Production

The House Blend

In the first of a new series, Gavin D. Smith takes a look at some of the famous names of blending which were once very familiar, but have now dropped below the radar, disappearing altogether or diverted to overseas markets
By Gavin D. Smith
Back in the early 1980s when I was a student drinker in the bars of Newcastle upon Tyne if you ordered a ‘whisky’ to accompany your pint of Newcastle Exhibition Ale the chances were that you would be served a measure of The Original Mackinlay from an optic.

Mackinlay’s was the ‘house’ blend for the tied estate of pubs belonging to Scottish & Newcastle Breweries Ltd, just as Isle of Jura was the ‘house’ single malt.

By that time, the Mackinlay’s blend had become a cheap and cheerful ‘brewer’s whisky,’ with volume sales the principal objective, but despite its decline in status, the brand boasted a proud and lengthy heritage. Its origins lay in a company established by Charles Mackinlay in Leith during 1847. According to legend, Mackinlay enjoyed a round of golf on his local Leith Links and conceived The Original Mackinlay blend to provide refreshment for himself and his fellow golfers.

What is known is Charles Mackinlay deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Andrew Usher when it comes to the origins of blended Scotch whisky, as both men were working with malt and grain whiskies in Edinburgh around the same time.

Mackinlay’s introduced a number of blended Scotch whisky brands, commencing with Mackinlay’s Vatted Old Ben Vorlich, which was registered in 1875 and was one of the earliest blends to be sold in the London market, where the firm also became whisky suppliers to the House of Commons. Such was the strength of their reputation that it was to the Mackinlays that Ernest Shackleton turned when seeking out whisky to be taken on his 1907 expedition to the South Pole.

Today, The Original Mackinlay blend is part of the Whyte & Mackay Ltd portfolio, and regular Whisky Magazine readers will be familiar with Master Blender Richard Paterson’s attempts to replicate the whisky provided for Shackleton, using a sample taken from bottles recovered from the Antarctic ice in 2007. “They did a one-off bottling for Shackleton, and that was Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt. It was from Glen Mhor distillery, which had been established by the Mackinlays and John Birnie in 1892.”

Charles Mackinlay & Company Ltd maintained its independence until 1961, when it was acquired by Scottish & Newcastle Breweries Ltd. Donald Mackinlay, great-great-grandson of the company founder, had joined the family firm in 1953, becoming a director five years later. He was elected chairman in 1983, two years before Invergordon Distillers acquired Charles Mackinlay Ltd from Scottish & Newcastle. Rationalisation within the Scotch whisky industry continued apace, however, and in 1993 Invergordon Distillers was bought by Whyte & Mackay Ltd after a bitter takeover battle.

Richard Paterson says that “When we took over Invergordon Distillers, Mackinlay’s one of many brands we received, but it had already declined a lot by then, and although it had once been very reputable, it had ended up being too competitively priced in the hands of Scottish & Newcastle and Invergordon, and it had never received much financial support.”

Not surprisingly, if Whyte & Mackay was to promote a blend it was going to be their Whyte & Mackay Special, so Mackinlay’s continued to live in something of a twilight world, selling in global ‘pockets’ including a number of US and South American markets.

According to Richard Paterson: “The Original Mackinlay is an aged blend, up to eight years old, and is heavily influenced by the Speyside region of malts, which was always the case, I think. It’s light, easy-drinking, elegant and floral. All the publicity surrounding the Shackleton replica bottling gives us a golden opportunity to talk about the brand again and perhaps do more with it in the future.”

Whatever direction Whyte & Mackay might take with The Original Mackinlay, its promotional instincts these days are to move relentlessly upmarket, so we can be sure that if time and money are spent on this historic blend, it will certainly not end up as a pub ‘pouring whisky’ ever again.