Peter the great

Peter the great

Restless genius Peter Mackie was a true champion of malt. Tom Bruce-Gardyne describes the life of the whisky baron who created the White Horse.

History | 16 Apr 2000 | Issue 9 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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Peter Mackie was a man with a mission. Hanging from the wall of his office at 13 Carlton Place, Glasgow, was a huge sign emblazoned with the words, "Take Nothing for Granted." As the father of White Horse, he was the most passionate of all the pioneers of modern blended Scotch, in his beliefs about what whisky should be and the crucial role of maturation. These things mattered more than seeing his name in lights, something that was perhaps not always the case with the Tommy Dewars of this world. Yet when it came to business he was ruthlessly single-minded and drove his staff as hard as himself. In the words of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, Peter Mackie was "one third genius, one third megalomaniac and one third eccentric." Mackie was born in 1855 at Corsepatrick, St Ninians, just south of Stirling. At the time Jimmie Buchanan was aged nine and still in Canada while Alexander Walker was about to join his father's drinks shop in Kilmarnock and start building the Johnnie Walker empire. Perhaps it was this and the pressing need to catch up with his rival whisky barons that earned Mackie the nickname ‘Restless Peter’. Aged 23, he went to work for his uncle, James Logan Mackie, who ran a small whisky firm in Glasgow. It was a partnership with John Graham whose family had been leasing the Lagavulin distillery on Islay from the Kildalton estate since 1837. The young Peter was sent here straight away for an apprenticeship into the art of distillation, and so began a love of the island that was to last a lifetime.Then, as now, it is hard not to be captivated by the beauty and deep sense of history that surrounds Lagavulin. It sits across the bay from the ruins of Dunyveg castle, the one-time power base of the Macdonalds, who were Lords of the Isles until finally succumbing to the Campbells in the 17th century. It was from here that Islay sent 1,000 men to fight for Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314. When Peter Mackie arrived, there appear to have been two distilleries at Lagavulin. These had evolved since the 18th century from “ten small and separate smuggling bothys for the manufacture of moonlight” noted Alfred Barnard on his distilleries tour of 1887. With its three malthouses, two kilns and a mash tun half protruding from the mash house roof, as shown by contemporary photographs, it was a large and somewhat chaotic affair. According to Barnard, mature casks of whisky were still being "floated out to ships" in Lagavulin bay.Thanks to the efforts of J L Mackie & Co, who also held the agency for Laphroaig, Islay malts were already enjoying some success among the whisky drinkers of Glasgow. They were proving less popular among the blenders however, who doubtless feared the stench of peat and tang of salt might overwhelm their blends. When ‘Restless Peter’ returned to the mainland he wasted no time in promoting Lagavulin and Laphroaig to a wider audience. He also expanded the company's sales of bulk blends, principally to the brewers and licensed trade in England, and opened an office in London in 1884. Perhaps he was already thinking of a brand.The Mackies had owned property in Edinburgh's Canongate since 1650. A century later the inn next door was bought by James Boyd and renamed The White Horse, supposedly after winning a hefty bet on such a beast during a day's racing at Leith Sands. With its 13 bedrooms and stabling for 50 horses, the inn became a popular hang-out for travellers, actors and eloping couples. It is even alleged that King George III stayed here, albeit incognito, whilst journeying to Rothesay to meet the Earl of Bute. The White Horse was finally demolished in 1868, when Peter Mackie was just 13. Its name was to live on, plastered across labels, newspaper advertisements and billboards that accompanied the cacophony of glass rattling down the bottling lines in Glasgow. The White Horse trademark was first registered in 1890, the same year Peter Mackie teamed up with Alexander Edward to build a modern, large-scale distillery at Craigellachie on Speyside. With overseas sales running at 24,000 cases a year, it was decided to launch the White Horse in Britain in 1901. It was "a brand of the highest age and quality," declared Mackie, "second to nothing that had ever been offered to the public". Yet unlike the nag at Leith Sands it hardly took off at a gallop, and four years later he was having to concede to an embarrassing flop costing the company £30,000. ‘Restless Peter’ seemed frustrated by the endemic ignorance among the whisky-drinking classes. "If only they would ask for the right brand!" he would cry, despairingly. "There is a section of the public who know quality, but there is a larger section quite indifferent, who are only influenced by extravagant and persistent advertising." If the great unwashed were unable to recognise the superiority of White Horse on taste alone then so be it – advertising it would have to be. Between 1902 and the outbreak of the First World War, Mackie spent £90,000 on marketing in the UK and saw domestic sales rise from 700 to 70,000 cases per annum. For a man who purported to despise advertising he became quite a convert. Interestingly enough, when a German firm decided to hedge its bets and bring out a copy-cat brand called Black & White Horse it was Mackie, and not Jimmie Buchanan, who sued. To most people beyond Scotland, whisky was a very new vice, and there was considerable confusion. Amidst the maelstrom of competing brand-names there were venerable old malts and the meanest mouth-wash fresh from the still. There were even whiskies made in London, such as a brand called NSS, or Never seen Scotland as it was soon dubbed. Matters came to a head in 1905 when, following a number of successful prosecutions against adulterated brandy, Islington Borough Council turned its gaze towards purveyors of “so-called” whisky. But what was whisky? Should it come from a patent or only a pot still? No-one seemed to know. The North London Police Court found for the council, but on appeal the magistrates were split down the middle leaving the distillers in limbo to await the ponderous deliberations of a Royal Commission set up in 1908. Of all the whisky barons, Peter Mackie was the most rooted in malt whisky. He was deeply committed to Lagavulin and always maintained it was the water from the Solum lochs that ran across a bed of peat and moss that gave it its unique flavour. It was the heart and soul of White House along with Craigellachie which itself enjoyed considerable success as a single malt.An aggressive marketing campaign in 1901 propelled sales to an astonishing 78,000 cases that year. And yet Mackie knew the trade would be decimated if it were restricted to just malt, and if he had any quarrel with the big blenders it was not over the methods of production so much as maturation. "What the public wants is age and plenty of it." It was an issue close to his heart. "Experience teaches us that most of the riotous and obstreperous conduct of drunks come from the young, fiery spirit which is sold. While men who may over-indulge in old matured whisky become sleepy and stupid, but not in a fighting mood." All the while there was a growing tide of opinion against the demon drink whipped up by Lloyd George, the Liberal Chancellor and later Prime Minister, in his crusade to "abolish thirst." Mackie, himself a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, despised the man as a "faddist and a crank". "But what can one expect of a Welsh country solicitor?" he thundered.Apparently this put Lloyd George on a par with a bootmaker, which in Mackie's eyes was pretty bad. The argument that an excess of young spirit fires you up, while mature malts keep you mellow, was an attempt to persuade the Chancellor to impose progressively less tax the older the whisky. Lloyd George was unconvinced and proceeded to raise the duty on all Scotch by a third in his 1909 budget. The price of a basic blend was pushed to over half-a-crown a bottle and many believed whisky had had its day.The Commission's eventual ruling was a victory for the big blenders over the Highland malt mafia, though sadly for Mackie there was no mention of any ageing requirement. It was only from 1915, thanks to Baron Stevenson, then running the Ministry of Munitions having been a big gun at Johnnie Walker, that whisky had to spend at least three years in cask.With punitive taxes and a government committed to addressing the issue of prohibition once the war was over, the subject of the first-ever referendum, foreign markets looked evermore attractive. By 1914 Mackie & Co were exporting 190,000 cases, worth a total of £220,000, with South Africa the biggest single market. Though there were now a pair of deluxe whiskies – Logan's Perfection, an 18 year-old blend launched in 1901 followed by Logan's Superb – it was White Horse that dominated. Since the turn of the century exports had increased five-fold thanks to a sustained advertising campaign and the efforts and foreign trips of G W Hope Johnstone, the sales director. In 1908 the White Horse scored a notable double winning a Royal Warrant and the Grand Prix at the Franco-British Exhibition. Back on Islay, trouble had been brewing over Laphroaig. In 1907 Peter Mackie was taken to court to terminate his long-standing agency agreement. The distillery had just passed to Alex Johnstone's sisters and nephew, and they felt they weren't getting a good deal. Mackie was livid and in a fit of pique ordered stones to be ripped up from the lade to stop water flowing to Laphroaig which landed him back in the dock. He then set about building the Malt Mill Distillery within the grounds of Lagavulin in a hopeless bid to reinvent Laphroaig, copying the stills and even hiring the brewer.The Malt Mill was a small, highly traditional distillery with floor maltings and a peat kiln. It was demolished in the 1960s and for a brief period its two pear-shaped pot-stills joined those of Lagavulin. All that remains today are a pair of mill stones painted with a white horse beside the gate. Out of the office up at Symington and Glenreadsdell, his estates in Ayrshire and Argyll, Mackie took to the life of the Scottish laird with a vengeance. After a day on the grouse moor he would appear in full Highland dress complete with a monocle. "The effect," wrote the food and drink expert Derek Cooper "was of a Hollywood actor playing an eccentric English peer." There was nothing contrived in his non-whisky ventures however, which themselves became increasingly bizarre. An insatiable entrepreneur, he was forever thinking up new wheezes from making concrete slabs and weaving Highland tweed to manufacturing carragheen moss. His most famous was BBM, or Brain, Bone and Muscle, a brand of flour that would help create a bony new breed of Scot. It was milled directly beneath the board room in Glasgow and all members of staff had to eat it.His only son, James Logan Mackie, who had just joined the firm when war broke out, was killed in action near Jerusalem in 1917. Peter Mackie was devastated and buried himself in work. Post-war sales recovered to over 200,000 cases and the company changed its name to White Horse Distillers Ltd. Besides Lagavulin and Craigellachie they now owned a grain distillery in London and a half share of Cragganmore on Speyside. They also bought Hazelburn in Campbeltown where visitors from around the world included Mr Taketsura who went on to establish the Nikka distillery in Japan.By now ‘Restless Peter’ was running out of steam having rebuffed a recent invitation to merge with Buchanan-Dewar. He died in September 1924, an independent spirit to the last. Three years later the company was swallowed up by DCL and while the proportion of Lagavulin may have shrunk over time, White Horse was to remain one of its most distinctive blends.
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