Learning to fly

Learning to fly

Grouse and the Gloags, part 1: Charles Maclean tells the history of a bird, a brand and a dynasty. For a profile of a thoroughly modern Matthew Gloag, see page 46.

People | 13 Jun 1999 | By Charles MacLean

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My great-great-great-grandfather, Matthew Gloag the First, went into the wines and spirits trade in the early 1800s. Actually, he wasn't the first at all, since he had been named after his grandfather – and there were several other Matthews before that. But we call him the First because he was the founder of the business'. I was talking to Matthew Gloag the Fifth across a dinner table in a grand house in Perthshire. The occasion then was the migration of the Gloags from their home county of Perth to the neighbouring county of Angus. An historical occasion, for the Gloags have been in Perthshire since time immemorial. However, in March last year an even more momentous move was made by the Gloag family: this time to Bordeaux, where, as we shall see, Matthew's forbears learned their trade.The founder of the whisky dynasty, Matthew I, was the son of a carrier (in modern parlance a haulier), who became a butler in the house of the sheriff clerk of Perth – an important lawyer. At the age of 20 he married the sheriff's housekeeper and moved into an apartment above a licensed grocer's shop at 22 Atholl Street, Perth. When the tenancy of the shop below fell vacant, Matthew and Margaret took over both it and the license.Perth is at the very centre of Scotland. Just as Byron could write, 'See Naples and die', so it is said that if ever you go to Perth, you will one day return to Scotland. The Highlands begin just north of the town, and the Lowlands lie to the south. It grew up on the banks of the mighty River Tay – the largest river in Scotland, famous for its salmon – at the first point at which the river could be bridged, yet still providing access to the North Sea and the markets of Europe. In effect, the town was founded on the spot at which land and sea routes converged.As a result, Perth has had a long history. There was a Roman camp here in the second century AD; it became a burgh – a major market town – in the 12th century and was granted rights and privileges to collect dues from goods which passed through from the fertile Lowlands to the rugged Highlands, and vice versa. By 1250 there was an active trade in wine between Perth and Bordeaux.By the time Matthew I took over the shop in Atholl Street there were several wine and spirit merchants in the town, but Gloag quickly became pre-eminent. When Queen Victoria planned to visit Perth in 1842, he was invited to supply the wines for the royal banquet. As it happened, the Queen was diverted, and the banquet never took place, but the fact that he was invited in the first place is indicative of his standing.Matthew I died in 1860 and his son William took over. His first list offered Highland whisky at 15 shillings (75p) a dozen bottles, Lowland whisky at 17/- (85p) a dozen and Glenlivet whiskies at 18/- (90p) a dozen. He later added house blended whiskies to his list, and expanded his stock of French wines. In the latter, he was assisted greatly by his nephew, Matthew Gloag II, who often went to France to buy wines. Indeed, in 1874, young Matthew so impressed the leading wine négociant, Octave Calvet, that he invited him to work in Bordeaux full-time. He returned to Perth in 1894 to assume management of the family firm, and immediately took up blending whisky in a big way, launching, in 1896, The Grouse Brand.The name was chosen to appeal to the many sportsmen who came to Perthshire from the south for the shooting season, and the label depicting the Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scoticus – sometimes described as 'Scotland's other national bird') was sketched by his daughter Phillippa. It immediately became so popular locally that the word 'Famous' was added only two years after the launch of the blend.By 1907 Matthew II had built extensive premises, named Bordeaux House, in the centre of Perth; the buildings incorporated a shop and cellarage for the wines. This remained the headquarters until February 1996, when the company moved to larger purpose-built premises at Kinfauns, on the outskirts of the town. On the death of his father in 1910, the firm was taken over by Matthew William Gloag, known as 'Willie'. He obtained a loan of £10,000 to expand the business – and made a profit of £1,456 in the first year. In 1912 he was listing Grouse at 3/- (15p) a bottle or £6.00 for a five gallon cask, carriage paid and described as being '...guaranteed to be over eight years old, but as a matter of fact it is nearly ten'.Willie Gloag had fought in the Boer War at the turn of the century, and within five years of becoming owner of the firm, signed up in the Black Watch and went off to fight in the Great War. During his absence on active service the business was very capably run by his wife, Nellie. Indeed, so successful was she that by 1917 profits had reached a record £14,000 – in spite of very difficult trading conditions and vicious taxation – and the firm's accountants advised her to 'keep down sales as much as possible' to avoid the wartime Excess Profits Tax.When Willie Gloag returned from the war, he determined to set his sights on overseas markets, but was soon (1920) confronted by the problem of Prohibition in the United States. Like several other whisky companies, he devoted his marketing energies to getting the brand into territories adjacent to the States – principally the West Indies – from where it could be run into the US illegally in small fast boats. The tiny French colonies of St Pierre and Miquelon, for example, were importing 119,000 gallons of Scotch in 1922 – described as 'quite a respectable quantity for a population of 6,000 people'. Exports to the Bahamas more than tripled (to 370,000 gallons) between 1918 and 1922. Ironically, the availability of good Scotch, when so much of the hooch available in the States was home-made moonshine, laid the foundations for the phenomenal success of Scotch whisky in the US when Prohibition was lifted in 1933. One of Gloag's distributors in the Caribbean advertised The Famous Grouse Brand with the memorable headline 'Mellow As A Night of Love... One Grouse and you want No Other'.So active was Gloag's export business that in 1936 the firm established a new bonded warehouse and bottling line at Kinnoull Street, only a stone's throw from the old Atholl Street shop. The stocking of this spacious facility proved to be prudent, for when the Second World War broke out in 1939, the company – Matthew Gloag & Son Ltd was incorporated that year – had sufficient reserves of mature whisky to last 12 years. Willie Gloag died in 1947 and was succeeded as chairman by his son, Matthew Frederick Gloag, known as Freddie, who continued his father's good work with tours of the USA, Canada and Africa, further boosting export demand.In the home market, wartime rationing continued to apply to Scotch until 1959. Grouse's popularity remained mainly local until the 1960s, when it began to win a following in Glasgow and Central Scotland, but the company was highly profitable and well managed, and the brand well regarded amongst connoisseurs, selling around 25,000 cases a year. Then disaster struck the Gloag family. Freddie died suddenly in 1970, at the early age of 60, followed within days by his wife. Their executors were faced with having to find death duties twice over, and in those days even single death duties were punitive. The family held just under 100 per cent of the shares in the company, so the only course of action was to find a friendly and appropriate buyer. Highland Distilleries, the well established, independent whisky company, from whom Gloags bought many of their fillings, was the logical choice. Highland had the determination and the resources to market The Famous Grouse Brand. Grouse's long and consistent devotion to quality was emphasised – the line 'Quality In An Age of Change' which was adopted somewhat later (and ran for two decades), summed up the proposition – and such quality was reflected in the price, which was slightly higher than most standard blends. The label was tidied up by the new owners – 'tweaked', as designers say: whisky collectors should note that from early 1972 the word 'Brand' was dropped from the name.Suddenly the bottle was seen in every bar and household of taste. The success was much analysed by bar philosophers. I remember being told categorically in 1974 by George Thom, head barman of the celebrated Criterion Bar in St Andrews, that the reason for Grouse's success was that it had been adopted by the officers' and sergeants' messes in the Scottish regiments – highly discriminating customers – and the word had spread from there. By 1980 Grouse was the best selling Scotch in Scotland – a position it has retained ever since. And in southern Europe it is a fashionable drink among younger people, who order it loudly and proudly in bars and cafes. 'La Famosa Perdix!', they cry in Spain and Venezuela. Matthew I would be proud.
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