History

Go Johnnie go (Johnnie Wallker)

Johnnie Wallker is 200 years old. Ian Buxton looks at the history of a whisky icon
By Ian Buxton
I doubt if John Walker would recognise the firm he first founded. Yet his name lives on in the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky.With more than four bottles consumed every single second, more than 10 million cases of Johnnie Walker are sold every year in more than 200 countries. Not bad for a 15 year old laddie, deemed too young to manage a farm.On July 25th this year, I’ll raise a glass to John, the legend he created and the enduring success story of Johnnie Walker. After all, it’s the 200th anniversary of his birth and – in many ways – the story of Walkers is the story of Scotch.As you probably know, this story began in Kilmarnock, then the bustling centre of a significant coal-mining industry. Like so many whisky pioneers, the Walkers were tenant farmers but, when John’s father Alexander died, his executors determined that his son should go into trade. So an Italian warehouse, grocery and wine and spirit business was purchased and, in 1820, the fledgling firm of John Walker was founded. John Walker dropped his plough, pulled on an apron and found himself running a little grocer’s shop.At the outset tea seems to have been more important than whisky, though the skill of blending is common to both and shrewd trading an asset in any class of business.The blending of grain and malt whisky was unknown at this time or, to be more accurate, it was illegal – which suggests it was certainly known! Malt whiskies were heavier, oilier, peatier and greatly more inconsistent than is the case today and grain whisky often characterised by a burnt flavour from the shallow stills employed by the Lowland distillers.The invention and development of the continuous still by Stein and Coffey in the 1830s changed all that.A lighter, more palatable and consistent product was produced. John Walker began blending these grain whiskies and a dynasty was born.It survived turbulent business conditions; grew through the early Victorian era and after literally being washed away in the great Kilmarnock flood was rebuilt in 1852. It survived John Walker’s death, in 1857, and the transition to another tyro – Alexander, John’s elder son. He was just 20 when the responsibility for the family business was thrust on him.Then, his moment. In 1860 the law was changed to permit the blending of grain and malt whisky. Alexander acted, expanding his general trading all the while.In 1867 he copyrighted a design for ‘Walker’s Old Highland Whisky’, in a blend we now know as Johnnie Walker Black Label. Moreover, he packaged it with a slanting black and gold label and a striking square bottle. Sounds familiar? You’d recognise it today, almost 140 years on.Trade developed phenomenally in the late nineteenth century, for Walkers and their rivals. The British Empire was expanding; Scotland was growing ever more fashionable and Scotch was displacing cognac as the drink of the smart set (thanks, in part, to the efforts of the phylloxera vine pest destroying French vineyards).Alexander passed on the business to his two sons George and Alexander junior in 1889. They evidently made up in confidence what they lacked in years: advised by their directors to consolidate and rein in the business, they sacked them and proceeded to expand dramatically.No doubt they were impressed by the success of their rivals Dewars, Buchanans and the Distillers Company and no doubt wiser men shook their grey hair at the impetuosity of callow youth.1893 saw a major change in strategy. Hitherto, solely blenders and merchants, Walkers acquired the Cardhu distillery on Speyside. Now they were distillers – a proud distinction – and immediately proclaimed their confidence in ‘the precise nature and quality of the principal components of their blend.’Beating the Distillers Company to the hotly-contested prize of Cardhu only added to the satisfaction.But trade was not easy. The boom conditions of the late 1890s overheated, as booms are wont to, and 1898 saw the collapse of Pattisons, the Enron of whisky.The loss of confidence and withdrawal of credit following the trial of the Pattison brothers had a big knock on effect and pulled under at least nine other firms.As one informed commentator remarked of Robert and Walter Pattison as they were led to gaol: “they infused into the trade a reckless disregard of the most elementary rules of sound business.”Actually, they were crooks. But the Walkers were made of sterner stuff.Faced with an industry-wide crisis they expanded – agents were appointed in South Africa; the Australian business was reorganised; competitors acquired and London bonds and bottling works built.The whiskies were still known as Walker’s but, by 1909, new blends had been introduced; the famous ‘Striding Man’ created and the foundations of the business we know today were firmly laid. ‘Extra Special Old Highland Whisky’ had evolved into Johnnie Walker Black Label and ‘Special Old Highland Whisky’ to Red Label.More agents were appointed; more markets conquered; distilleries were purchased: the firm survived war, pricecutting and tax increases. Output was restricted, sales restricted to mere allocations.Discussions were held, then abandoned, regarding a merger with Buchanan-Dewars and the DCL. By 1925, though, the pressure of trading conditions brought these three houses together – Walkers days as an independent were at an end.The General Strike passed over; the Depression came and went. The American market succumbed to the madness of Prohibition and, in consequence, rationing became a thing of the past.In 1929 a six-wheeler lorry was acquired and the company newsletter observed that “orders received in London office up to 4.30pm are delivered the following day”.Little wonder: with America closed to legitimate business there were a lot of sales to make up and a lot of salesmen ready to help out.The restless and forceful Sir Alexander Walker headed the firm at this time. He continued to experiment with blending, introducing ‘Swing’, a luxury blend designed for the affluent customers of the great Atlantic liners. It remains a favourite today in Asian markets.Scribbling in his notebooks he left behind tantalising hints of blends unrealised. They passed to the archives, emerging only occasionally as one-off special bottlings for the directors and privileged friends. But wait.By 1945, Johnnie Walker Red Label was the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky. DCL re-organised; re-organised again and emerged as Diageo. Red Label is still number one.The range of whiskies has expanded, though. The ultra-luxury blend, Johnnie Walker Blue, was introduced in 1992. According to the marketing manuals it is ‘confident, intelligent, ambitious and exclusive.’ It’s certainly expensive but, look out, a £2,000 special edition Cask Strength Blue Label is on the way.I’d like to say it’s fabulous. That’s what I’d like to say but, with just 4,000 bottles available worldwide in a one-off celebration of John Walker’s 200th, not a drop has passed my lips.It comes in a Baccarat crystal decanter, in a soft blue leather box, with a limited edition book. I didn’t write it, but I wish I had. It doesn’t stop there. The blenders have excelled themselves with ‘1805’ – a 200 bottle edition (correct, two hundred) of ultrapremium extravagance, derived largely from now silent stills.This is to be found in a hand-made Victorian style writing case, with antique nib pen, a replica of Alexander Walker’s blending book and a gold bust of John Walker. It’s valued at £10,000 apparently.Don’t bother reaching for your cheque book. If you qualify, Walkers will give you one. The snag is, you have to be one of ‘200 individuals deemed to have made the most significant contribution to modern life.’That’s going to be interesting. How do they choose? Who gets to choose? What qualifies you? What if you win and don’t like whisky? How do you feel if you’re not on the list? What if you’re 201st? This could be trickier than it looks.Back in the world of mortals, we find 12 year old Black Label, with its distinctively smoky taste and the sophisticated Gold, an indulgent 18 year old blend (‘dominant, prestigious and luxurious’).They got that from Alexander’s pocket book. Nice one, Mr Archivist.At 15 years old, Green Label is the new vatted malt with a selection of vibrant 15-year-old malts - selected for their intense flavours and distinct tones. Ironically, Green seems to fit better into this world of colours, its signature malts Talisker, Cragganmore, Linkwood and Caol Ila providing a fresh and lively take on this new category.Ninety-six years on even the Striding Man appears in robust health. He seems to have partially faded away in his latest incarnation (I call him the Disappearing Striding Man) but the swaggering style is still there.Back in the roaring nineties (that’s the 1890s by the way), an Australian distributor had the temerity to write to the first Alexander Walker complaining that the firm’s prices were too high to compete in the general climate of discounting and cutthroat competition. He was firmly rebuked.“We are determined to make our whisky so far as quality is concerned, of such a standard that nothing in the market shall come before it.”It’s a fine motto. And it seems to have worked. Wherever your journey takes you you’ll find Johnnie Walker.Happy Birthday Johnnie – for a lad from Kilmarnock you’ve come a long way.