The Scotch

Chapter 5


I sing the juice Scotch bear can mak us,
In glass or jug
Scotch Drink
Robert Burns

A Growing Reputation

By the middle of the 19th century, George Ballantine had built steady custom in London through magazine advertising, and found sales of his blends gaining ground.

While single malts have been described as whisky equivalents of domaine-bottled wines, distinctive in character and identity, Ballantine's fine blended whiskies proved that the whole could have greater depth and dimension than the sum of its parts. George discovered that the success of his blends lay in their broad appeal - sufficiently smooth to satisfy the popular end of the market, yet sophisticated enough to attract the attention of connoisseurs.

Ballantine's blends began to acquire a familiar identity in trying to appeal to the broadest possible taste. They were smooth, not too peaty or oaky; dry, but not too dry - to use an old Scottish word, not too much wershness. There is also a certain sweetness that comes from maturation in good wood.

By the time the 20th century dawned, Ballantine's was listed in the Glasgow telephone directory under five different headings: Wine merchants to H.M. The King; Exporters of Old Scotch Whisky; Scotch Whisky Merchants; Wine Importers; and Importers of Havana Cigars.

The company, firmly established as an exporter since 1880, expanded in Glasgow under the guidance of George Ballantine II and his brother Archibald's son, George Ballantine III. The two Georges, son and grandson of the founder, were cultured men who ran their business in the dignified tradition of the best of the old British wine and spirit firms. Despite the new age, their dealings were characterised by a 19th-century courtesy and decorum, which ensured the company's standing in cosmopolitan Glasgow and its thriving cultural, artistic and social scene.

The impact Ballantine's had made both at home and abroad eventually took its toll on the directors. George Ballantine, the founder's son, was 69 years old and ready to retire. His nephew, George Ballantine III, had worked hard to establish the company's influence on Glasgow's commercial scene and, at 46, decided it was time to hand over the business to other interests as it faced the next phase of international expansion.

It was the end of the Ballantine family connection and the end of an era. In 1919, they accepted a generous offer from a formidable partnership of established entrepreneurs, James Barclay and R.A. McKinlay, who set themselves the task of transforming Ballantine's from a family business to a world leader in blended whisky exports.

The Barclay & McKinlay Era

The area in which the new owners perhaps saw the greatest potential was that while its blends were selling well, the company had not yet effectively established its own name as a brand. So Ballantine's moved from a family-run period in which it had expanded from single shop to major blender, to an era of intense export and marketing which would firmly establish its name internationally.

Barclay and McKinlay were perfectly matched business partners. James Barclay already had strong links with the American market through his own whisky company. He had begun his career as a 30p a week office boy at Benrinnes malt distillery in the Highlands. As a young man, he rolled up his sleeves and learned the business 'hands on', soon becoming one of the outstanding characters of the Scotch whisky industry.

McKinlay, in contrast, was neither forceful nor opinionated. He presented a figure of refinement in his expensively tailored suits and hand-made silk ties, renowned as a wine connoisseur and an expert with a formidable 'nose' for whisky.

As a curtain-raiser to the acquisition of Ballantine's, British Prime Minister Lloyd George had introduced an important wartime regulation a few years earlier. All Scotch whisky by law now had to be matured for a minimum of three years. The legislation elevated Scotch's status, resulting in a keen interest in the whole business of blending, labelling and ageing worldwide, especially in the growing American market where Scotch whisky was seen increasingly as a status drink.

Barclay and McKinlay's greatest challenge came a few months after purchasing the company when their biggest market, North America, passed the Volstead Act, banning the consumption of alcohol. With customers eager for their brands and a government equally determined to block their sale, only the most resourceful whisky marketeers were likely to survive.

The American market had such potential that, despite Prohibition, there was a feeling that if distributors were keen to purchase, then it would be foolish to take a moral stance. Curiously, Irish whiskey distillers were urged by the church to take a moral standpoint and, as a result, lost their dominance in the American market to the Scots.

Some Scottish entrepreneurs, like James Barclay, were raffish figures who led adventurous lives - often lucky to hang onto them. He never spoke of his dangerous deals during Prohibition. The only time a hint came to light was back in Scotland when Bill Craig, manager of Balblair distillery, asked if there was any truth in rumours of beatings and shoot-outs in the scramble to deliver whisky consignments to America. Barclay said nothing, but removed his jacket and shirt to reveal a mass of scars across his back.

By using contacts in Canada and the West Indies, Barclay was able to establish a distribution network to his trading partners, Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns, based at Manhattan's celebrated 21 Club on West 52nd Street. America, dry, thirsty and desperate for Scotch, was unprepared for Ballantine's. Americans were used to the raw burn of rye which was fine in its place. The task was to teach them that here was quality. To introduce them to a whisky that melted in your mouth, not burned in it.

Re-educating the American palate turned into a crusade. As James Barclay became a regular passenger on the great ocean liners plying between Britain and New York, such as the Mauretania and the Queen Mary, Ballantine's became a familiar fixture on dining room menus. Its acceptance by wealthy international passengers smoothed its path into the USA, where it eventually rose to become one of the handful of best-selling brands.

When the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933, Kriendler and Berns went legitimate and formed an up-market food and whisky import company, called 21 Brands, becoming agents for Ballantine's. Their unshakeable enthusiasm enabled Ballantine's to capture the American market and establish itself as a truly international name.

For a brief period they hired a good-looking young Englishman to sell Ballantine's for them. David Niven, trying to get a break in movies, wasn't really cut out for the job. Years later, in his best-selling autobiography, The Moon's A Balloon, he recalled his brief career selling Ballantine's: 'The first day at work, Kriendler sent me to FBI headquarters to have my fingerprints taken and to be photographed with a number round my neck, and to this day at "21" is that picture of me: underneath is written - "Our First and Worst Salesman".'

One of Barclay's closest friends and most valued partners throughout Prohibition was Harry Hatch, a Toronto businessman and head of Canadian distillers Hiram Walker Gooderham & Worts. Despite the boom in American orders, business back in Scotland was struggling through a recession. Most companies were affected and only 15 distilleries were operating in 1933.

In the same way that Barclay and McKinlay had made the Ballantine family an offer it had found hard to refuse, Hiram Walker stepped in after the end of Prohibition and took over the company in 1935. After developing the art of blending under George and his sons and expanding internationally with Barclay and McKinlay, Ballantine's entered a period of growth and investment which ensured its future.

The Hiram Walker Years

Hiram Walker showed deep understanding of Scotch whisky distilling. The Canadians lost no time setting about acquiring malt distilleries essential to Ballantine's blends. They interfered very little in production, wisely leaving the business of making Scotch whisky to Scotsmen. For many years, all the profits were ploughed back into Hiram Walker (Scotland), established in 1937.

Jack Barclay was commissioned by Harry Hatch to shop around for good malt whisky distilleries. He acquired Miltonduff and Glenburgie in 1936, and immediately embarked on expansion programmes, while elsewhere Harry Hatch worked on other plans.

Ballantine's blends relied on malt whisky stocks which were now more secure, but grain spirit still had to be purchased from competitors. While Jack Barclay bought malt distilleries, Harry Hatch laid down plans to turn an old shipyard on the banks of the River Leven, in Dumbarton, into the largest grain distillery in Europe.

Dumbarton Rock, rising 73 metres (240ft) from the Clyde, was the ancient stronghold of the Kingdom of Strathclyde and has been fortified since the 5th century. The town of Dumbarton, huddled around the shipyard - now Ballantine's headquarters - was created a Royal burgh in 1222 and rivalled Glasgow as a market town.

A site steeped in history seemed appropriate for Ballantine's to put down roots. More than 600 men worked on the grain distillery when construction began in 1937. Incorporated into the site were a small malt distillery, Inverleven, extensive warehousing and a bottling and blending plant.

The consolidation of administration and operations meant that Ballantine's headquarters moved to Dumbarton, where blending was headed by George Robertson. During this period of expansion, the company continued to maintain its high standards by recruiting only the finest craftsmen in the region.

The elegant premises at 100 Union Street, Glasgow, where George Ballantine had experimented with his first blends, closed, bringing to an end a remarkable era in the history of Scotch whisky.


On the day the Dumbarton plant was officially opened - 28 September 1938 - the British navy was mobilised in preparation for war. But Ballantine's survived wartime austerity, and food and fuel crises, to set the standard for Scotch throughout the world.

Hiram Walker (Scotland) continued to take over the management of malt distilleries - at Glencadam, on the edge of the Highlands; Scapa in the windswept Orkneys; and Balblair - lending its expertise to improve their business. It was a time of consolidation. The company invested in Robert Kilgour, malted barley manufacturers in Kirkcaldy, to secure grain supplies and built maturation houses for 4 million gallons of whisky at Dumbuck, in Dumbarton.

Sales of Ballantine's rose to record levels in an era of remarkable vision and flourishing expansion. A new complex opened at Kilmalid, a few miles from Dumbarton, in 1977 - the most advanced blending plant in Europe with a filling and blending capacity of 40 million proof bottles. A state-of-the-art bottling plant opened on the site in 1982.

The total cost of the Kilmalid bottling plant, which handles more than 100 million bottles a year, came to &163;43 million. Such was the faith of Hiram Walker in Ballantine's that board approval was given only hours after Managing Director Alistair Cunningham presented the project.

In 1987 Hiram Walker (Scotland) merged with Allied Lyons, bringing Ballantine's into the distinguished company of Teacher's whisky, Harvey's sherries, Cockburn's ports, Courvoisier cognac and Tia Maria liqueur. The new phase brought a change in style. There was expansion in marketing and distribution and more malt distilleries were brought into the fold, including Glendronach, Ardmore and Laphroaig.

The spirits division, Allied Distillers, began operating in 1988 as the second largest whisky company worldwide and the only industry major with its headquarters entirely in Scotland. From the Dumbarton home established by Hiram Walker, it manages its production from grain to glass with its own cereal and malting company, Kilgour's, 13 malt and two grain distilleries, as well as the most advanced bottling plant in the industry at Kilmalid.

All ADL's brands are major players in the world's markets, with Ballantine's of primary importance. Today, Ballantine's and its premium 17 Years Old approach the millennium as a flagship company of Allied Domecq Spirits and Wines, the wines and spirits sector of Allied Domecq plc, a group selling more than 8.5 million cases of whisky annually, of which 80 per cent is enjoyed outside Scotland.

In 1994, ADL was presented with a Queen's Award for Exports and was the first whisky company to receive a Royal Warrant for a single malt brand - Laphroaig.
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original copyright (c) Allied Distillers Limited, 1996