The Scotch

Chapter 4


The social, friendly, honest man,
Whate'er he be,
'Tis he fulfils great Nature's plan
Second Epistle to John Lapraik
Robert Burns

The Apprentice

In 1822, a horse-drawn farm cart rattled through the rolling Peebleshire hills on the road to Edinburgh. However, it was not one of farmer Archibald Ballantine's usual trips to the city for supplies. That morning, he had dressed in his Sunday best before leaving the patchwork fields of his farm at Broughton-Home.

Beside him on the 25-mile journey rode his 13-year-old son George, nervous in a stiff collar, clutching a travelling bag. Father and son had an appointment with a lawyer to sign papers apprenticing young George for the next five years to Andrew Hunter, an Edinburgh grocer and dealer in wines and spirits.

That day, as the lawyer, the grocer and the farmer scratched their signatures at the foot of the young boy's indentures, none could have imagined they were witnessing the start of a career which would take his name around the world.

It was an epic occasion in many ways. The same year George Ballantine became indentured, Edinburgh turned out to watch the portly, kilted figure of King George IV on his ceremonial visit to make peace with Scotland. In the year his indenture papers were signed, illicit whisky distilling was brought to an end by a fairer system of licensing. New, legal distilleries opened weekly to satisfy increasing demand as malt whisky became a major player on Scotland's economic stage.

For the next five years, George carried sacks of flour, oats and dried goods while acquiring an expert knowledge of what was a good wine or a fine malt whisky. He learned the art of providing a service and dealing with people civilly, whatever their background.

George Ballantine emerged from his apprenticeship a quiet, intelligent young man with a polite manner. Behind eyes that betrayed a sparkle of dry humour burned the single thought of becoming an entrepreneur. His master Andrew Hunter wished him well with a reference, recorded in copperplate hand, that George had served him 'faithfully, assiduously and honestly' during his apprenticeship.

His First Business

At the age of 19, in 1827, Ballantine was ready to set up in business in his own right. He had absorbed everything Andrew Hunter had taught him and refined and elevated his own tastes in the process.

The time could not have been more favourable for selling high quality food and spirits. Revolutions in agriculture and industry had transformed working methods and mechanised production, creating a new atmosphere of affluence. With its magnificent architecture, Edinburgh was Scotland's cultural centre, celebrating exciting developments in the sciences and a golden era in the arts. As the nation's capital enjoyed a boom economy, George Ballantine set about marketing his talents amongst the city's wealthy merchants and professionals.

There was an adventurous atmosphere in the developing whisky industry, too, as the economy expanded. A few months before Ballantine completed his apprenticeship, a whisky-maker called Robert Stein took out a patent for a single distillation still. The design was cumbersome and had its limitations, but the idea of producing cheap grain spirit continuously held great possibilities.

George hunted for premises within the scope of his humble savings and opened his first grocery store in Edinburgh's Cowgate. Not the most fashionable side of the city, but a bustling trade district of narrow alleys, hay carts and hostelries packed late into the night with roistering cattle-drovers.

From these teeming, unlikely surroundings grew one of the world's most distinguished whisky companies. Today, Ballantine's is synonymous with excellence in more than 160 countries - an achievement made possible by the exacting standards of quality founder George Ballantine insisted upon at each stage of his long career.

Early Days

His first shop, and the second in nearby Candlemakers' Row to which he moved in 1831, at the age of 23, soon built a reputation. As the address suggests, it was originally a narrow street where candlemakers had congregated after a fire in their former district near St. Giles Cathedral. It also attracted skilled craftsmen, such as bookbinders, saddlemakers and stained-glass artists. George, with his own specialised skills, was in good company as he climbed a ladder to fix a newly-painted sign above the store. It read grandly: 'Wine Merchants and Grocers'.

The young entrepreneur lived simply in rented accommodation, concentrating all his efforts on building his business. Over the next ten years he improved the company, attracting an ever-increasing number of loyal customers.

By 1836, when he was 28, he had raised enough capital to expand to prestigious South Bridge, around the corner from Edinburgh's fashionable Princes Street. This was closer to the heart of Edinburgh Society and the type of customer he felt in tune with. Demand for higher quality whiskies among the gentry and nobility had helped him attract some of the eminent writers, academics and medical men who were drawn to Edinburgh at the time.

George was an entrepreneur with an intimate knowledge of fine whisky. More importantly, during this period he laid down principles identified with Ballantine's today - products of the highest quality and business conducted with dignity, integrity and courtesy.

George Ballantine's father, Archibald, came from a long line of farmers, but George himself was the first in the clan to apply the family attributes to business. No photographs remain of his prestigious shop off Princes Street. But, in keeping with similar establishments, it would have been stocked from floor to ceiling with pulses, oats and smoked salmon, a wide selection of food for the connoisseur and shelf upon shelf of wine and whisky - accessed by library-style ladders suspended from the ceiling on wheels.

In the back of the shop there would certainly have been a cask or two of malts the company specially recommended, such as Glenlivet, or Talisker from the newly-licensed distillery on Skye, for favoured customers. When orders were taken and business done, goods would have been delivered by horse and trap or a boy on a bicycle.

In 1842 George married Isabella Mann, the daughter of an Inverness grain merchant, and they moved into an imposing house in fashionable George Square. The business, with its commitment to service and quality, prospered and expanded, helped by their sons George and Archibald and grandson, George III.

It was in surroundings like these, amid the warm glow of polished wood and the aroma of good food and drink, that the art of blending fine whisky really took shape.

The Advent of Blending

Fife distiller Robert Stein invented a crude still which could continuously produce grain spirit. But, in 1831, whisky-making entered a new era when Aeneas Coffey, Dublin's former Inspector General of Excise, unveiled his own patent still. It ironed out the flaws of Stein's model and resulted in a huge increase in whisky production. The bland spirit sold well in England, where drinkers preferred its smoothness and found it an attractive alternative to gin.

At the time, there was no legislation defining what constituted Scotch whisky. Malt distillers claimed the description could be applied to their product alone, not a characterless spirit which could be distilled anywhere, from any type of grain.

The question of whisky definition had become a long dispute, with two test cases, arguments in the High Court and a Royal Commission. In 1908, the government finally ruled that grain whisky could be described as Scotch. The legal definition of whisky, which remains to this day, was established as 'a spirit obtained by distillation from a mash of cereal grain, saccharified by the diastase of malt.'

In 1853, around the time the definition debate would have started and at a period when single-malt sales had slumped to a record low, Andrew Usher, a friend of George Ballantine and fellow Edinburgh spirit merchant, succeeded in blending a whisky from malts of different ages. George, as a friend of Usher, was close to the experiments. He saw the significance of this development and, as an entrepreneur, lost no time turning it to good use.

The idea of blending was not entirely new. Spirit dealers and tavern owners at the lower end of the market had been quietly mixing together cheap whiskies for some time to boost their profits. However, George knew that what Andrew Usher had set out to achieve was a product greater than the sum of its constituent parts.

After hearing of his friend's first effort - Usher's Old Vatted Glenlivet was a blend of various Glenlivets, mixed or 'vatted' together as the name suggests - George Ballantine experimented with grains and malts to elevate blending to a fine art.

'On the one hand people had been trying to produce a cheaper version of malt by adulterating it,' explains Bill Bergius, a Director of Trade Relations at Ballantine's and a direct descendant of the Teacher's whisky family. 'At the time, there was no law about what Scotch whisky should be. Some unscrupulous traders were even diluting whisky with Spanish neutral spirit to increase their profit.

'In parallel with this unsavoury side, there were reputable merchants, such as Ballantine's, who saw blending as an art form. They worked to create something lighter and more sophisticated. A high quality product.'

What exactly did these early blends taste like - were they as sophisticated as the Ballantine's enjoyed today? Early experiments enjoyed by wealthy Victorians in Edinburgh bore little resemblance to de luxe whiskies like 17 Years Old. Because the recipes relied on only a handful of whiskies, the finished product lacked the layers of flavour we have come to appreciate.

'These early standardised blends probably contained whiskies from about six distilleries,' say historians Michael Moss of Glasgow University and John Hulme of Strathclyde University in their exhaustive study, The Making of Scotch Whisky. 'In order to give the blends a good flavour, small quantities of the much admired expensive whiskies from distilling areas like Islay and Campbeltown seem to have been introduced. The resulting drink was much lighter than the traditional single malts and much less likely to cause severe hangovers.'

Blending skills developed and spirit merchants began to mix malt and grain from different distilleries, creating set recipes to produce standard blends.

'At first, they would perhaps stumble on a particularly fine combination,' Bill Bergius adds. 'Customers who enjoyed the blend would ask them to repeat it, or sometimes bring a bottle of Scotch for their spirit merchant to reproduce. In this way, recipes and named blends evolved.'

Experts in fine whisky, like Ballantine, drew on their depth of knowledge and experience. They improved recipes, drawing out new dimensions of flavour. It was from this foundation of quality and attention to detail that Ballantine's reputation grew.

George passed on his knowledge to his eldest son, Archibald, eventually entrusting the Edinburgh business to him. In 1869, excited by the potential of blended whisky, he moved to Glasgow with Isabella and the younger children to become more involved in this new development.

Coincidentally, in 1858, a disaster of tremendous proportions gave sales an unexpected boost. The French grape crop failed and, for successive years, vineyards were ravaged by the virus phylloxera, leaving no wine stocks to make brandy. The English ruling classes, desperate for a spirit of quality, turned to blended Scotch in their hundreds.

Thus it was in Glasgow, from elegant premises at 100 Union Street, that George concentrated on building up the sale of wholesale whisky and turning his expertise to perfecting his own blends - the forerunners of 17 Years Old.

As blended whiskies made to set recipes created their own market, the names of blenders featured prominently on the label. Many, like George Ballantine's, sold directly through advertisements in English magazines, cutting out agents and London merchants.

A Life Well Spent

By the late 1800s, George Ballantine was well-established as a blender, with markets throughout Britain and overseas. His knowledge of malts and the effects of ageing on quality and flavour enabled him to produce a range of highly-praised whiskies noted for their smoothness on the palate.

The company marketed its own branded malts - Talisker, a heavy, peaty whisky from the Isle of Skye; Old Glenlivet, a famously mellow malt from the Highlands; and the premium blend, Ballantine's Fine Old Highland Whisky - all bottled with the Ballantine name prominently on the label.

The tireless efforts of noted blenders like Ballantine led to a deeper understanding of whisky - the discovery of the effects of maturing and agreeable results of maturing whisky in casks that once held sherry. George Ballantine's innovation and imagination helped establish blended Scotch as the leading international drink. By 1881, the year of Isabella's death, Ballantine's shops and warehouses were exporting Ballantine's blended whisky to a worldwide market.

Eventually George remarried, leaving the business in the capable hands of his sons, who combined the Edinburgh and Glasgow operations and purchased a bonded warehouse to concentrate on developing whisky exports.

Ballantine's entry in the 1891 guide, Stratten's Glasgow And Its Environs, was a fitting tribute. It described the company as having 'a high reputation as blenders of fine old Highland whisky, representing various selected distillations blended before maturing in sherry wood. An aggregate of between ten and twenty thousand gallons is frequently comprised in the firm's bonded stocks . . . The firm has long ensured that uniformity, next to the rich and meritorious qualifications of the spirit itself, is its principal feature.'

George retired to Edinburgh, where he died peacefully in 1891 at the age of 82. His epitaph, in Edinburgh's leading newspaper, recognised his inestimable contribution: 'He gave to Messrs. Ballantine,' it said, 'a prestige of which no development of modern trade can dispossess them'.

Four years later, in 1895, Archibald fulfilled his father's ambition and opened a shop on Edinburgh's elegant Princes Street. It remained open, patronised by fashionable society, until the retail side of the business was phased out in 1938. The name of Ballantine had arrived, both nationally and internationally.

George junior, steering Ballantine's fortunes in Glasgow, achieved another of his father's dreams in the same year when Queen Victoria, known to favour a dram after climbing Scottish mountains on holiday, awarded the company a Royal Warrant on her visit to the city. It was an indication of the prestigious reputation Ballantine's had acquired in high society. The approval of the Queen herself, head of the Empire, helped Ballantine's international growth in the decades to come.
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original copyright (c) Allied Distillers Limited, 1996