Bambi the Wonder Deer

Often used but not worn out – meet some famous antlers in this new episode on old and interesting whisky labels
By Hans Offringa
Who started this? Was it Glenfiddich? Or Dalmore? Both use a stag's head as the company logo, albeit that Dalmore uses this symbol somewhat more explicitly on its bottles. Taking the foundation date of both distilleries into account The Dalmore (1839) should be credited with being the first, since Glenfiddich only started distilling in 1886. Notwithstanding that fact, I opt for the latter.

I do remember older Dalmore bottlings and even own a miniature on which label not a single stag's head can be seen. The usage of the head and antlers by the distillery at the Cromarty Firth is from a more recent date. The story behind it, however, is too beautiful to ignore. In 1236 one Colin Mackenzie saved the life of Alexander III. The then-Monarch of Scotland had fallen off his horse during the deer hunt and was under serious threat of being killed by a '12-pointer', or Royal Stag.

Mackenzie didn't hesitate, threw himself and his spear between king and danger, killing the deer with a mighty stroke. His reward was the Royal Stag in his family crest.

Fast forward. In 1891 Colin's descendants bought Dalmore distillery from founder Matheson. The ancient story of heroism was smartly polished a few years ago by the current brand owner, resulting in a very noticeable bottle carrying a silver 12-pointer affixed to the surface. It is fair to question if one can still call this a label, but hey ho. The design is beautiful and the liquid goods within the bottle are very tasty.

A somewhat different story is attached to Glenfiddich. The antlers are more or less included in the brand name, which is Gaelic for 'valley of the deer'. Originally a true depiction of a stag, the logo now shows a rather stylised version of it, due to a deliberate step-by-step re-design in the last decade.

These two famous brands are by far not the only ones sporting antlers on the bottle. Many, many blends over the course of time chose Bambi's relations as suitable representatives of their brand.

Part of Burn Stewart from Bunnahabhain, Tobermory, Ledaig, Deanston and Black Bottle fame, and recently taken over by the South-African Distell Group for an estimated £160 million. Scottish Leader is its flagship, being sold in more than 60 countries. Rumour has it that this blend also contains some Caol Ila and Aberfeldy, next to grain whiskies of Girvan and North British. The oldest expression matured for 30 years. Since the 1940s many designers have played with the label, illustrated by the examples depicted. The current label is the result of quite an extreme makeover.

A beautiful label design for a blend once launched by Lambert Brothers from Edinburgh. As far as I can discover, it has been decommissioned. Still available is a version called Monarch of the Glen. The name might have been changed over time. Canada also produces a whisky with this name.

Another one from the old attic, by Chivas Brothers. The proud stag guards the valley in which his herd takes shelter for the winter. The image reminds me of a wintry walk I once took around Loch Muick. After five hours of plodding and trudging through knee-deep snow, I came to stand eye-to-eye with a sturdy stag in a similar position as his cousin on the label. In no mood to meet his antlers I carefully backed out, whilst he was scraping one of his hoofs impatiently in the snow. Luckily I managed to get to my car undamaged and quickly drove away, hands trembling fiercely on the steering wheel.

This raises the question whether once an albino stag was spotted on the isle. The current label on the Isle of Arran single malt has no stag or deer in sight.

A blend developed for Safeway's in 1986. A 12 Year Old can be purchased online. At the whisky vault I found one for £75. The subtitle is rather nice and reads, 'what every hunter should carry'. The image with those soft, pastel colours is beautiful, but the name is somewhat awkwardly chosen. The word is derived from the French acrimonie, meaning 'bitter, as in aroma or taste'. Anyway, figuratively speaking it could be word play on the Auld Alliance having gone sour.

A blend especially bottled for the Asian market. The label tells the story of this rare specimen. The contents are worth noting: 760 ml, which is rather unusual.

A blend that went into oblivion. There is a macabre tale from Newfoundland about a black stag. An experienced hunter named Conway once tried to kill a rare specimen and fired from his horse, three times in a row. The black stag fiercely stood its ground, without moving a limb. Conway hurried away to a nearby pub where he told the story. Nobody believed a word of it and he went home disappointed. He never arrived. The next day villagers found his dead body, face covered in gunpowder from his horn. Two months after the event his widow gave birth to a child. Having no priest at hand to baptise the infant, she left with two companions for the next village. They too never arrived at their destination and were found on roughly the same spot as Conway.

Tracks in the snow indicated they had encountered something and tried to flee from it. This gruesome story is still told during dark winter months in Newfoundland and Labrador. Probably with a stiff dram at hand.

Harts Brothers is a respected blender and bottler, founded in 1964. The eponymous blend is eight years old, showing a golden stag's head on the label. The company is also known for its single cask bottlings, among which rare expressions of closed distilleries.

One more. A bit of a pleonasm since you would not normally encounter a stag on the Edinburgh bypass or around Glasgow. The blender of this whisky was located at Glen Coe, one of the most dramatic natural environments in the Scottish Highlands, which has a story of its own to tell. Look out for the next Whisky Magazine.