The great sword

Gavin D. Smith looks a the fortunes of The Claymore brand
By Gavin D. Smith
In this year of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, those of us old enough to remember her Silver Jubilee in 1977 may well recall raising a glass of The Claymore to Her Majesty, or if our loyalties lay elsewhere, pogoing to Johnny Rotten and his safety-pinned compatriots while necking it from the bottle. For in 1977 The Claymore was the most ubiquitous blended Scotch in the UK.

It was everywhere and it was cheap. If you wanted to save money on your visit to the off-licence (remember them?) then you by-passed the Haig and the White Horse and picked up a bottle of The Claymore instead.

Today, of course, not only are there very few off-licences in the UK, but Haig and White Horse are extremely unlikely to be on the shelves, and The Claymore has a much lower profile than it enjoyed 35 years ago. However, according to Phil McTeer of the brand’s current owner Whyte & Mackay Ltd: “The Claymore is sold in more than 40 countries, covering all regions of the world: Europe, The Middle East, Africa and key regions of Asia. The largest markets include the UK, Japan, China and Travel Retail.”

The modern formulation of The Claymore is very similar to that of the 1970s, though, inevitably, the 1970s version was a long way away from that of the 19th century. The brand was created by Alexander Ferguson & Co, with a trademark being registered in 1879 for Claymore Highland malt whisky.

In blended guise it was in existence by 1890, the date of establishment given on the current label, and the name is derived from the Gaelic claidheamh-mor, meaning great sword. By 1907 The Claymore was in the hands of Greenlees Brothers Ltd, who subsequently became part of Macdonald Greenlees & Williams Ltd, with that firm being acquired by the all-consuming Distillers Company Ltd in 1925.

The Claymore disappeared off the whisky radar until 1977, when DCL, keen to regain market share lost since the withdrawal of Johnnie Walker Red Label and several other key blends from the UK market, reinvented it as a high-profile, low-price brand, produced for the DCL subsidiary A Ferguson & Company Ltd. It undercut its UK stable-mates such as Haig and White Horse, and sold close to one million cases in 1977.

As Philip Morrice wrote in his 1983 The Schweppes Guide to Scotch: “With an industry confronted by an ever-deepening ‘whisky loch’ the temptation to move some of their ‘liquid assets’ has been too much for certain companies. They have challenged the smaller blenders, traditionally occupying the lower end of the market, by launching cheaper brands rather than allowing a downward floating in the price of their main brands. Thus, new brands such as Claymore have appeared at cut-to-the-bone prices, often alongside the major label of the parent company.”

However, Morrice declared that some of what he termed the ‘cheapies,’ including The Claymore “are certainly acceptable as everyday drinking whisky.”

Ownership of The Claymore was to change when Arthur Guinness & Sons Ltd took control of DCL in 1986, creating United Distillers, as a condition of the highly controversial acquisition was that several brands had to be sold, and The Claymore was subsequently purchased by Whyte & Mackay Ltd.

Master blender Richard Paterson says: “We’ve very much maintained the existing house style of The Claymore, which is soft, mellow, light and easy-drinking, with an element of Speyside elegance.

“When we bought the brand we agreed that we would not change the style, for several years, we submitted samples to United Distillers to show that we weren’t really altering it. Inevitably, we have made subtle changes, because we don’t have access to all the malts that DCL/United Distillers did, and we have our own malts like Tamanvoulin and The Dalmore.”

Noting that The Claymore was launched in the 1970s as what he describes as a “fighting brand,” Richard Paterson declares that “It’s now fighting against far more blends with a similar price point, as there has been large-scale development of supermarket own-label brands since the 70s. Inevitably, The Claymore’s market has been somewhat eroded, but it’s still essentially the same whisky that it was under DCL.”