For those of us of a certain age, the phrase “Don’t be vague ask for Haig” remains instantly familiar, despite the fact that the once ubiquitous Haig Gold Label blend in its dark brown bottle with contrasting white and gold label is now the province of specialist retailers in the UK. The strapline was the work of Thomas Henry Egan who reputedly received £25 and a case of whisky from the distillers for his efforts.
It is worth noting that by 1939 Gold Label had become the biggest seller in the Distiller’s Company Ltd (DCL) stable, and from the 1930s to the 1970s the Haig brand was Scotland’s leading whisky.
To discover its origins we have to go back to the 17th century, when one Robert Haig was summoned to appear before the Kirk Session of St Ninian’s parish church in Stirlingshire for operating a still on the Sabbath in 1655. Evidence described “His cauldron on fyre, and a stand reiking.” Because of this reference, claims have been made that Haig’s is the oldest whisky distilling company in the world, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, various members of the Haig family were at the very heart of large-scale Scotch whisky distillation.
Most famously, Cameronbridge distillery at Windygates in Fife (see issue 98) was established by John Haig in 1824, and the plant is credited with being the first in Scotland to produce grain whisky. While Cameronbridge became one of the six founding distilleries of DCL in 1877, John Haig & Co Ltd continued to retain its independence as a leading blender until being absorbed into DCL in 1919.
Although Haig Gold Label is elusive in many modern markets, its more premium sibling Dimple – known as Pinch in the USA – retains a higher profile in a greater number of territories. Dimple was launched in 1888 and its distinctive three-sided, dimpled bottle was first introduced in 1893 by George Ogilvy Haig.
For many years the Haig label carried the name Markinch, and the Fife location was home to Haig’s red brick blending and bottling plant, established there in 1877. Markinch closed in 1983, at the same time that DCL shut down 11 malt distilleries to help deal with the crisis of over-production that was blighting the industry.
At the date of closure, Markinch had a workforce of 571, and 231 of those jobs were saved as bottling was transferred to the existing 1950s Leven facility some six miles away. The old blending and bottling premises remain externally intact and still prominently feature the name John Haig & Co Ltd, although the buildings are split into separate units and function as the Haig Business Park.
Today, Haig is part of the Diageo organisation and the rarity of Gold Label in the UK marketplace dates back to 1977/78, when an EEC ruling decreed that DCL’s sole-distributor system, which employed lower wholesale prices in the UK than in other EEC countries, was illegal. As a result a number of well-known and big-selling DCL brands were withdrawn from general sale in the UK.
Diageo’s Senior Corporate Relations Manager Ian Smith says that “The biggest market for both Haig Gold Label and Dimple is now Greece. Haig Gold Label also has a significant presence in Lebanon, Spain and India. Dimple is sold in around 30 markets, including Korea, Dubai, Netherlands, France, South Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean. Dimple is one of the key Scotch brands in Germany.”
Earlier this year, a new, premium Haig variant named Haig Supreme was introduced into Latin America, with an initial launch taking place in Colombia. The bottle carries the date 1627 prominently on its label. That was the year in which Robert Haig established a farm at Throsk in Stirlingshire, and is generally taken to be when the Haig family first began to distil.
So, the old brand is receiving a new incarnation in fresh territories, and carrying with it some of its remarkable and ancient heritage.