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Issue 14 - Gangsters, guns and the real McCoy

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Whisky Magazine Issue 14
February 2001

 

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Gangsters, guns and the real McCoy

Tom Bruce-Gardyne traces the history of Berry Bros. and Rudd through Prohibition, a period that saw the birth of one of themost famous blends in the world, Cutty Sark.

Jack Diamond was not a typical Berry Brothers customer – that much was obvious. For one thing, not many of those who bought their port and claret from this ancient and venerable wine merchant had a quashed conviction for one homicide, let alone five. And not many were destined for the same fate.

After a charmed life flogging bootlegged liquor to his American compatriots, 'Legs' Diamond, as he was known for his skill on the dance-floor, finally met his match. He was rubbed out by a fellow gangster in a New York boarding house – while wearing nothing but his silk underwear.

History is hazy over the precise details of Diamond's order for three hundred cases of "gen-U-ine" Scotch whisky for cash some time in the early 1920s. No one really knows whether he came in person to cut a deal with Francis and Walter Berry at their emporium in the heart of London's clubland, but if he did it must have been quite a scene. On one side of the counter a character seemingly sprung from the hardboiled prose of Raymond Chandler and on the other two of the leading purveyors of fine wine to the Establishment. Walter Berry was said to have an almost religious devotion to the subject and when not tending the shop could be found foraging the vineyards of Europe. Francis shared his second cousin's love of wine and cognac, but appears to have been more worldly wise and certainly better travelled in his role in charge of foreign sales.

Aware of his recent trips to the States, then in the grip of Prohibition, Walter must have been seriously concerned about the company Francis was keeping. Especially if it led to this piece of New York low-life polluting the rarefied air of No.3 St. James’s Street. There had been a shop on this site selling tea, coffee, spices and other groceries since 1698. A century later the business passed by marriage to a family of West Country wine merchants, and in 1803 John Berry, then only 16, made the two-day journey to the capital from Exeter. Soon Berry Brothers was part of the social scene, a stopping-off point in the circuit of gambling clubs, coffee shops and assembly rooms frequented by London society. As well as buying provisions and tasting wine people came to be weighed. Since 1765 the likes of Pitt, Peel, Byron and Beau Brummel have sat in the giant pair of scales that remain in the shop to this day. More recent weight watchers have included Anthony Eden, Lawrence Olivier and the Aga Khan, while the heaviest yet has been a 21 stone Sumo wrestler from Japan.

Over time the emphasis shifted from groceries towards wine stored in the firm's cavernous cellars beneath St. James’s Street. By the time whisky was added to the list, the firm had become a pillar of the drinks trade. With no distilleries, blends or brands mentioned on the label, whisky was sold as either ‘Scotch’ or ‘Irish’. It cost 36 shillings a case, the same as 'ordinary champagne', 'superior sherry' and 'second quality port', but twice the price of 'Spanish port – for Parish and charitable use only.'

This quaint aversion to brands is exemplified by ‘The King's Ginger Liqueur’, which was only named as such 31 years after it was created to keep Edward VII warm in his 'horseless carriage'. But times were changing and Berry Bros. needed to change with it, or so Francis believed. His father was a Victorian merchant of the old school and it was only after his death in 1907 that the firm began to look abroad. Two years later, aged 33, Francis made the first of his many trips to the United Sates. He also travelled throughout Europe and India searching out wealthy customers with gaps in their cellars. At first whisky played a very minor role in the company's portfolio, though Francis Berry understood the benefits of a robust drink over something as delicate as wine. A bottle of Scotch could easily withstand a long sea crossing and the inevitable changes in temperature, unlike a bottle of claret that might throw sediment, re-ferment or become cooked in the tropics. Personally he was more of a cognac drinker, which according to his grandson Simon Berry, accounts for the pale colour of the firm’s most famous brand – Cutty Sark.

The blend was created in 1923 and some have suggested that its light, crisp style, in contrast to the heavier, oilier and darker coloured blends then in fashion, was an attempt to mimic American whiskies. After all this was a brand designed principally for the US market, a market attuned to the dry taste of rye. Perhaps the legendary bootlegger, Captain William McCoy, who Francis undoubtedly met in the Caribbean, gave his advice. But Simon Berry is adamant. “These were people appalled at the idea of caramel being added to a fine spirit, and believed, perhaps with a touch of arrogance, that if the cognac drinker could accept that good cognac was pale then why couldn't the whisky drinker?”

Domestic manufacture of alcoholic drinks was banned when the United States entered the First World War in 1917, supposedly to keep cereals and fruit in the food chain. By December the powerful Anti-Saloon League had rammed through Congress a prohibition amendment that became law on 19th January 1920. A year later one of its chief architects, William 'Pussyfoot' Johnson, a teetotal lawyer who helped convict thousands of bootleggers, happened to be on the same ship as Francis Berry bound for New York. 'Pussyfoot', so-called because of his ability to creep with stealth and pounce with speed, had some advice for Berry: “Let your son be trained for the cloth rather than the wine trade which I assure you is a vanishing industry.” For his part Berry dismissed Johnson as a “dull dog with a big salary and liking for big cigars.”

Home-produced Bourbon was out – illicit Scotch was in. The trouble was that once the drinks trade was driven underground it spawned a whole new industry in counterfeit booze, such that for every genuine bottle that left Scotland, there were a dozen bottles of spurious Scotch being drunk.

The British end of whisky's distribution chain during prohibition ended in the Bahamas, in Nassau, where like many others Berry had his agent. The system went as follows: whisky was delivered into bond and then loaded onto British-registered vessels, which then sailed off to encircle New York. The ships would sit at anchor, just inside international waters in a 150-mile crescent known as Rum Row and wait for their American customers to show up.

What happened thereafter, the tales of gang warfare, of being machine-gunned on the beach, was best left to the Americans.

Francis returned home brimming with ideas and a camera full of images of Nassau – the Prohibition boom town. On March 23rd 1923, the celebrated graphic artist, James McBey, was invited to lunch at the 'Parlour' at No.3 St. James’s Street. The three partners, Francis, Walter and Hugh Rudd had a little idea to discuss. Working with a blender and bottler in Scotland, who was to become Robertson & Baxter, the firm had created a distinctive blend of Scotch based around Glenrothes malt. It was not exactly their first brand of Scotch, there had been 'Berry's Best', 'All Malt' and even 'Blue Hanger' after an 18th century dandy and past customer who always wore blue. This was very different however, it was not being created for the Berry Bros. customer, but for something else entirely, all that was missing was a name. Various ideas bounced round the table until McBey suggested the Dumbarton-built ’Cutty Sark' which was much in the news having just returned to England. She was by far the fastest ship of her day and was named after the fleet-footed young witch in Robert Burns' famous poem Tam O'Shanter.

By the end of lunch McBey had sketched a label, reputedly on one of the napkins, and so created one of the truly great brands of Scotch whisky. Compared to the gestation period of today – a tortuous process of endless meetings, focus groups and test marketing, the birth of Cutty Sark was almost miraculous in its simplicity. The one big difference between what was decided that lunchtime and the final result, was the background colour. Everyone was agreed that it should be on parchment or ‘yellowed paper’ – “very 1920s, very Berry Brothers and fantastically old-fashioned” says Simon Berry. “You can just imagine their horror when the proof came back from the printer!”

Constructing a brand in a world given over to racketeers and bent politicians certainly created its problems. The biggest problem their new creation faced, was that sooner or later someone would be forging the labels and passing off some adulterated hooch, quite possibly poisonous, as Cutty Sark. Clearly it had to start clean, untainted and totally reliable, and if that meant turning down the odd 300 case order from the Jack Diamonds of this world, then so be it. And yet as the dangers of drinking bootlegged liquor increased so did the demand for the real thing. Francis Berry needed someone who could take the drink into the USA and somehow maintain its integrity. There had to be some way of ensuring that anyone who put their lips to a glass of Cutty Sark would be getting the genuine article, the “Real McCoy”

Sadly history doesn't relate the role played by Bill McCoy in giving Cutty Sark a head start in the American market. Anything discussed by the two men as they strolled down Bay Street whose warehouses held an estimated US$10 million worth of booze, was strictly private. He was certainly seeing another side of life from cousin Walter, squirreled away in his Dickensian office in St. James’s. Francis Berry was only 60 when he died, just three years after the repeal of Prohibition. In less than a decade he’d built the foundations for a world-beating brand. By the mid-1970s Cutty Sark became the biggest-selling Scotch whisky in America.
 

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