A clutch of whisky bottles huddle together in my local supermarket in Angus. Their well-known names are proudly displayed across their chests; venerable yet vulnerable. Around them swirls a sea of vodka and gin, of mixers, breezers and all manner of novelty drinks concocted only yesterday. Across the aisle sits the smug, bulging shelves of wine. For the would-be whisky barons of today times are tough. But when they return bruised and battered from the market they should perhaps seek solace in the past. When it comes to tales of derring do, of brands built and countries won, there are none better than that of Dewar’s.Our story begins right in the heart of Scotland in the city of Perth, where John Dewar worked as a cellarman and then partner in his uncle’s drinks business, before setting up on his own in 1846. According to one legend, he had walked the 25 miles from his home town of Aberfeldy having abandoned a career as a joiner. Using a limited range of malts from what would now be Speyside, he began blending and bottling his own whisky – the first to bear the name Dewar’s. On his death in 1880, he left a prospering local business with annual profits
of £1,231. Over the next 50 years his eldest son John Alexander and his youngest, Thomas, had built the family into one of the greatest whisky dynasties of all time, on the back of Dewar’s White Label.Unlike their arch-rival Jimmy Buchanan, the Dewars were a double-act from the word go. John was the shrewd, but dour Scot who ran the production end of the business in Perth, while his brother played the front-man, the witty, irrepressible salesman. Tommy was despatched to London in 1885 at the tender age of 21 “to wake up the south”. It was not a propitious start – of his two business contacts one had died and the other had gone bankrupt.Within three years he had set up an office in London’s Cockspur Street and won his first big break as the sole whisky supplier to the firm of Spiers and Pond who ran the catering for a whole raft of station buffets and music halls.In Victorian Britain, Scotch was still relatively new, and its prospects for replacing brandy as the preferred tipple among the bourgeoisie were by no means certain. Many saw it as a robust outdoor drink, fine for the fishing hut and grouse moor, but quite unsuited to the club or saloon. And besides, Irish whiskey was held in higher regard. The Pattison crash of 1898 sent shock waves through the industry. Pattison’s of Leith was one of the largest blenders in Scotland until its owners were found to be running the company fraudulently. They went to prison owing large sums to Clydesdale Bank and nine of their suppliers went bankrupt. At one point Dewar’s had an overdraft of £300,000, twice its authorised capital. If the financiers had lost their nerve things could have been very different. When young Tom hit the big metropolis the name Dewar’s meant precious little, but not for long. At the turn of the century he moved his office and bottling plant to London’s South Bank beside Waterloo Bridge. The site included a tower once used for making lead shot. Apparently the molten lead was poured through a sieve at the top and hardened into pellets on the 200 foot drop into water below. Tommy sent scores of workmen up the north face of the tower clutching cables and electric lights. With the last bulb in place and after the flick of a switch, London gasped at the huge, illuminated Scotsman whose kilt and beard appeared to flutter in the breeze while his hand raised a glass of Dewar’s to his lips.The idea must have come from the US where Tommy went on the first of two great missions to conquer the world. He sailed from Liverpool in 1892, aboard the City of Paris and by the time he hit New York, his name had gone before him. The great steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, had recentlysent the American President a “small keg” of Scotch, and the press were up in arms over this apparent failure to support home grown produce. The headlines were not quite ‘White Label in the White House’ (the brand had yet to be invented), but the whisky was undeniably Dewar’s. “It was the very best advertisement I ever had,” Tommy was to say, “and certainly the cheapest.” He travelled north into Canada, back across the Rockies and down the west coast, everywhere leaving samples and fixing deals. By the time he sailed for Honolulu he had done more then anyone to give America a taste for Scotch, and even now, a century later, US sales of White Label are double that of their nearest rival.For Tommy Dewar there was no such thing as bad publicity, and to his delight a Scottish parson defamed him as a ‘heathen grog-seller’ during an impromptu service on board the vessel bound for Honolulu. Later he held a riotous dinner party in Christchurch, New Zealand, that broke up with toasts to Her Majesty The Queen, frozen mutton and Dewar’s whisky – an incident splashed across the next morning’s papers. Needless to say Tommy had ensured a couple of reporters had been on hand to scribble down the story.By the time he returned home, after two years travelling, he had visited 26 countries and appointed 32 agents, some of whom were to stay loyal for over 50 years. The cost had been a staggering £14,000 (more than £500,000 in today’s money), yet any doubts there may have been up in Perth had long faded – orders were pouring in. The unsung hero in all this was Alexander Cameron. He joined the firm as a young man in 1890, and his lifetime’s achievement was the creation of White Label, a blend of some 40 different whiskies that was launched around the turn of the century. Cameron was blessed with a perfect nose and understood the crucial importance of maturation. He pioneered a method of pre-vatting malt and grain whisky according to provenance, and only blending them together when each was just right. Dewar’s had first leased the Tulliemet distillery from the Duke of Atholl, before building its own in 1898 at Aberfeldy in Perthshire, a couple of miles from the original John Dewar’s birthplace. From then on the malt of Aberfeldy was to be the sweet, heathery heart of White Label. By 1900 production had passed the one million gallon mark while yearly profits had reached £59,000.Now that they had a brand it needed to be to promoted. There was stiff competition from Johnnie Walker and James Buchanan whose names were well-established especially throughout the Empire. Yet no-one understood the power of advertising like Tommy Dewar. As he later put it, “Advertising is to business what imagination is to poetry”. The most famous campaign was ‘The Whisky of his Forefathers’ which ran from 1895 for over 40 years. In it, a faintly comic creation of an English gentleman from the waist up and a Scot from thereon down, sits nursing a glass of Dewar’s while their ancestors stretch from their portraits behind him to try to grab the bottle. There was even a film version, first shown from a rooftop screen above the Pepper building in New York’s Herald Square. Later the strapline ‘it never varies’ was added and in the early 1940s an American campaign sought to link Dewar’s own awards. The brand was to reap over 50 medals, with the battle honours won by Scottish regiments. Of all the ads my favourite is set in a 1930s restaurant with a white-tied pillar of the establishment staring belligerently up from his plate. “Why do you always insist on that particular brand of whisky?” chirps the lady by his side. “Because I believe in getting the best, and the best is DEWAR’S,” he replies. One can almost hear him thump the table and splutter in ludicrously clipped tones. With Edward VII on the throne, the two brothers were clambering up the social ladder as fast as their legs would carry them. Both were now in politics, John, a Liberal MP for Inverness and Tom, a rather unlikely Tory for Tower Hamlets in London’s East End, a constituency he lost in the Liberal landslide of 1906. Back in 1895, he had acquired what was said to be the third motor-car in Britain, a 31/2 hp chain-driven Benz. The first belonged to the Prince of Wales and the second to his great buddy and fellow tycoon, Sir Thomas Lipton. On one occasion Sir Thomas received a cable from his friend on a sales trip to the African bush which read,“You can buy three wives for six pounds of Lipton’s tea”. Back came the reply, “Am sending out the tea – send sample of wives.” They were
both bachelors. Tommy’s second jaunt round the world helped secure much of South America, and to this day Venezuela and the Dominican Republic remain among White Label’s strongest export markets. In 1904 he published his anecdotes and observations from the years on the road under the gloriously Edwardian title A Ramble Round the Globe. A sequel has just been written by Malcolm Greenwood who has followed in his footsteps, see details below. Tom was famous for his Dewarisms, among which was, “Competition is the life of trade, but the death of profit”. The outbreak of World War One precipitated a merger between Dewar’s and Buchanan’s in 1915, and 10 years later they became the first of ‘the big five’
to join up with William Ross in his burgeoning empire at DCL. By then Dewar’s had acquired three further distilleries; Lochnagar, Aultmore and Ord, and annual profits had passed £1 million.In 1917 John Dewar became Baron Forteviot of Dupplin, a large Perthshire estate with a castle attached which he had bought before the war. His brother, who spent his days at Dewar House in Haymarket, which was more of a London club than an office, or at Homestall, his Sussex estate, was made Baron Dewar two years later. For a man devoid of coyness, his baronial crest said it all – a scarlet cock crowing from a bed of thistles. While John bred Clydesdales, shorthorns and pigs, Tommy bred racehorses having had an early success with Forfarshire who came third in the 1897 Derby. He was a passionate sportsman and created a whole host of Dewar’s cups and trophies for everything from yachting to fire-brigade efficiency.The two brothers died within six months of one another in the winter of 1929-30 and left estates worth around £5 million each. Tom’s benefactor was his nephew, John Arthur, who later became chairman of Dewar’s having won the Derby with his uncle’s old horse, Cameronian in 1931.Sales of White Label in the US began to recover with the lifting of prohibition in 1933, though doubtless the brand had been kept alive thanks to the bootleggers along the Canadian border. Having captured 15 per cent of the US market for Scotch, Dewar’s won the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement six times between 1966 and 1984. It retained some sense of being an old family firm within that vast corporation of DCL until the late seventies when John Dewar, the founder’s great grandson, relinquished his seat on the board. But when DCL became United Distillers and the post-war whisky boom fizzled out, Dewar’s fortune took a downturn. In the domestic market, which once accounted for 10 per cent of its sales, White Label began to disappear, squeezed out by Bell’s. In the aftermath of a further bout of contractions and mergers within the industry, Dewar’s was put up for sale; a once great name in need of some serious TLC. Today there is every possibility of the brand being re-launched in the UK by its new owner, Bacardi-Martini, which has already invested in a new bottling line in Glasgow. Hope comes this spring which sees the opening of a permanent exhibition at the Aberfeldy distillery devoted to the history of Dewar’s – a fitting tribute to ‘Whisky Tom’.