Haig Whisky: From historic blends to David Beckham

Haig Whisky: From historic blends to David Beckham

The historic roots of Haig, a pioneer of grain whisky and once the world’s best-selling Scotch, may seem at odds with its modern image – but there is more in common between the old and new than meets the eye


Image credit: Natasha Alipour

Whisky Focus | 12 Dec 2023 | Issue 195 | By David T. Smith

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Haig Whisky has a remarkable history and perception in the modern world. To some, it is a historic brand with an instantly recognisable bottle that can trace its history back to the 17th century. For others, they’ll know it as “that blue bottle with David Beckham” – a reference to the brand’s resurrection in 2014 after disappearing into near obscurity.


The whisky-making history of Haig goes back to 1655: there is a record from that date of Robert Haig of St Ninian’s being admonished by the local church elders for “breaking the sabbath” by running (then known as “playing”) his stills on a Sunday. Robert came from a long-established family of the Scottish Lowlands and had likely learnt modern distillation methods from visiting relatives from Holland.


A great resource for all things Haig is www.haigwhisky.com, which is surprisingly not run by Haig’s current owner, Diageo, but by Irish whiskey writer Stuart McNamara. Stuart has a great appreciation of the brand’s long history, which inspired him to make the website. He describes it as the “Jameson’s of its day”; this is a particularly apt analogy as the founder of Jameson Whisky, John Jameson, was born in Scotland and married Margaret Haig in 1768. Margaret was the great-great-great-granddaughter of the original Robert Haig and both of her parents (John Haig and Margaret Stein) came from influential distilling families.


In 1824, aged 22, John Haig (nephew of Margaret Haig) founded Cameronbridge Distillery, where Haig whiskies such as Gold Label, Dimple, Pinch, and Club were created and are still produced today. John also researched and perfected the use of the then-new column still technology to make grain whisky, thus forming part of the foundation of the modern Scotch whisky industry.


By 1877, the distillery was producing 1.25 million gallons a year and John joined forces with four other distillers to create the Distillers Company. This, in turn, merged with John Walker & Sons and Buchanan-Dewars in 1925.

By 1939, Haig had become Britain’s best-selling Scotch and, in 1971, was the first spirit to sell more than one million cases.

Haig whiskies including Club and Dimple were created at the Cameronbridge Distillery in the Scottish Lowlands. Credit: Diageo

Around this time, Haig was the whisky of choice in films such as Ice Cold in Alex, Diamonds are Forever, and numerous others from Pinewood, Ealing, and Elstree Studios. It was also a favourite of Simon Templar in Roger Moore’s 1960s portrayal of The Saint. Another spy, James Bond, enjoyed it in at least the first three of Ian Fleming’s books, both in the UK, where he drinks Haig Dimple, and in the USA, where it was named Haig Pinch. More recently, Haig Dimple/Pinch 15 Years Old appears to be the whisky of choice for Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White in a number of episodes.


Despite its 20th-century domination, the Haig Whisky of old is relatively unknown today. It serves as a cautionary tale of the fickleness of the drinks industry and how quickly the tables can be turned. By 2000, it was reported that Haig was selling a mere 750 cases a year.


There were a number of contributory factors to this decline. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a number of mergers and acquisitions across the industry that left a smaller number of companies owning multiple once-competing brands, which then had to fight for their new owner’s attention. The Distillers Company (already comprising Johnnie Walker, Dewars, Buchanan’s, and Haig) was sold to Guinness in 1986 and merged with Arthur Bell & Sons. Given the strength of Bell’s and Johnnie Walker domestically, it makes sense that Haig was relegated to focus on export markets, along with Buchanan’s. This was the fate of quite a few brands that were once popular domestically but are now rarely seen, including Black & White and White Horse.


A similar period saw something of a disconnect between the anticipated demand for Scotch whisky and the supply, leading to overproduction and the infamous ‘whisky loch’.

A bottle of Haig Club.

For a few decades, Haig was largely forgotten by the UK public. Occasionally bottles would surface that had been lost at the back of some relative’s cocktail cupboard, or they may be seen on a trip abroad, particularly in the USA. Haig was granted a second lease of life in 2014 with the launch of Haig Club, a brand designed to appeal to a new type of whisky drinker. As a grain whisky it has a light and gently sweet character, making it more accessible to newcomers. It was not just the contents of the bottle that had a makeover, either – the bottle itself was a striking blue number, as much inspired by the display case of a perfumer as a distillery.


The new Haig Club partnered with footballer David Beckham to promote the product and introduce the brand to a new generation. In 2016, Haig Clubman was added to the line-up: this was a more mainstream product with a lower price tag and simpler packaging. Designed for mixing, one of its suggested serves was with cola.


The Clubman product line was expanded in 2020 with Haig Clubman ready-to-drink cans: one with cola and the other with ginger ale and lime. The following year, a variant of Haig Clubman flavoured with orange and bottled at 35% ABV (making it technically a spirit drink rather than a whisky) was released to widen the appeal to drinkers and be served with a variety of mixers.


In the 10 years since life was breathed back into the Haig brand, things have changed a fair bit. The brand and David Beckham parted ways earlier in 2023 after nine years and the focus seems to be on the entry level of the whisky market, which contrasts with the £45, more premium whisky launched in 2014. But in many ways, this is what Haig has always been good at: creating spirit for the wider public.


Haig has always been a whisky for those ‘in the know’, but with growing name recognition and a renewed interest and appreciation for grain whisky, there is great potential and ambition for Haig in the 21st century. 

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