Travelling Whisky

Travelling Whisky

In part two of our series about whisky labels we board an ocean steamer and take a little detour by car, train and airplane

Travel | 07 Jun 2013 | Issue 112 | By Hans Offringa

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Nowadays flying is a commodity. However at the beginning of the 20th century it was a luxury product only the rich and famous could afford. To transport goods over long distances or making intercontinental trips, people would usually choose a ship. The wellknown Holland-America Line (HAL) was founded in 1873, originally as the Dutch-American Steamship Company. At first it operated solely between Rotterdam and New York but soon other ports, such as Baltimore, became noted destinations. Transatlantic passenger services ceased around 1971, when flying had become a more attractive alternative. HAL then concentrated on luxury cruises. The present headquarters is located in Seattle, WA.

Currently HAL operates 15 ships and I am informed most bars are stocked well with whisky.

When HAL was a quarter of a century old, American banker John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) tried to monopolise international ocean transport, for goods as well as people. Morgan was a business tycoon, philanthropist, banker and art collector. Consolidating industries and organising corporate finance was his bread and butter. Already having reorganised and virtually monopolised the US Steel Industry, he greedily looked at markets for expanding his business emporium. Having seen the huge potential in transatlantic shipping, he set new goals and founded the International Mercantile Marine Co (IMM) on 1 October 1902. The IMM grew into a powerful American trust company and acquired a number of important shipping companies, some of which dated back to the 19th century.

Most companies carried their own whisky on board under private labels. For instance the White Star Line founded in 1871 and owned by IMM. Its most (in)famous ship was the Titanic, which went down in 1912. Morgan, who reportedly had a private suite with promenade deck on the Titanic, remarkably survived the disaster. He had booked passage, but suffering from ill health, decided to stay in France, trying to recover from his rheumatism by taking therapeutic sulphur baths. It is not unthinkable that bottles with the following label were carried by the Titanic and are still lying on the bottom of the ocean.

Eventually the White Star Line merged with its rival Cunard. This big boy still exists, owned the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth and currently owns the Queen Elizabeth 2.

Some other examples from the IMM are the Red Star Line from 1872, the American Line (1893), the Atlantic Shipping Company (1902), one of the founding members of the IMM, and the Bernstein Line (1926).

Hill Thomson & Co was the broker for all the associated whiskies. In 1793 drinks merchant William Hill founded Hill Thomson in Edinburgh. The label displayed of the Bernstein Line is from 1935, the year this broker turned into a Limited Company. The current owner is Pernod Ricard SA. Something Special and Queen Anne are among the blends that are available at present.

A number of years ago The Macallan played with the same theme by launching The Macallan Thirties, sporting the cruise ship Queen Mary on the packaging. This expression is part of the Travellers Series. The other three are the Twenties depicting a car, the Forties showing a steam locomotive and the Fifties, displaying an airplane. The back labels explain in detail.

What is particularly interesting about this series is that it also represents the typical flavours of the decades they depict. Due to the fact that The Macallan has a considerable range of older whiskies maturing in their warehouses, its master distillers were able to recreate those flavours and aromas by sampling casks actually containing whiskies from the 1920s through 1950s.

The historical impact of each of the four expressions is larger than meets the eye and the palate. In the 1920s the Scotch whisky industry was largely modernised, for instance the method of firing stills changed, which must have had an effect on the spirit. During the latter part of the 1930s Sherry casks were increasingly difficult to procure, partly caused by the Spanish Civil war. As a result a considerable amount of whisky from that decade may have matured in second fill Sherry casks and even ex-Bourbon casks. The Macallan style of the 1930s was probably less spicy than today's.

The 1940s offered new challenges with the Second World War heavily affecting distilling practises.

Coal and barley were rationed, casks were often used more than once or twice and peat became important again as fuel, not only for the stills, but also for the kilns. These were the days of peaty and lean. I was lucky to once sample a genuine 1946 Macallan, and yes, peat it was! The Macallan hit its modern stride in the 1950s when things became were readily available. The whisky became more balanced, as it is now.

This short olfactory and pictorial time-travel takes me back to JP Morgan's IMM. It eventually shipwrecked, too. After the loss of its flagship Titanic, the company had to be refinanced a couple of times, went into receivership in 1915 and had completely dissolved by the early 1940s.

Morgan died in 1913 but his name lives on in the financial institution JP Morgan. Over time the various Lines, parts of Morgan's brainchild, merged into other companies.

What happened to the brands once carried by these fierce ocean steamers? IMM was American, Hill Thomson Scottish, and the current brands owner is French. Talk about a travelling label! Who knows, maybe Pernod Ricard will one day decide to bring these old liner labels to life again, just as The Macallan once did with its Vintage Travel Series. I'll be among the first to book an intercontinental cruise!
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