It Never varies

Gavin D. Smith looks at the fortunes of Dewar's White Label
By Gavin D. Smith
Dewar’s is one of the great names of blended Scotch whisky, and although the White Label brand is hard to find in the UK, it is the leading blended Scotch in the USA. The blend was created by John Dewar & Sons’ legendary first blender AJ Cameron in 1899, a year after production had commenced at the firm’s new Aberfeldy distillery in Perthshire, and it was due to the skills of Cameron and his successors that White Label was able to carry the famous strapline ‘It never varies.’

The creation of Aberfeldy reflected the growing prosperity and confidence of John Dewar & Sons, which was riding high on the apparently ever-increasing popularity of blended Scotch whisky. Dewar’s headquarters was in Perth, where bonding, blending and bottling took place, and a railway line connected Aberfeldy to Perth for transportation of the raw materials of distilling and casks filled with spirit.

At that time, the company was headed by brothers John and Tommy Dewar, whose father, John, had established a wine and spirits shop in Perth back in 1846, beginning to blend whisky during the 1860s. Tommy Dewar is renowned as one of the most colourful characters in the history of Scotch whisky, noted for his ‘Dewarisms’ such as ‘A teetotaller is one who suffers from thirst instead of enjoying it.’

In 1892 he set off on a two-year sales tour of the world. By the time he returned he had spent the vast sum of £14,000, but had established relations with 33 agents in 26 countries, and opened a branch of the firm in New York.

Flamboyant and with a great knack for self-publicity, which did sales of the company whiskies no harm at all, Tommy Dewar was effortlessly at home in the highest of society and was known for the phrase ‘If you do not advertise, you fossilize.’ With this in mind, he was responsible for the first ever motion picture advert for a drink, filmed by Edison in 1898. The film of dancing, kilted and quite possibly intoxicated Scotsmen was projected onto a building in New York’s Herald Square and literally managed to stop the traffic!

From 1925 until 1998 John Dewar & Sons Ltd was part of the Distillers Company Ltd and its successors, United Distillers and Diageo. The company was then acquired by Bermuda-based Bacardi Ltd. “Dewar’s White Label was a bigger brand than Johnnie Walker in the UK until around the First World War,” notes Global Brand Ambassador Stephen Marshall, “and by the early 1970s Dewar’s White Label was already the best-selling blended Scotch whisky in the USA. A decision was taken to concentrate on that market and other significant countries.”

When it was decided later the same decade that DCL’s dual price structure for UK and other EEC countries was illegal, a number of the DCL brands such as Johnnie Walker Red Label and Haig were removed from the UK market, but Dewar’s continued to be sold in Britain. However, along with Black & White and Vat 69 price increases were imposed, and the retail cost rose by £3 per case, taking the average price of a bottle from £4.30 to £4.73.

UK sales of Dewar’s had already been falling, from 738,155 proof gallons in the year to 31st March 1975 to 319,267 in the year to 31st March 1978, but as a result of the price increase in 1978, domestic sales dropped by two-thirds in the year to 31st March 1979.
Home sales of Dewar’s were unprofitable for DCL, and the brand was simply allowed to dwindle, resulting in the present situation where it is only available from specialist outlets.

Globally, however, Dewar’s thrives, selling 2.82 million cases during 2010.

When it comes to the blend’s enduring character, Stephen Marshall declares: “The Aberfeldy single malt is at the heart of White Label still, and it’s always clearly a Highland-style blend, with heather and honey notes.”

In addition to White Label, the Dewar’s range has been augmented under Bacardi’s stewardship, and now also comprises Dewar’s 12 Years Old Special Reserve, 18 Years Old Founder’s Reserve, Dewar’s Signature and Dewar’s 15 Years Old Blended Highland malt whisky.

The legacy of AJ Cameron and the Dewar family live on.