The First Global Brands – Taking the Water of Life From the Monasteries to the Masses

This is the story of the first brands that were expanded into a global market way back in 1896 by the Scots. The word whisky is believed to have been coined by the soldiers of King Henry II whose armies invaded Ireland in the 12th century, as they struggled to pronounce the native Irish words uisce beatha. The word is a shortened form of usquebaugh, which English borrowed World Brands from the Irish Gaelic uisce beatha and Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha. This compound descends from Old Irish uisce, “water”, and bethad, “of life”, and literally means the “water of life”, In the course of time, the pronunciation changed from whishkeyba (an approximation of how the Irish term sounds) to whiskey.

The three Scottish gentlemen

It meant the same thing as the Latin aqua vitae, given to distilled drinks since the early 14th century. The Americans, Canadians and Irish spell whiskey with the e and the Scots spell whisky without the e. In the late 1800s, with the invention of the Coffey (continuous) still, the Scots flooded the market with cheap whisky. The Americans, Canadians and Irish then added the e to distinguish their brands as a quality whiskey.

The art of distillation originated in the East and was first practised in Europe, when the Moors distilled perfumes in Spain during the Middle Ages. It is believed that Irish missionaries brought the distillation technique to Ireland from the Mediterranean regions between the sixth and seventh centuries. This technique was later introduced into Scotland, with the first documented evidence of whisky production in 1494.

The British settlers brought the skills and equipment with them to America, famous for its Bourbon, and to Japan where production started in the early 20th century and today its malt whiskies are considered among the best in the world. The global sales of whisky currently exceed US$2-billion annually.

This is largely due to two crucial events and the action of three Scottish gentlemen in the 19th century: John Dewar, Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniels. First, a new production process was introduced in Scotland in 1831 called the Coffey or patent still. Whisky produced using this distilling method was less intense, smoother and, most important, cheaper. Secondly, the Phylloxera bug destroyed wine and cognac production in France in 1880. To understand how a new production process helped to increase whisky’s popularity you need to understand the history and the processes involved in producing whisky.

Malt whisky may not contain any other grain than malted barley and is traditionally distilled in pot stills. It is a time-consuming and costly one-off distillation process. Grain whisky may contain unmalted barley or other malted or unmalted grains, such as wheat and maize (corn) and is typically distilled in a continuous column still, known as a patent or Coffey still. There are scores of malt whisky distilleries, but, at present, there are only seven grain distilleries, most of them in the Lowlands of Scotland.

Due to the higher alcohol yield from a patent still, grain whiskey is generally accepted as having a lighter and less complex flavour than malt whisky. In Scotland, pure-grain whisky is seldom bottled and is manufactured mainly for blending with malt whisky. It is inexpensive to produce and plays a major role in the production of Scotch whisky, because it is used to create blended whiskies.

The comparative lightness of grain whisky is used to smooth out the often harsh characteristics of single-malt whiskies. Blended whiskies are made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskies. A blend usually comes from many distilleries, so that the blender can produce a flavour consistent with the brand. That is why the brand name, for example Johnnie Walker, will usually not contain the name of a distillery. The market is dominated by blends, yet the most highly prized Scotch whiskies are still the single malts.

John Dewar Senior and the first motion picture advertisement

After 1860, it became legal to sell the blended whisky that was also less expensive than a malt whisky, resulting in more sales and a growing demand. John Dewar Senior created the Dewar’s brand of blended Scotch whisky and, under the control of his two sons, John A Dewar Junior and Thomas “Tommy” Dewar, the brand expanded to penetrate a global market in 1896. The very able salesman, Tommy Dewar, created a demand for Dewar’s whisky in London and later America, and he became famous as the author of a travel journal, Ramble Round the Globe, which documented his travels while publicising the Dewar name.

Interestingly, Dewar’s Scotch whisky is famous for showing the first motion picture advertisement for a drink in 1897, when it was broadcast on the roof of a building in New York’s Herald Square and stopped the traffic as people gaped in amazement.

John “Johnnie” Walker, the Striding Man

The Johnnie Walker brand of Scotch whisky is produced in Shieldhall, Glasgow and Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland and and is the most widely distributed brand of blended Scotch whisky in the world. Originally known as Old Highland Whisky for the export trade and Walker’s Kilmarnock Scotch for the local market, the Johnnie Walker brand is the legacy of John “Johnnie” Walker after he started to sell whisky in his grocer’s shop in Ayrshire, Scotland. His brand became popular, but after Walker’s death in 1857, it was his son and grandson who were largely responsible for establishing their Scotch whisky as a popular brand. Alexander Walker first introduced the iconic square bottle in the 1860s with the label applied at an angle of 64 degrees to help his bottles stand out on the shelf.

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