The story of scotch – a brief history of blending
The history of the scotch whisky industry is a long and chequered tale, however much of the scotch whisky industry today owes its success to blended scotch whisky. Blended scotch or blends account for the majority of whisky sold worldwide (80,000 litres per year compared to around 8,000 litres of single malt scotch in 2013). Whisky connoisseurs and single malt fans often look down upon blends as inferior products or a waste of good single malt. Without them we wouldn’t have the breadth of variety of single malts, or the sheer number of distilleries, or the massive output that we enjoy today. So how and where did this all begin?
In the beginning there was single malt…
Single malt whisky, made from 100% malted barley and distilled in traditional copper pot stills, has been around for quite some time. The only problem with single malt whisky, from a production aspect, is the requirement for batch production. This is relatively inefficient as the still must be filled (charged) and heated for distillation, after each batch is processed the residual waste products (pot ale) must be removed and the still cleaned for the next batch. Innovative technological advancements made in the first three decades of the 1800’s resulted in the operation of continuous or column distillation.
And then there was grain…
With continuous distillation, vast amounts of neutral spirit (around 94% alcohol by volume) can be distilled non-stop from any type of grain source. In the beginning this ‘Grain’ whisky was likely to be lighter and more drinkable than the often more-complex but harsher single malt whiskies that were available. At this time cask-maturation of whisky most likely occurred as a fortuitous side-effect of shipping distilled spirit in oak barrels to vendors. In 1915 law was passed that whisky must spend at least two years in an oak barrel, later extended to three years. Prior to this time distilled whisky was shipped and sold as soon as possible, or as soon as it was palatable. Vendors quickly realised that blending light grain whisky with complex malt whisky could produce something much more palatable to customers than either alone. Hence the principle of blending – to create something greater than the sum of its parts – began. In 1853 the vatting of whisky, i.e. mixing of whisky of differing ages from the same distillery, was permitted before duty was paid upon the whisky and in 1860 the Spirits Act permitted blending under bond – allowing larger scale blending of scotch whisky to occur in bonded warehouses.
Usher & Co., Edinburgh
The first recorded expert blender of whisky was one Andrew Usher, of Usher & Co. Edinburgh. Taking his fathers experimentation in the 1840’s of whisky blending a step further and perfecting it around the late 1840’s. The introduction of Ushers OVG (Old Vatted Glenlivet) led to an increase in the popularity of scotch (blended) whisky in England. Andrew Usher entered into a triumvirate to setup the North British grain distillery in Edinburgh along with John Crabbie (of Crabbie’s Green Ginger fame) and William Sanderson. William Sanderson was born in Leith in 1839 and by 13 had started an apprenticeship with a wine and spirits producer. Establishing his own business by 1863, Sanderson, encouraged by his son Mark William to begin blending whisky, famously went on to produce 100 blends which he had judged by a panel of experts. The winning blend came from the vatting/bottling number 69, lending the name to his subsequent blend ‘Vat69’. Sanderson purchased the Glengarioch distillery in 1884, and later became director of the Royal Lochnagar distillery after the death of its owner John Begg.
The Chivas Brother grocery store dates back to its inception in Aberdeen in 1801. With a wealth of success to their name, including obtaining a royal warrant to provide goods to Queen Victoria in 1843, the Chivas Brothers set out to provide superior blended whisky for their clientele’s palates. They launched the Royal Glen Dee blend in the 1850’s and he Royal Strathythan in the 1860’s. The name Chivas Regal was coined around the 1900’s when their whisky became increasingly popular in America. The Chivas Brothers company purchased the Strathisla distillery in 1950. Chivas Brothers is now owned by Pernod Ricard who operate; Aberlour, Glenallachie, Glenburgie, Glenlivet, Glentauchers, Miltonduff, Scapa, Strathisla and Tormore.
John ‘Johnnie’ Walker started selling whisky from his grocery store in Ayrshire, established in 1824. However, it was after his death in 1857 that his son and grandson both named Alexander Walker turned whisky into the main income of the business following the spread of its popularity. Walkers introduced their famous square bottle in 1870, allowing more bottles to be packed per case than when using traditional round bottles. Reducing shipping costs to their growing overseas market. Johnnie Walker is now owned by the international conglomerate Diageo, the largest whisky producer in Scotland who operate 28 active whisky distilleries, including Auchroisk, Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Cardhu, Clynelish, Caol lla, Cragganmore, Dailuaine, Dalwhinnie, Dufftown, Glen Elgin, Glen Ord, Glen Spey, Glendullan, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie, Inchgower, Lagavulin, Linkwood, Mannochmore, Mortlach, Oban, Strathmill, Talisker and Teaninich.
George Ballantine, a farmer’s son, setup his small grocery store in Edinburgh in 1827. In 1865 George focussed on his wine and spirits trade by setting up a dedicated store in Glasgow, leaving his son to look after their Edinburgh store. Whilst in Glasgow George started experimenting with his own blended whiskies and setup his own bonded warehouse. With increased business, George resorted to employing his son and generating George Ballantine & Son Ltd. Acquired by the Canadian distillers Gooderham & Worts in 1937, Ballantines purchased both Miltonduff distillery and Glenburgie distillery and built Dumbarton grain distillery. Ballantines is now owned by Pernod Ricard.
John Dewar Sr established his wine and spirits merchants on Perth High Street in 1846. Unusually John Dewar took the decision to endorse his own blended whisky by adding his own name to the bottle. His sons John Alexander Dewar carried on this family business after joining in 1871 and Thomas ‘Tommy’ Dewar famously travelled the globe and introduced the world to their famous blended scotch whisky. Dewars opened the Aberfeldy distillery in 1896. Dewar’s currently operate Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Craigellachie, Macduff and Royal Brackla distilleries
Arthur Bell began blending (at first single malts) to produce a more consistent whisky product around 1851. Arthur was a grocer by trade and learned his skills blending tea leaves produced by the various colonies around the British Empire. Arthur applied his flavour-led blending skills to whisky to appeal to varying palates and occasions. Credited as the first whisky manufacturer to post a London agent around 1863. Arthurs tow sons joined the company as a partnership in 1895, with Arthur Kinmond managing the domestic trade and Robert managing overseas trade. Arthur Bell passed away in 1900 and in 1921 the partnership became a private company after Robert retired. Arthur Bell & Sons acquired both Blair Athol distillery and Dufftown distillery in 1933 and Inchgower distillery in 1936. Bells is now a subsidiary of Diageo.
Matthew Gloag was another Perth-based grocer and wine merchant. In 1842 Gloag was invited to supply wine for Queen Victoria’s visit to Perth. His son William Gloag took over the company in 1860 and started blending and selling whiskies. His son Matthew Gloag Jr went on to produce The Grouse Blend in 1896, later renamed in 1905 as The Famous Grouse. Now part of the Edrington group.
Robertson & Baxter
William Alexander Robertson was born in Fife, Scotland, in 1833. He moved to Glasgow in his late teens, taking up work with Daniel Lade & Co , wine and spirit merchants. Daniel Lade amalgamated with Bulloch & Co, owners of Camlachie Distillery in the east end of Glasgow, to form the partnership of Bulloch Lade & Con in 1856, at which time Robertson decided to go into business for himself. He set up a partnership with Robert Thomson as Robertson & Thomson, at 162 Hope Street, Glasgow, as a commission agent in 1857. As wine and spirit wholesalers they accepted the agency for the Greenock Distillery Co, Greenock, Inverclyde, Scotland, and in 1858 they moved from Hope Street to Virginia Street, Glasgow.
During 1859, Robertson & Thomson became agents for the Fettercairn Distillery in Angus, Scotland. In June 1860, Robert Thomson opened his own business in Howard Street, Glasgow, and William Robertson took John W Baxter, his clerk, into partnership, forming the firm of Robertson & Baxter. he business continued to expand with the addition of further agencies, and by 1864 their imports had reached a total of over 27,000 gallons, and included ports, sherries and wines.
In 1866,the firm began expanding their trade in whisky, and it is suggested that they may have entered the whisky blending business, as evidenced in a change of description of the firm from ‘merchants and commission agents’ to ‘wine and spirit brokers’. Over the next few years Robertson & Baxter traded at a very low level while W A Robertson considered his position. Their blending laboratory in Glasgow became a college of blending for many major figures in the whisky industry.
In 1881, he began to give further thought to building his distillery, with the support of William Ford & Sons of Leith, Edinburgh. The Bunnahabhain Distillery, at Bunnahabhain, Islay, Argyll & Bute, took three years to build, and was to be operated by a new limited liability company, the Islay Distillery Co. In 1885 the company took a share in the North British Distillery Company.
Trade continued to flourish and Robertson joined a syndicate to build the Tamdhu-Glenlivet Distillery at Knockando, Moray, to keep apace of demand. This proved to be one of the last ventures undertaken before his sudden death on 30th August 1897, at the age of just 64.
The Robertson Trust was setup to ensure the success of W.A. Robertson’s three grandaughters who inherited the Scotch whisky interests of the company. In 1961 they formed the Edrington Group which oversees both Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark brands as well as numerous Single Malt Whisky brands. The Edrington Group owns five distilleries: Glenrothes, Glenturret, Highland Park, Macallan and Tamdhu.
In 1830 William Teacher was selling whisky under the new ‘Excise Act’. From 1832 he was selling out of his wife’s grocery store in Glasgow and in 1856 he was granted his own ‘consumption’ (licence) to open his own dram shop with help from his sons. Teachers Highland Cream blend was registered in 1884, 8 years after William’s death. Teacher’s opened Ardmore distillery in 1898
Whyte & Mackay
Jame’s Whyte and Charles Mackay founded their business in the docks of Glasgow in 1844. Setting up their own bonded warehouse by the 1870’s to store more and more wine and spirits for their customers who were unable to obtain Brandy due to the impact of phylloxera on French grapevines. They created the W&M special blended whisky which achieved great success in the UK and around the world.
Plus many more…
Including James Buchanan’s 1890’s blend ‘Black & White’
London spirits merchants Justerini and Brookes who produced their house blend ‘J&B’ blended by Charles H. Julian, commissioned after he created the Cutty Sark blend for the US market.
John Logan Mackie’s 1861 Edinburgh blend White Horse
The Haig’s family blends including the 1890’s Dimple
Pattison’s – at one time the largest blender of Scotch whisky – rescued from bankruptcy by one William Grant who went on to launch Grant’s Whisky. Now owners and operators of Glenfiddich, Kininvie and The Balvenie as well as the Girvan Grain distillery
The Empire strikes back.
So the global success of blended scotch owes much to the British Empire, centred upon Glasgow the second biggest city in the Empire. A huge amount of scotch whisky has been blended and shipped directly from Glasgow, hence the city’s tradition of blending houses and experts. Fitting then that Compass Box, one of the few blending houses to have been established in the modern whisky era, have recently released their Glasgow Edition of the Great King Street Blend.