Rugged & canny

Gavin D. Smith looks at the fortunes of Vat 69
By Gavin D. Smith
One of the oldest Scotch whisky jokes is ‘What is the Pope’s telephone number?’ ‘Vat 69, of course.’ It is probably worth warning the unwary that it is not to repeat this ‘joke’ if you happen to find yourself in Glasgow and drinking in a pub too close to Celtic Park!

These days the relevance of the said joke in UK bars is minimal anyway, since the old brand is principally to be found in foreign markets, while once it was a mainstay of the UK trade.

Vat 69 was launched in 1882, and was the creation of William Sanderson, born and bred in Edinburgh’s historic port of Leith, where he learnt the wine and spirits business before setting up in his own right as a ‘British wine and cordial’ manufacturer in the town’s Charlotte Lane in May 1863.

The result was a unanimous vote of confidence for vat number 69, which delighted Sanderson

Sanderson was soon blending malt and grain whiskies, creating what he termed ‘Mixture Whisky,’ and he particularly favoured malt spirit from Lochnagar distillery, near to Queen Victoria’s Highland home of Balmoral, on Deeside.

He became close friends with distillery owner John Begg, serving as a director of the distillery after Begg’s death in 1896.

Aided by his son William Mark, William Sanderson set about choosing a blend to bottle as the principal representative of the House of Sanderson. William proceeded to make up nearly 100 different permutations of blends. Each was filled into a small vat, and the Sandersons then invited a number of friends and associates to choose their favourite blend. The result was a unanimous vote of confidence for vat number 69, which delighted Sanderson, as that was his favourite.

With Vat 69 established and on the market during 1882, Sanderson and a number of his fellow blenders turned their attention to addressing the threat posed by the creation of the Distillers Company Ltd five years previously. Such a monopoly of grain distillers obviously had the potential to leave independent traders at their mercy in terms of the supply of grain spirit, and accordingly, in 1885, the North British Distillery Company was formed, centred on a new grain distillery in the Gorgie district of Edinburgh. William Sanderson was appointed the company’s first managing director.

The following year saw Sanderson become a partner in the Aberdeenshire distillery of Glengarioch, thus helping to secure another source of high quality Highland malt whisky for Vat 69, alongside Lochnagar. In 1897, Sanderson took full ownership of Glengarioch on the death of his partner in the venture, Robert Harvey Thomson.

Sanderson himself died in April 1908, but the family business continued to flourish in the hands of William’s son William Mark, and Vat 69 received some high profile publicity when the brand was selected by Sir Ernest Shackleton to be taken on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. Further supplies of Vat 69 accompanied Shackleton on his third 1921/22 expedition, known as ‘The Quest,’ though Shackleton was to die at South Georgia in January 1922.

In 1935 William Sanderson & Son merged with Booths Distilleries Ltd (DCL), which itself was acquired by the all-consuming Distillers Company Ltd on 1st April 1937. However, each of the individual companies within DCL retained their own boards, headquarters and bottling operations, and effectively competed against each other. Accordingly, William Sanderson & Son Ltd had its main base in Quality Street, Leith, and a London office at Bath House in Piccadilly.

Blending and bottling took place at West Bowling Green Street in Leith, until 1952, when a new plant was opened at South Queensferry.

During the late 1970s, DCL increased the price of Vat 69 in the UK, along with that of Black & White to render it unattractive for export purposes, following an EEC ruling that it was illegal to operate a dual pricing scheme in the UK and in EEC export markets.

Volume sales of Vat 69 fell, leading to DCL in 1984 closing the Vat 69 plant in South Queensferry, along with that of White Horse at Port Dundas.

This was a time when the Scotch whisky industry was at one of its lowest ebbs, but Vat 69 undoubtedly lost another part of its identity as a brand as a result of the closure of its dedicated blending and bottling facility.

Today, key markets for Vat 69 are Venezuela, Spain and Australia, and owners Diageo declare that “Vat 69 is a reliable and accessible blended Scotch whisky with a rugged but canny personality.”