O thou, my Muse! guid auld Scotch Drink!
One of the most memorable stories about former Master Blender Jack Goudy's talent for detecting lapses in quality happened several years ago when he uncorked a malt whisky sample. It came from an outside company in the hope that Ballantine's might purchase some to use in its blends. Jack poured a small quantity and duly inserted his famous nose in the tulip glass.
After sniffing for several seconds, he shook his head in rejection. There was a flavour in the malt that was completely out of place.
Jack dialled the distilley manager who had sent the sample and informed him that there was iron in his whisky. Absolutely impossible, the manager insisted, indignantly denying it. However, Jack was adamant that his whisky was second-rate. He declined to order any and they parted on good terms, agreeing to differ about whether the whisky tasted strangely or not.
Some time later, the manager phoned Jack and sheepishly admitted the famous nose had been right after all. They had just cleaned out a vat and, to their embarrassment, discovered that a distillery worker had left a pair of stepladders inside the last time maintenance was carried out. The steps were wooden with iron nails.
Since its earliest days, Ballantine's reputation has been shaped and guided by blenders who insisted on quality. From founder George Ballantine and his sons, to James Barclay and R.A. McKinlay and the long line of blenders who have passed on their knowledge down the years.
Because of the mysteries of the maturation process, some whiskies tend to mature before others. As the spirit interacts with the wood, each malt reaches its optimum year. Beyond the point of achieving its equilibrium, it ceases to noticeably change and improve. Creating a new blend involves the highly skilled task of identifying malts at their best and estimating their availability over the coming years. There would be nothing more frustrating than creating a perfect blend only to find that, years down the line, key ingredients were in short supply.
When Barclay and McKinlay bought the company from the Ballantine family, they laid down malts which slumbered in casks through Prohibition and changes in world history to emerge as mature, rounded whiskies in the 1930s, when Hiram Walker assumed control. In addition, premium malts from the newly-purchased distilleries at Miltonduff and Glenburgie were considered to be of rare quality.
Added to this was the fact that some malts in the Hiram Walker portfolio had reached exceptional maturity, even the youngest was not aged for less than 17 years, and they were therefore considered perfect examples of whiskies in their prime.
James Barclay, who had an excellent nose for whisky, decided that there had never been a better time to create the ultimate aged blend and gathered around him experts whose wisdom he could trust. Among them James Horn, a friend and associate who had studied whiskies for most of his life, and George Robertson, who became the first Master Blender of the Hiram Walker era at Ballantine's. George, who had married Barclay's sister, entered the industry in the customs service, but left to learn the business of making whisky from the ground floor. He acquired blending skills at several distilleries, accumulating a formidable wealth of knowledge along the way.
The trio would meet to nose samples in George Robertson's oak-panelled blending room. After taking careful account of the age at which each malt reached perfection, he decided that the optimum age was a blend at least 17 years old. James Barclay, his associate James Horn and the Hiram Walker management agreed with his judgement. Sample batches were blended in 1937 and acclaimed by the company's experts. It was the birth of 'The Scotch', Ballantine's 17 Years Old.
The closely-guarded recipe mixed in vats 60 years ago has remained largely unchanged ever since. George Robertson's original selection of malts to form the 'fingerprint' of 17 Years Old was an elite group described by the Scotch Whisky Association as 'Ballantine's magnificent seven': pungent Ardbeg from Islay; Pulteney, the northernmost mainland distillery; Scapa, an after-dinner malt from Orkney; creamy Glencadam; Balblair with its spicy notes; the flowery fragrance of Miltonduff; and the summer flavours of Glenburgie.
The principal malts were selected from a tapestry of regional whiskies celebrating Scotland's history, the riches of its landscape and the skills of its people. With such outstanding ingredients, Ballantine's 17 Years Old had a smoothness and elegance that instantly set it apart.
The first small consignments to roll off the production line late in 1938 were shipped to 21 Brands in America and the US Virgin Islands. Thanks to the efforts of Barclay and McKinlay, backed by Kriendler and Berns at 21 Brands, Ballantine's had become one of the most popular brands in America, a symbol of taste and sophistication.
'This product was different simply because it was so distinctive,' says Richard Puddephatt, of Ballantine's Brand Integrity Department. 'At the time there was not another 17 years old blend anywhere on the market. It was quite unique.'
17 Years Old was considered very special and had to be seen to be different in every way. A decision was taken to package it in a style which reflected its importance. The bottle was green, a deliberate choice which immediately set it apart from other Ballantine's products, at the time in uniformly-coloured amber bottles.
'The sides of the bottle, if you observe closely, are slightly tapered, not straight like most whisky bottles,' Richard points out. 'The neck is quite squat and reminiscent of a malt whisky pot still. Perhaps someone who designed it all those years ago saw it as a tribute to the hand-crafted skills of the pot stillmen that went into it. As with many classics, the shape has remained unchanged.'
In 1939, the world was embroiled in war. As the conflict lengthened, vital supplies of barley and stocks of new malt whisky dried up. Ballantine's 17 Years Old, made from old matured stock, continued to be blended and shipped to America, but it was clear that serious shortages were on the way.
When war was declared, the government imposed a tax on whisky which increased the price of a bottle by 14 per cent. Desperate for dollar earnings to boost the war effort, the authorities pressured whisky companies to step up overseas sales.
As Ballantine's was among the foremost exporters, cargoes of blended whisky set sail for America escorted by warships. With production down, home sales hit by tax, grain in short supply and men called up for the armed forces, whisky production slumped. In 1942, another duty increase pushed up the price of a bottle by 60 per cent.
For two years, no whisky was produced at Dumbarton. Only existing stocks of Ballantine's were exported as the Admiralty took over the distillery yard and the Ministry of Food commandeered warehouses.
Demand for distinctive 17 Years Old, considered the smoothest international Scotch, was heavy. To eke out supplies to America and Canada, Hiram Walker had to juggle stocks of Ballantine's 28 Years Old and 31 Years Old aged blends. For many years, 17 Years Old had to be strictly rationed and sometimes faced acute shortages.
Rejuvenation Peace and the post-war years brought a boom time for 17 Years Old as the global economy changed up a gear from austerity to plenty.
The Japanese, who had their own long-established spirits industry, were very knowledgeable about whisky and particularly interested in international aged brands. The full effect began to be felt in the early 1950s, when Japanese businessmen travelling overseas discovered the delights of 17 Years Old. They took bottles home and its fame spread by word of mouth.
One of the prime reasons for its popularity was that its highly sophisticated taste and subtle layers of flavour were suited to the Japanese palate, which is particularly sensitive to the nuances of good food and drink.
Like several of the world's classic whiskies, its reputation grew slowly as people discovered its quality. In 1952, Japan received its first shipments and its fame among those who appreciate fine whisky began to gain pace. Its launch in Tokyo the following year was a cause for double celebration - by coincidence it was also the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
The newest whisky in Japan was not only the most unique blend, but also the most expensive. 'From the earliest days the advertising was stark, almost minimalist,' explains Richard Puddephatt, 'because the product said it all. When there was only one Scotch, there was little more you needed to add.'
Japanese executives appreciated what Ballantine's blenders had set out to achieve in 17 Years Old. The reputation of The Scotch spread almost on its quality alone.One of the reasons for the popularity of 17 Years Old among people who appreciate fine whisky is that it travels so well. Drinking styles differ around the world. Some people prefer their Scotch neat, others with a little water or, as in Japan, with ice. 17 Years Old has an ability to blend with international lifestyles. 'Only an exceptionally good whisky can adapt to that extent without bruising easily,' observes Ballantine's Director of Trade Relations, Hector MacLennan.