The torch of discovery from the past inspires and lights the way for modern innovators. Consider Galileo and Hubble, Eastman and Land, Ford and DeLorean, Edison and Jobs. And, so it is with the evolution of Scotch whisky, where, in the lyrics of Scottish whisky bard Robin Laing, “ … the past into the present is distilled.” The entire song, “More Than Just a Dram” is on Robin’s CD, “The Angels’ Share”, © 1997 Greentrax Recordings, Edinburgh. Lead photo of James Buchanan, courtesy of Diageo Archives.
The Whisky Barons
© 1977, Jupiter Books, London
© 2002, The Angels’ Share, Neil Wilson Publishing, Glasgow
About 150 pages
Malt Whisky – a taste of Scotland
© 1998, Swan Hill Press
About 192 pages
© (in English) 2002, The Angels’ Share, Neil Wilson Publishing, Glasgow
About 375 pages
Author Allen Andrews certainly knew how to make an entrance in The Whisky Barons! On Page One: “Scotch whisky came into the world as a lion from the north, impelled by the whip-cracks of a remarkable set of Scottish impresario ringmasters. Where a Barnum needed his Bailey, extroverts were supported and advised by shrewd chancellors and administrators.” And, so the tale of remarkable, driven, lucky, and in some cases egomaniacal men, on their way to becoming the “Whisky Barons” began.
Each of the three books cited is unique. “Barons” is a narrative, loaded with details about the generally accepted “Big Five” in the history of Scotch whisky; in addition to beautiful photography and great detail about many distilleries, “Malt Whisky” has a chapter giving a succinct biography of what the author calls the “Founding Fathers”; and “Treasury” is an encyclopedic whisky bible (the author was a minister), detailing individuals in the long history of Scotch whisky.
I find it interesting that the Andrew Ushers, Jr. and Sr., are not credited. The father-son team invented the first successful blending process, resulting in blended Scotch whisky, on which the fame and fortunes of the founding fathers was generally based. Andrew Sr. also did pioneering work in aging the white (new) spirit in wood, and Andrew Jr. worked with blending malt whiskies with grain whiskies.
The “Big Five” Whisky Barons (all earning their reputations in the mid- to late 1800s):
- James Buchanan, Baron Woolavington. Early use of advertising and publicity. “I marvel at my supreme self-confidence!” is one of his answers to his success.
- John Dewar, Lord Forteviot of Dupplin. Established his company as global by signing 32 agents during an around the world tour in 1891.
- John Haig, major Lowland distiller and one of the original Directors of Distillers Co., Ltd.
- Peter Mackie, 1st Baronet. Outspoken critic of government control, and innovator of labor-saving equipment at his distilleries.
- John Walker, one of Scotland’s largest blenders. Grandson Alexander was responsible for the Johnnie Walker “Striding Man” logo, based on a sketch of his grandfather.
Among the Founding Fathers:
- Arthur Bell championed sound financial footing and large whisky reserves to weather recessions and changes in consumer tastes.
- William Grant established what was to become the largest selling single malt in the world (Glenfiddich) in 1887 and The Balvenie in 1892.
- William Henry Ross brought business acumen to Distillers Co., Ltd, the largest owner of brands at the time – Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker Red & Black, Gordon’s Vodka and Gin and over 60 other labels.
- William Teacher was the largest license holder in Glasgow, with 18 wine and spirit shops; developed custom blends per customers’ specifications.
- John Macdonald established Ben Nevis and enjoyed royal patronage. His brand and distillery has passed through many hands and several continents. In the hands of Nikka (a Japanese company), Ben Nevis is once more in business. Today’s popular Long John blend contains 48 malts, including Laphroaig and Highland Park, and is distilled at Tormore Distillery.
Also of interest are the contributions of architect Charles C. Doig and two women, Helen and Elizabeth Cumming.
In the late 1800s, Doig invented the pagoda (he called it a ventilator) that crowned the kiln rooms of many of Scotland’s distilleries.
The pagoda utilized natural convection currents of warm air to improve the efficiency of drawing off peat smoke during the malting process. Doig is credited with designing over 50 Scottish distilleries.
Helen Cumming ran an illicit distilling operation in Speyside from the early 1800s to 1824, when she and her husband John obtained a license.
Daughter-in-law Elizabeth Cumming took over operations at Cardow (now Cardhu) and built a new building, complete with new equipment in 1885.
The Cumming ladies are only two of the very few women to have played a leading part in the history of Scotch whisky during the 1800s.
An interesting footnote is that Elizabeth sold her used equipment to William Grant, who used it to start his Glenfiddich distillery in 1887.