevia calls Blue Label the "Nirvana of Scotches...an indescribable experience." But there is, of course, another factor: it appeals to those who want to show that they can afford the luxury of the most expensive Scotch on the list.
Both Blue and Gold compete with malt whiskeys on the American market. Hevia sees the two Walker whiskies as having a more "layered flavor" and a "wider variety of taste experience."
Johnnie Walker has earned his place in history. Winston Churchill was so obsessed with Black Label during the dark days of the Second World War that he painted still lifes of the bottles. Graham Greene has an inept spy mix it with White Horse, another whisky, in his novel, The Human Factor, and christens his blend a "White Walker." He dies as a result. In recent times, Superman drank Johnnie Walker in the movies and Harrison Ford showed off some futuristic packaging for it in the film Blade Runner. A humble grocer had shown us the way to make Highland hooch into one of the indispensible props of our civilization.
Giles MacDonogh writes about food and drink for the Financial Times of London.