Hold on to Your Horses

Join Hans Offringa on the racetrack and beyond in our series about old and interesting whisky labels
By Hans Offringa
Tyrconnell, an Irish single malt, is named after a famous racehorse that once won at 100:1 odds and made the owner a very rich man. The brand itself is more than a century old, but when Irish whiskey went into a steep decline in the first half of the 20th century, Tyrconnell disappeared from the market. That is, until Cooley dusted off the brand and successfully relaunched this fragrant and gentle single malt in the 1990s. So successfully that Beam Global purchased Cooley distillery from founder John Teeling in 2012. Cooley gained a new owner in 2014: Beam Suntory, when Suntory drinks company acquired Beam Global. Will Tyrconnell be big in Japan? Or will the focus for Irish whiskey remain on the US market?

The Dutch have been producing single malt whisky for a number of years now. The first one was bottled in 2004 and sports a Frisian thoroughbred on label and stopper. Kentucky proudly presents Blanton's single barrel bourbon, with eight different stoppers, together showing a racehorse in full stride. And of course, the Kentucky Derby wouldn't be complete without its traditional mint juleps (mint, simple syrup and Bourbon) and special bottlings from Kentucky's Bourbon distilleries.

The Scots have been depicting horses on blended whisky for more than 100 years. First let's have a look at Derby Club Rare Scotch Whisky. The name points to the Derby Stakes, still being held at Epsom Downs Racecourse in England. The word derby stems from Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, who inaugurated this race in 1780. Traditionally only three-year-old horses run in a derby. Exceptions to the rule are the Hong Kong Derby and the Singapore Derby. Arguably the most famous derby is held in Kentucky.

Glenside Fine Blended Scotch Whisky is named after a gelding that won the Grand National in 1911, with jockey Jack Anthony in the saddle. Some remarkable details: the start number was 13 and the odds were 20:1. This race is held annually at the Aintree Racecourse near Liverpool, since 1839. During World War I it was temporarily held at the Gatwick Racecourse. In World War II it had to be cancelled between 1941 and 1945. Only once, in 1993, were the results nullified, due to a false start.

Royal Ascot has had its labels, too. The course in the small town Ascot thanks its royal attendance to Windsor Castle, only six miles away. Each year a serious number of 26 races is being held, of which the King George VI and Elizabeth Stakes are the most prestigious. The initiative came from a former manager of the course, Major John Crocker Bulteel. It was held for the first time on July 21st 1951 as one of the activities during the Festival of Britain. Hence it was properly named after the reigning king and his consort Queen Elizabeth - The Queen Mother, not to be confused with Britain's current Queen Elizabeth II.

Ascot is also famous for its hat parade, nowadays eagerly imitated by the female politicians in the Netherlands during the opening of the parliamentary year each September. But I digress; let's move back to whisky labels.

The red label presents the percentage of malt whisky in the blend, which is highly unusual. Even more unusual is the image on the gold-brown rectangular label. Races with a sulky are never held on this course! The age statement is interesting, too: over 15-25 years, extra old. At the time it was apparently allowed, but today only the youngest age should be stated on the bottle.

St. Leger blended whisky derives its name from the oldest classic in the genre, held in Doncaster in 1776 for the first time. The horse on the label is Boswell, with jockey C. Smirke on its back. Together they won the 1936 edition when W. Woodward was owner of the horse and C. Boyd-Rochfort its trainer. All those names, as the blend, went into oblivion, from which domain I temporarily revived them. However, it appears that St. Leger still has a modest following in French speaking Canada and a presence on the internet. Check out: www.stleger.com. That's all there is, no further links to click on. The design has been fairly modified over the years, as can be seen when compared to the image of the label.

Colt is a generic name for a blend that was produced by St Andrews Distillers. The depicted label comes from a one litre bottle, destined for Uruguay. The importer holds office in Montevideo and uses a famous quote of Oscar Wilde as his motto: 'I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.' It seems he currently limits himself to wine, industrial alcohol and tea.

It does not always have to be a racehorse that inspires the people who come up with new names for a blended Scotch. The next label shows a hunting squire. It is a beautiful image but I cannot tell much about its origins and the contents of the bottle, other than that it is decommissioned. You might find an odd bottle hidden on a back shelf or on a collector's website.

Polo has been a source of inspiration for some time; witness thereof the next two labels. Again we see something remarkable: an age statement is given but not the type of whisky. Since the word "malt" is not mentioned, it is safe to assume we are talking about two blends, 12 and 15 years respectively.

Last but not least attention has to be paid to the famous blend White Horse, created by the legendary Sir Peter Mackie, once owner of Lagavulin, Malt Mill (of The Angels' Share fame) and Craigellachie distilleries. The name was not derived from a horse, but from The White Horse Cellar, a famous pub in Edinburgh that opened its doors in 1754. Sir Peter used the name not only for his blend but also for his whisky emporium White Horse Distillers. This somewhat smoky blend still contains a drop of Laggers, if I may believe what experts say. Test it for yourself!