How a canny Kilmarnock grocer took whisky from the glens to the world | Whisky

Johnnie Walker has come a long way. Two centuries ago bottles of the blended whisky were confined to the shelves of John Walker’s modest grocery store in the little town of Kilmarnock in west Scotland. Today it is the planet’s best selling scotch and is sold in bottles by the billions.

It is an extraordinary success story – and it was achieved by a small family firm whose members were notable because they were “stubborn, thrawn and as hard as nails”, according to a newly published study of the Johnnie Walker blend.

Written by Nick Morgan, A Long Stride, published by Canongate, reveals the extraordinary pains the Walker family went to in order to ensure bottles of their brand, above all other whiskies, was the one that sold in the greatest numbers. As family diaries and papers reveal, it was a relentless effort to promote and advertise their product and to make technological improvements to its distillation to ensure previous, wildly inconsistent levels of taste and quality were subdued.

In this way, the Walker family dragged Scotch “kicking and screaming from illicit bothies in sequestered glens onto the world stage”, says Morgan. Crucially the story reveals how scotch whisky become Scotland’s gift to the world.

“And it is a gift that keeps on giving to a remarkable degree today,” adds Morgan, a former historian and head of outreach for Diageo, the current owners of Johnnie Walker. The Walkers took a cottage industry, made massive improvements in its manufacture, launched national promotions and laid the foundations for an industry that today has a massive impact on the Scottish economy.

Mad Men and star Christina Hendricks fronted a Johnnie Walker ad campaign.
Whisky was a favourite drink in TV’s Mad Men, and star Christina Hendricks fronted a Johnnie Walker ad campaign. Photograph: Retro AdArchives/Alamy Stock Photo

In 2018, the nation’s whisky industry sold the equivalent of more than a billion bottles of scotch – vastly more spirit than is exported by any other nation on Earth. And while Johnnie Walker sells the most, many other leading blends also sell vast quantities abroad. These include Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal, Grant’s, Dewar’s and several other hugely popular whiskies that are drunk in bars from Hong Kong to Manhattan and from Rome to Buenos Aires.

This output is now worth £4.7bn a year, representing 70% of Scotland’s food and drink exports and 21% of the United Kingdom’s. (Scotland’s second largest food and drink export is seafood – in particular salmon – and earns about £950 million a year.)
Yet the beginnings of the Johnnie Walker enterprise were modest and can be traced to John Walker’s decision to sell the family farm after the death of his father and to set up a shop in Kilmarnock in 1820 to sell tea, sugar, soap and, of course, whisky which he would have blended himself from casks of malt and grain whisky.

Most grocery businesses went bust within a couple of years in those days, says Morgan, so Walker – who appears to have led a life of studied reticence – did well merely to thrive as a shopkeeper. One myth even suggests he was a teetotaller.

Morgan is unimpressed. “I have found absolutely no evidence for this, and given he ran a thriving grocery business which specialised in blended whisky and other wines and spirits, I am pretty sure he would have taken a dram himself.”

Walker died in 1857 and left it to his eldest son Alexander to promote the family business which he did with remarkable, focused energy. “He was driven by an urge to make constant improvements, to make his blends better and better. He also realised he could only do so much in west Scotland to sell whisky. By contrast, London was a shop window for the world. Fashions were made here, he realised.”

A John Walker advert from 1887.
A John Walker advert from 1887. Photograph: Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images

In London, Alexander Walker launched advertising campaigns and promoted his whisky at international trade fairs, while constantly driving for improvements to his distilleries. And by the 1880s and 1890s, Walker had succeeded in making whisky the most fashionable drink of the day, with the Johnnie Walker blend in the vanguard.

In some ways, he was lucky. Brandy had until then had been a hugely popular drink but in the wake of the grapevine pest phylloxera’s arrival in France in the late 19th century, the country’s vineyards were devastated, triggering a collapse in the production of quality French brandy. Scotch filled the void very neatly.

On the other hand, there were hard times which the Scotch market managed to survive, from the Boer war to the first world war to the Great Depression. “Johnnie Walker went up and down every time but it always came back stronger. It has been a remarkably resilient brand, if nothing else,” says Morgan.

Yet the whisky we drink today is not quite the one that the Walkers would have perfected, he reveals. “Today’s whiskies, and not just the Johnnie Walker blends, are slightly lighter, fresher, and fruitier than they would have been in the 19th century.

“We don’t have a bottle of 19th-century whisky to study to prove this point but we know scotch was drunk differently then. It was usually combined with lemon and sugar to make toddies and would have had to have been heavier and oilier for its taste to survive the mixing.”

Habits changed, however, and in late Victorian and Edwardian times, soda became popular and whiskies became lighter in responses to being mixed with it. “It was a little thing but the soda syphon had a big impact on whisky,” says Morgan.

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