Johnnie Walker has come a long way. Two centuries ago, bottles of blended whiskey were confined to the shelves of John Walker’s modest grocery store in the small western Scottish town of Kilmarnock. Today it is the best-selling Scotch whiskey on the planet, selling in bottles in the billions.
It’s an extraordinary success story, and it was accomplished by a small, family-owned business whose members were noted for being “stubborn, uptight, and tough as nails,” according to a recently published study on the Johnnie Walker blend.
Written by Nick Morgan, A Long Stride, published by Canongate, reveals the extraordinary lengths the Walker family went to to ensure that bottles of their brand, above all other whiskies, sold the most. As family journals and documents reveal, it was a tireless effort to promote and advertise their product and make technological improvements to its distillation to ensure that previously wildly inconsistent levels of flavor and quality were tempered.
In this way, the Walker family dragged Scotch “kicking and screaming from both illicit parties in sequestered glens onto the world stage,” says Morgan. Crucially, the story reveals how Scotch whiskey became Scotland’s gift to the world.
“And it’s a gift that continues to be given to a remarkable degree today,” adds Morgan, a former historian and head of outreach for Diageo, the current owners of Johnnie Walker. The Walkers took over a cottage industry, made massive improvements to its manufacturing, launched national promotions and laid the foundation for an industry that today has a massive impact on the Scottish economy.
Whiskey was a favorite drink on TV’s Mad Men, and star Christina Hendricks spearheaded a Johnnie Walker ad campaign. Photograph: Retro AdArchives/Alamy Stock Photo
In 2018, the nation’s whiskey industry sold the equivalent of more than a billion bottles of Scotch, far more alcohol than any nation on Earth exports. And while Johnnie Walker is the biggest seller, many other leading blends also sell large quantities abroad. These include Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal, Grant’s, Dewar’s and several other very popular whiskeys that are drunk in bars from Hong Kong to Manhattan and from Rome to Buenos Aires.
This output is now worth £4.7bn a year, accounting for 70% of Scotland’s food and drink exports and 21% of the UK’s. (Scotland’s second-biggest food and drink export is shellfish, particularly salmon, earning around £950m a year.)
However, the beginnings of the Johnnie Walker company were modest, dating back to John Walker’s decision to sell the family farm after his father’s death and open a shop in Kilmarnock in 1820 to sell tea, sugar, soap and, of course, whiskey that he would have blended himself from malt and grain whiskey barrels.
Most grocery businesses went bankrupt within a couple of years in those days, Morgan says, so Walker, who seems to have led a life of studied reticence, did well to simply thrive as a retailer. One myth even suggests that he was a teetotaler.
Morgan is not impressed. “I have found absolutely no evidence of this, and since he ran a thriving grocery business specializing in blended whiskey and other wines and spirits, I’m pretty sure he would have had a drink himself.”
Walker died in 1857, leaving the promotion of the family business to his eldest son, Alexander, which he did with remarkable and focused energy. “He was driven by the need to make constant improvements, to make his mixes better and better. He also realized that he couldn’t do much in the West of Scotland to sell whiskey. Rather, London was a showcase for the world. Fashions were made here, he realized.
An 1887 John Walker advertisement. Photograph: Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images
In London, Alexander Walker launched advertising campaigns and promoted his whiskey at international trade shows, while constantly seeking improvements to his distilleries. And by the 1880s and 1890s, Walker had managed to make whiskey the most fashionable drink of the day, with the Johnnie Walker blend leading the way.
In a way, he was lucky. Brandy had until then been a very popular drink, but following the arrival of the vine plague, phylloxera, in France at the end of the 19th century, the country’s vineyards were devastated, causing production to collapse. of quality French brandy. Scotch filled the void nicely.
On the other hand, there were difficult times in which the Scottish market managed to survive, from the Boer War to the First World War and the Great Depression. “Johnnie Walker went up and down each time, but he always came back stronger. He has been a remarkably resilient brand, if nothing else,” says Morgan.
However, the whiskey we drink today is not exactly the one the Walkers would have perfected, he reveals. “Today’s whiskeys, and not just Johnnie Walker blends, are slightly lighter, fresher and fruitier than they would have been in the 19th century.
“We don’t have a 19th century bottle of whiskey to study to prove this point, but we do know that Scotch was drunk differently then. It was usually combined with lemon and sugar to make toddies and would have had to be heavier and oilier for its flavor to survive the mix.”
Habits changed, however, and by the late Victorian and Edwardian eras soda became popular and whiskeys became lighter in response to mixing with it. “It was a small thing, but the soda siphon had a big impact on the whiskey,” says Morgan.