Cream of the crop

Gavin D. Smith looks at the fortunes of Stewart's Cream of the Barley
By Gavin D. Smith
The east coast port of Dundee no longer enjoys any real associations with the Scotch whisky industry, other than consumption, but during the 19th and early 20th centuries it was a significant centre for whisky blending activities.

The firm of John Robertson & Son Ltd was established in the city’s Seagate during 1827 and ultimately came to own Coleburn distillery on Speyside. Meanwhile, James Watson & Co Ltd, with headquarters on the same street, was founded in 1815, being best known for its No.10 blend and at one time owning Parkmore, Balmenach and Cragganmore distilleries on Speyside, and Glen Ord in Inverness-shire.

Also based on Seagate was George Willsher & Co, whose Black Bull House premises were named after the company’s principal brand of blended Scotch whisky, first formulated in 1864. George Morton Ltd was located on Dundee’s Dock Street, close to Seagate, and dated back to 1838. The firm was noted not only for its blended whiskies and brandies, but also for OVD rum, originally imported by George Morton in 1838 and a brand now owned by William Grant & Sons Ltd.

Most enduring of Dundee’s whisky blenders, however, was Alexander Stewart & Son, which had its origins in licenced premises in Dundee’s Castle Street, where Alexander Stewart ran the Glengarry Inn. Stewart was a whisky dealer, and it was a logical development for the firm ultimately to produce its own ‘house’ blend, using the Cream of the Barley name.

From local sales, Cream of the Barley grew to be a successful brand all over Scotland and even in export markets, with Alexander Stewart & Son going on to acquire the wine and spirits company of David Sandeman Ltd and the whisky broking firm of Duncan Macleod & Co Ltd.

In 1969 Stewart’s became part of the Allied Breweries Group, as Stewart & Son of Dundee Ltd, and Cream of the Barley went on to enjoy strong sales across Scotland through Allied’s on-trade business and its Victoria Wine Company chain of off-licences.

The blend continued to be bottled in a plant on Dundee’s Kingsway East until relatively recent times, before that role was transferred to Allied’s Dumbarton complex, near Glasgow.

Along with Stewart’s, Allied’s spirit interests included the Hiram Walker business, which centred on the Ballantine’s blended Scotch whisky brand, and embraced distilleries such as Miltonduff and Glenburgie on Speyside, Glencadam, Balblair and Pulteney in the Highlands, Scapa on Orkney and Laphroaig on Islay. From 1976 the Group also owned William Teacher & Sons Ltd.

Under Allied Distillers’ ownership, Cream of the Barley had Glencadam single malt at its core, distilled in the town of Brechin, some 25 miles north-east of Dundee. The distillery is now owned by Angus Dundee Distillers, and the firm’s Douglas Fitchett notes that “Glencadam was associated with the brand as the Stewarts bottling hall was in Dundee and Allied owned Glencadam at that time.”

Since 2001, Cream of the Barley has been in the hands of Pernod Ricard, through its Chivas Brothers’ Scotch whisky subsidiary, and though having a much lower profile in the UK than in the days of Allied Distillers’ ownership, the brand sells well in a number of overseas territories and is notably popular in the Republic of Ireland.

The formulation of Cream of the Barley has necessarily changed over the years, but it still contains around 50 different malts.
Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson has conducted a parallel tasting of a 1970-bottled example of Cream of the Barley and a sample bottled in 2010, which highlights interesting aspects of blended Scotch whisky’s stylistic evolution.

He notes of the earlier variant that the nose is “...heavy, full of character, with a degree of mustiness, coconut and marmalade. We must assume this is a fairly old whisky. When it comes to the taste, there is just a tinge of pepper, and it’s slightly phenolic towards the end. The weight of Highland whiskies is to the fore, and that’s quite typical of blends from the 1970s.

“By comparison, the 2010 expression is soft, elegant and refined, with some really beautiful Speyside malts.
“Soft and easy-drinking, well matured and well blended. It’s warm, sensual and much more typical of a blend today.”