A Highland Romance

From merchants to brands – the early years of Scotch whisky advertising
By Mark Newton
We've all been seduced in the past: a fussily arranged portrait of a whisky bottle, or some dreamy Highland image, which has tempted us to part with our cash for a dram. We certainly aren't the first generation, because distillery archives glitter with marketing gems that date back two centuries. The modern Scotch whisky industry developed after the 1823 Excise Act; but it wasn't until the mid 19th Century when Scotch whisky saw a significant boom in sales. And it's around then that whisky advertising really commenced in earnest.

The very first advertisements did not exactly sparkle. There was no colour. No imagery at all, in most cases. They were simple price lists announced by merchants, written entirely in copy for newspapers or magazines and often listing whisky along with other goods. Sometimes these lists just appeared as booklets.

Branded whiskies had not yet been established in the way that we know them today. Instead the adverts plugged wine and spirits traders, or wine and Scotch whisky merchants, in place of what we'd understand as brands. Such an example is Chivas Brothers. In the early 19th Century they were marketed as wine and Scotch whisky merchants, who sold Scotch blends or 'liqueurs' - which was a more seductive word to mean the same thing - of varying ages. In the case of Teacher's, their advertising operation was slightly different. William Teacher had developed a range of his own infamous 'dram shops' in the Glasgow area, where people would drink Teacher's own blends of whisky along with other beverages in a very brisk, business-like manner. Advertising in newspapers - such as

Glasgow Chronicle and The North British Daily Mail few - had the aim of driving footfall into these stores.

Within early price lists came sparks of art including illustrations of antique lettering and emblems. Any endorsements, such as medals that had been awarded by the Great Exhibition of 1851, were also proudly displayed. Royal crests, as can be seen with Chivas Brothers appeared atop adverts for whiskies with a range of age statements. Such illustrations also featured on branded show cards, which were slotted into store window displays.

The illustrations evolved into caricatures and stylised bottles. These basic pieces of art were quick to trade on traditional Highland imagery, and of Scottish romance as defined by the novels of Sir Walter Scott and propagated by Queen Victoria. Getting a top illustrator was akin to getting a top photographer today, such as Annie Leibovitz, to conduct a photoshoot. Especially given advertisements now began to appear in upmarket publications such as Tatler, Punch, Country Life and The Field.

What of the messaging of these early adverts? The quality of many whiskies on sale during this period was questionable. Some distilleries were not re-distilling the spirit to a high enough quality. Worse still, spirit was diluted with dubious substances such as turpentine. The prudent company wanted to distance themselves from these potentially lethal whiskies, which would give drinkers a hangover at best and a visit from the doctor at worst. Words such as 'very fine', 'finest' and 'pure malt' appearing on numerous advertisements in response. Brands even wheeled out noted physicians and doctors to praise their whiskies as being wholesome and beneficial for one's health. In Dewar's case, their slogan early on was simply 'purity', and they displayed recommendations from the medical press and The Athletic Times.

The latter part of the 19th Century saw a stratospheric rise in the global popularity of Scotch whisky. Spirit merchants raced like imperialists to occupy markets from South America to China. Sales offices sprung up around the world. Such was this volume of business that the company Thom & Cameron had its own fleet of ships. However, this development was very important to the evolution of Scotch whisky advertising.

In order to sell large quantities of whisky successfully in these markets, whisky companies began to develop brand names. The psychology of the advertising - now commonly seen as colourful station posters printed by the likes of Nathaniel Lloyd & Co; simple store showcards; or full-pages in magazines - began to shift. Promotion of business prices and of health appeal sufficed for a while in the domestic market; but they needed to enhance the desirability of brands to make them stand-out in the global and international market.

Walker's Kilmarnock whiskies were rebranded as Johnnie Walker and brand adverts began to materialise from around 1906 - although still promoting the by then traditional themes of 'quality, age, and uniformity'. The brand's sales were struggling against the likes of Buchanan & Co and Dewar's, so it turned to illustration. The famous 'Striding Man' - illustrated by the famous cartoonist Tom Browne, who also designed several posters for Teacher's - made his first appearance on an advert in December's issue of the Tatler magazine.

Meanwhile, one of Matthew Gloag's whiskies, which would later become the Famous Grouse, clearly and explicitly denoted it was a brand using the names 'Grouse brand' or the 'Famous Grouse brand' in its marketing material.

Merchants continued to morph into brands: John Haig & Co. Limited promoting Haig's Pinch; Mackie & Co. Distillers Ltd advertising White Horse; J & R Harvey pushing The Thin Red Line. Buchanan's Black & White was trademarked in 1904 and its adverts identified itself as a brand. Black & White began to link itself with affluent lifestyles - as Scotch grew further from being a working man's drink - using illustrations of Edwardian motor cars or fine dining. Ironically, in 1912 it made one of the first full colour advertisements of any Scotch whisky brand - this time illustrating a polo player. James and John Chivas sought to create perhaps the world's first luxury whisky and shipped to the US their 25 year old Chivas Regal blend - a 'superb' liqueur whisky. Brands had arrived.

It should be noted that though archive material is largely dominated by blends, whiskies from a single distillery were promoted as such. W & J Mutter owned Bowmore distillery from 1852 - 1890, and were known to have spent a great deal of money on promotion. Bowmore was not alone in this respect. The Glenlivet, Caol Ila, Springbank and Glenglassaugh were all promoted as distinct distillery brands, and Royal Brackla made much of its Royal warrant in its own promotion.

The next part of this series will examine how advertisers used the medium for political statements, the impact of World War I, and a look at one of the wizards of early Scotch whisky advertising.

Tom Browne (1870 - 1910)

Tom Browne was one of the most popular illustrators of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and to many the original master of British comics. Starting life as a milliner's errand boy and later as an apprentice to a printer, he sketched comics for various London publications. Eventually he would create many strips a week for Comic Cuts and the Illustrative Chips, and later would illustrate for Punch, Tatler and the Chicago Daily Tribune. He would later create postcards, posters and paintings.

Alfred Chantrey Corbould (1852 - 1920)

Suffolk artist Alfred Chantrey Corbould came from a large family of artists. Corbould used many names for his wide variety of paintings and illustrations. He contributed to magazines such as Punch, where he specialised in sporting scenes. Corbould was also present at the Russo-Turkish War as a war correspondent and illustrator. His image of the polo player was used for one of the earliest colour whisky advertisements in print.