The big man

Gavin D. Smith looks at the fortunes of the Long John blend
By Gavin D. Smith
Once a familiar sight on off-licence shelves and bar counters across Britain, the Long John blend is another brand now only available in the UK courtesy of specialist retailers.

Long John takes its name from ‘Long John’ Macdonald, who established Ben Nevis distillery at Fort William in 1825, a time when many new distillery ventures were being implemented as a result of the liberating Excise Act of 1823. Macdonald stood six feet four inches tall, hence his nickname, and his whisky was marketed as ‘Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis.’

It soon gained a reputation for high quality, and a cask was presented to Queen Victoria when she visited the distillery in 1848. According to an article published in the Illustrated London News during April of that year, “The cask is not to be opened until His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales attains his majority,” which was not to occur for another 15 years.

In 1911 the Macdonald family sold the Long John brand name to London wine and spirits merchants W H Chaplin & Co Ltd, though Long John had been a blended Scotch whisky since two years previously. The brand subsequently passed to the old-established gin distilling firm of Seager Evans & Co Ltd when they bought out Chaplin’s in 1936.

"It soon gained a reputation for high quality, and a cask was presented to Queen Victoria"

Keen to make inroads into the Scotch whisky market, Seager Evans had already built Strathclyde grain distillery in Glasgow and went on to purchase the now demolished distillery of Glenugie at Peterhead in 1937, in order to provide spirit for their newly-acquired Long John brand.
1956 saw Seager Evans bought out by Schenley Industries Inc. of New York, who went on to establish Kinclaith malt distillery within the Strathcylde complex in 1957, while construction at Tormore distillery on Speyside commenced during 1958.

This expansion of malt capacity was intended principally to service the requirements of the Long John blend, and the operation was renamed Long John International Ltd in 1971 to reflect the importance of its best-selling brand. By that time, Schenley’s Scottish interests had been expanded with the full acquisition in 1967 of Laphroaig, and the powerful Islay malt subsequently played a part, albeit a minor one, in the composition of Long John.

However, the game of corporate musical chairs that have long been part of the Scotch whisky industry continued to be played, and Long John was sold by Schenley to Whitbread & Co Ltd in 1975, at a time when a number of major brewers were developing whisky-related interests.
Whitbread acquired four distilleries with Long John International Ltd, but the blend’s reputation for quality declined, being primarily deployed as a ‘pouring whisky’ in the London brewing giant’s extensive estate.

Although the Long John blend and Ben Nevis distillery had gone their separate ways many years before, the two were briefly united in 1981, when Whitbread bought Ben Nevis, though the reunion was short-lived, with the brewer selling on the distillery to the Nikka Whisky Distilling Co Ltd of Japan eight years later.

It took another change of ownership before Long John began a process of rehabilitation, with Allied Lyons, as the company then was, purchasing Whitbread’s spirits division in 1989.

During its ownership of the Long John blend, focus was switched from the UK to overseas markets, most notably France, and product quality was significantly enhanced during this time.

Long John was part of the portfolio of whiskies acquired by Pernod Ricard from Allied Domecq in 2005, and, according to brand director Geoff Parmiter: “Long John is now a major player in the ‘value’ whisky segment in France, where it sells alongside the likes of Label 5 and does very well for us. The 1970s was really its high point in terms of sales in the UK, I think.

“Strathclyde grain continues to be a major contributor, while Tormore malt whisky is still at the heart of the blend, too.
“Today, we sell around half a million cases a year.”

Long John may no longer be ubiquitous in the public houses of Britain, but at least if you do locate a bottle the chances are that it will certainly be more of a pleasure to drink than it would have been 30 years ago!