Still hot for Teacher's

Still hot for Teacher's

Teacher's is celebrating its 175th birthday with a new owner. And the brand's still bullish

Production | 07 Oct 2005 | Issue 51 | By Dominic Roskrow

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With 175 years of history behind you, you might be excused for looking back.It would be entirely understandable if you wanted to concentrate on past glories and emphasise the long tradition and heritage of your firm.And when that firm truly does have a proud and important part in the history of Scotch whisky, there’s even more reason.So, inevitably a meeting with Bill Bergius of Teacher’s involves a little time looking backwards.But mostly, Bill was in the mood to anticipate the future and, after 175 years, that still looks exciting.Teacher’s is about to have a new owner and one from America to boot. So, in addition to all the organisational and commercial changes that lie just around the corner come significant cultural challenges as well. But let’s take a brief glance backwards, if only to appreciate just how momentous an event this is.The firm was established in 1830 when William Teacher opened his grocery shop in Piccadilly Street, Glasgow.Like other whisky entrepreneurs, such as John Walker of Kilmarnock, he soon branched out into the spirits trade and began to develop his business.Teacher’s became famous for its dram shops. These were very different in style from some of the other Glaswegian drinking dens described elsewhere in this issue of Whisky Magazine. In fact, so stern and austere was their character that the licensing magistrates congratulated the firm on its work as temperance reformers! There was no danger of adulterated whisky in one of Teacher’s establishments, even if laughter and general merriment were in short supply.William Teacher died in 1876 and control of the firm passed to his sons William and Adam.Blending became increasingly important and, in 1884, came an event of great future significance: the trademark registration of Teacher’s Highland Cream.This truncated history precludes an full account of the firm but it is worth remarking that Highland Cream, originally beginning as “a very small item,” came to dominate the firm, such that business and brand became inextricably linked.From the earliest days, this was a fullflavoured blend, strongly built on the company’s single malt distilleries at Glendronach and, more particularly, Ardmore. In fact, more than 35 single whiskies go into the Highland Cream blend to this day – an individual tasting blend, with a silky texture and quite a quick finish that leaves the palate refreshed.The firm’s Robert Hicks, a master blender who has been in the industry for 40 years, took over the Teacher’s blend in 1988. Being a master blender close to his whisky (as opposed to those found more often on the promotional trail) he still samples and noses product every day at the giant Kilmalid operation in Dumbarton.Bill Bergius describes Teacher’s as “quite a challenging whisky but, once tasted, it is hard to find the interest, depth and power in another whisky.” As with so many independent Scottish companies, the firm found it hard to resist the requirement for outside capital. Under the sustained pressures of the Second World War - death duties; high taxation and the need for continual investment and modernisation - many families threw in the towel.Teacher’s was fortunate. In 1976 it shrewdly negotiated a deal with Allied Brewers, instead of waiting for the inevitable hostile takeover. The family retained an important role, even if ownership passed out of its hands.This link continues to this day, with the Bergius family involved in the firm since 1876, when Bill’s ancestor Walter Bergius married Agnes Teacher.As a result, the firm has always valued its heritage and an unrivalled business archive has been kept up (now under the care of Glasgow University). It’s ironic and mildly amusing to see some companies who cavalierly disposed of this type of material in the 1960s and 70s, now anxiously buying it back at inflated prices on eBay and at auction.But Allied did not stand still. The brewing industry has not been without its own challenges and pressures Accordingly, Allied Brewers evolved into Allied Lyons and latterly Allied Domecq.As Dave Broom has observed elsewhere, the firm’s problem was that it was forever in possession of the silver medal – always second place in the markets.It is an impressive enough performance, but the City is a very unforgiving place and now Allied Domecq has been swallowed by the rampant Pernod Ricard.The price of the deal is a break-up of the portfolio, with Fortune Brands of America (better known in the United Kingdom as Jim Beam Brands) acquiring Teacher’s, Laphroaig and other wine and spirit interests for a reported £2.8 billion.In Teacher’s, the company acquired the number three whisky in the United Kingdom and the world’s 12th. However, it’s not long since Jim Beam Brands decided that Whyte & Mackay “simply didn’t fit with our strategic focus” so the jury’s out on their future plans.It’s not too hard too predict, however, that they will respect the Teacher heritage and brand provenance.This is one of the great old whiskies, yet as Bill Bergius put it: “Heritage is a support for the brand, demonstrating that it’s the genuine article. We’ll maintain a Teacher’s character that is contemporary but still has authority and authenticity.” So this could not be a more appropriate time for Helen Arthur’s new book, which will grace many collectors’ libraries. A limited account of the firm A Family of Spirit by Geoffrey Cousins appeared in 1975 but, while it contained much of interest, was restricted in scope and contained only a few black and white illustrations.A fully illustrated history is overdue and the publishers, Tanner & Butler, have even gone to the extreme lengths of printing many of the illustrations of period advertising from the original letterpress blocks.The result is a rich, creamy texture and an authenticity to the feel of the product that’s not easily copied – just like the whisky that gave rise to this impressive volume in fact!Look out for a promotional offer on Helen’s book in this issue and savour a slice of whisky history that will never be repeated.
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