gavin smith

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The Scotch whisky industry

   The article is presented in two-parts. Click here for Part II.

The article is based on a speech recently delivered to the '49 Club' in Glasgow by Whyte & Mackay Master Blender, Richard Paterson (pictured, left). It appears with Richard's kind permission.

Gavin D Smith

Part I

The Scotch whisky industry has seen many changes over the years, and back in the late 1940s things were still rather dull. The scars from the Second World War were only slowly beginning to heal, but the dark clouds were at last lifting. For Scotch whisky, 1949 was the year in which there were the first stirrings of new life, stirrings that would lead through the next three decades to a vast expansion of Scotch whisky production, bringing greater global awareness for the drink than it had ever enjoyed before.

For the first time since the war ended, whisky distillers returned to their pre-war level of barley allocation in 1949, which meant in theory that they could produce as much whisky as they had before the war. Scotch was in demand - not just to satisfy the nation's thirst, but also to earn much needed income for the country's economy through exports. As Harper's Wine & Spirit Gazette reported at the time, “Between the Scotch Whisky association and the food ministry, nearly 80% of whisky withdrawals are to be earmarked for export.”

The industry had to respond, and respond it did. Over the next ten years the cogwheels began to move in a positive direction. Ten distilleries were re-opened, and an entirely new one, called Tullibardine, was developed at Blackford in Perthshire by the great designer William Delmé-Evans. Remarkably, Tullibardine was the first new distillery of the 20th century, the last having been Glen Elgin on Speyside, which had been established in 1899 by the renowned distillery architect, Charles Doig.

Not only was the world of distilling moving in a figurative sense, but for the first time whisky was literally moving on the road, in two brand new whisky road tankers - Whisky Galore I and II - which operated from Aberdeenshire to Gilbey's new bottling
plant in Edinburgh. They had been named after Sir Compton Mackenzie's famous 1947 novel Whisky Galore, and the film of the book soon became an outstanding success, not only in the UK but around the world, too.

All in all, it was not surprising that there was foreign interest in the Scotch whisky industry. The giant Canadian company, Seagram, acquired the old Aberdeen family firm of Chivas Brothers, while a second distilling colossus, Hiram Walker & Sons of Ontario, had already bought into various Scottish distilling companies, including George Ballantine & Co.

The arrival of Seagram and Hiram Walker heralded the start of greater overseas investment in Scotch whisky, and North American, European and Far Eastern money came into the Scotch whisky business as the years went on. Nonetheless, the industry was still dominated for many years to come by the vast Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), a huge predator which remained indomitable and demanded respect.

   Naturally, with the increase in whisky production, many casks were needed in which to mature the new spirit. The Speyside Cooperage at Craigellachie opened in 1947 and was in full production by 1949.

It is one of the few cooperages which survive to this day.

By the 1960s there was a clear air of confidence in the whisky industry, and growth continued unabated throughout the 1960s. William Grant, Teacher's, J&B and Inver House all opened expensive, new blending and bottling plants, and Invergordon grain distillery, north of Inverness, went into production during these heady years. The whisky brokers, including my father, were living on the crest of a wave at that time. The 'Ten Per Cent Men' such as Willie Lundie, Terry Hillman, Bobby McCall, Peter Russell and many more conducted deals on the golf course or over lengthy, drink-fuelled lunches at the likes of the 101, Malmaison, Ferrari's, The Fountain or Rogano in Glasgow. These usually started just after 12, and finished around 4pm, though occasionally they were known to continue into the evening!

During these comparatively contented days, there was no mention of words like redundancy, rationalisation or amalgamation. These, after all, were the 'swinging 60's' and many of us were walking about as though we had literally stepped out of The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album cover, with long hair and droopy moustaches. Apparently there was also lots of free love, and the smell of Brut aftershave hung heavy in the air. It was the height of sophistication if you turned up at a party with a bottle of Mateus Rose, Hirondelle, or the ultimate - Pomagne. With the price of Scotch whisky set at £2.60, our national drink still remained a genuine luxury, out of reach of many drinkers. And single malts just didn't register. During the 1960s, blended whisky was whisky to most people. Single malts were asleep. Even when William Grant & Sons first launched their Glenfiddich single malt in England in April 1964, practically everybody thought they were mad!

Click here for Part II


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