Restored to her throne

Gavin D. Smith looks at the fortunes of the Highland Queen blend
By Gavin D. Smith
For many years Highland Queen was one of those well-respected, decent quality mainstream blends to be found in all good off-licences, as the old adverts used to say. On the subject of which, one notable Highland Queen print ad from the 1970s featured a flamboyantly moustachioed male in evening dress, pouring two glasses of the whisky while a beautiful woman waits expectantly in the background. The strapline was
‘Highland Queen. The other woman in your life.’

But gradually Highland Queen made fewer and fewer public appearances, and from a peak of 900,000 cases – and representation in more than 95 per cent of the world - the blend was selling less than 20,000 cases by 2008. It had been established in 1893 by Roderick Macdonald of Macdonald & Muir Ltd, a company based at the heart of the vibrant whisky community of Leith.

The firm of brokers and blenders went on to acquire Glenmorangie and Glen Moray distilleries, with expansion largely bankrolled by the commercial success of Highland Queen. The name Highland Queen came about because it was in the port of Leith that Mary, Queen of Scots landed on her return to Scotland from France in August 1561.

"The logo we are using is actually one that was in use during the 1950s and 60s"

Highland Queen remained in the Macdonald & Muir portfolio through a change of company name to Glenmorangie plc in 1996 and then through a change of ownership, when the firm was acquired by French luxury goods purveyor LVMH.

Under the new regime, a realignment of strategy led to the decision to cease operating in the blended Scotch sector, at which time Highland Queen entered a new phase in its history.

2008 saw Highland Queen purchased by the Burgundy-based Picard family (Terroir Distillers), and their International Director Matthew Johns tales up the story. “We have been active with Scotch for around 15 years now, and enjoyed a longstanding relationship with Glenmorangie,” he explains.

“In 1995/96 Terroir Distillers became involved in Scotch whisky bottling, and when in 2008 Glenmorangie stopped doing secondary brands and all blends, we had an opportunity to move to the next level in the Scotch whisky industry.

“This involved acquiring from them the Highland Queen and Muirheads blended brands. It gave us the chance to move into the branded arena having previously only handled private label Scotch business in mainland Europe.”

Noting that “The brand had been neglected since around 1985 really,” Johns explains that “Before the focus shifted to single malts, it was Glenmorangie’s key brand for some 90 years. In 1980 Highland Queen was still selling in 140 markets, and accounting for 200,000 cases in the UK alone. It was the exclusive brand for the brewer Bass. Then Macdonald & Muir decided to major in single malts during the ’80s. As it was a family company without vast resources it couldn’t afford to focus on the single malt and on Highland Queen, and it chose the single malt.”

Johns says that “Highland Queen became a label rather than a brand, but at its heart it was a real, iconic Scotch whisky brand, and we’ve been working to get it back to its rightful place in the Scotch whisky industry. We are a family company, so we are building slowly and solidly for the future. “

That process of building has seen Highland Queen now on sale in 60 different markets, with more being added on an almost monthly basis. It is distributed widely in Scandinavia, Northern Europe, The Middle East, South America and Asia. In the UK, the Highland Queen range is on sale in the visitor centre at Tullibardine distillery, also now owned by the Picard family, as well as via the internet at www.pharlanne.co.uk.

Matthew Johns says: “Since November of last year we have a new brand image and presentation. We examined the brand values and decided that the important elements were the date 1561, which was when Mary Queen of Scots arrived in Scotland and which had always been on the presentation, and the notion of independent spirit – both the whisky and Mary herself. The logo we are using is actually one that was in use during the 1950s and ’60s, and we have our own stock profile for the blend to ensure that we maintain the same high quality for which the brand has always been known.”

Alongside the ‘standard’ Highland Queen blend with no age statement is a brand new 12 Years Old expression, which is just entering the market this summer, while a range of Highland single malts from undisclosed Highland distilleries at 8, 12 and 16 years of age is also available under the ‘Highland Queen Majesty’ banner.

A new Highland Queen print advert has appeared to replace the gent in 1970s evening dress with matching glossy, black moustache, featuring a decidedly regal but undoubtedly modern female figure, above the strapline ‘The Queen is Back.’ Matthew Johns declares: “It’s the early stages of an exciting adventure for us.”

Tasting notes

Highland Queen

Blended Scotch Whisky 40% ABV
Nose: Light and gingery, honey and brittle toffee.
Palate: Apples, more toffee, sweet grain notes. Spicier and fruitier when diluted.
Finish: Short to medium, with liquorice and nuts.
Comments: A pleasing, drinkable, anytime-of-the-day blend.

Highland Queen

Aged 12 Years, Blended Scotch Whisky 40% ABV
Nose: Fuller and richer than the ‘standard’ blend, with icing sugar, tinned pineapple, spice and black pepper.
Palate: Quite full-bodied, good mouth-feel, spice, hazelnuts and malt. More citric when diluted.
Finish: Medium in length, fruit and nut milk chocolate, ginger.
Comments: A contemplative dram; rounded and sophisticated.