The missing link
The recent Pernod Ricard-Allied deal reunited two great whisky names. But they were linked once before by whisky entrepreneur Jimmy Barclay. Iain Russell reports
Pernod Ricard’s acquisition of Allied Domecq will bring together two of the great names in the whisky world, in the form of their subsidiaries Chivas Brothers and George Ballantine & Son.
But the connection between the two goes back to the 1920s and involves the legendary whisky wheeler-dealer Jimmy Barclay.
Jimmy was described by a Canadian whisky executive as “one of the greatest whisky entrepreneurs ever to graduate into the respectable era from the bootlegging days.” A Scottish newspaper referred to him simply as “a remarkable man.” Without him, neither Chivas Regal nor Ballantine’s would be the world-famous brands they are today.
Jimmy Barclay was born in Glasgow in 1885 but after his mother died was raised by his grandfather. He began work as an office boy at the Benrinnes Distillery near Aberlour, earning half a crown (just under 13p) a week.
In 1909 he returned to Glasgow to work for Peter Mackie & Co, moving on 10 years later to start his own business.
Jimmy became one of Scotland’s leading whisky brokers, buying up parcels of Scotch whisky and selling them on to blenders and other clients.
In the process, he acquired control of many well-known blending and bonding companies including J & G Stodart, T & A McClelland and the Highland Bonding Co.
In 1919, Jimmy and a partner called R A McKinlay acquired George Ballantine & Son, a long-established grocery, wines and spirits merchant. The dapper, urbane McKinlay took charge of the office and the production of its blended whiskies, particularly the flagship brand, Ballantine’s.
Jimmy wasn’t a man for admin work – his idea of financial reporting was to jot down figures on the back of an envelope - but he had an amazing talent for mental arithmetic and the silver tongue of a born salesman.
During the 1920s he set off to establish the Ballantine’s name in the USA. The fact that the Americans had just introduced Prohibition was deemed a mere inconvenience.
Herb Hatch of Hiram Walker believed that “Ballantine’s made its American debut in the whorehouses of Havana, Nassau and New York” during the Prohibition years of the 1920s and early 1930s. Certainly, Jimmy made dozens of trips to Canada, the Caribbean and the USA at this time and it was well-known that many of his business associates were involved in the illegal importation of whisky to the United States or in its distribution there.
These were dangerous days in the American booze business, and Jimmy admitted later that he had a couple of ‘narrow squeaks’ during his visits. He told friends that he once had to scramble down the fire escape at the Hotel Astor in Times Square, to escape from Internal Revenue officers attempting to serve a subpoena on him.
And when a distillery manager asked him had he ever had dealings with bootleggers, Jimmy made no reply but simply removed his shirt to reveal a torso covered in ugly scars.
The implication was clear: that Jimmy had taken a severe beating. But his son Lothian has an alternative version of events. He insists that his father acquired the scars in a motorbike accident during the First World War, when his brakes failed as he roared down a steep hill in Glasgow.
By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, Jimmy had made some powerful and influential friends in North America.
They included Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns of the 21 Club, the famous Manhattan speakeasy, who set up a liquor distribution company that briefly employed the actor David Niven as a salesman.
21 Brands was appointed the US distributor for Ballantine’s, and the blend became one of the most popular in the country. Its success impressed two more friends from Prohibition days, Harry Hatch and Bill Hume of the distillers Hiram Walker – Gooderham & Worts. They bought Robert Ballantine & Son in 1935.
Jimmy stayed on as a director of Hiram Walker’s Scotch whisky subsidiary for a couple of years. He arranged the purchase of Miltonduff and Glenburgie distilleries for the company, to guarantee supplies of single malt whisky required for the Ballantine’s blends, and was involved in the creation of a new premium blend, Ballantine’s 17 Year Old.
But by then Jimmy’s fellow directors had become uncomfortable with his private business activities, dealing in whisky stocks on his own account and for his clients.
Their fears of a possible conflict of interests seem well-founded – by the time he left the company in the late 1930s, Jimmy was already working closely with Sam Bronfman of Hiram Walker’s great Canadian rivals, the Distillers Corporation – Seagrams Ltd.
Sam Bronfman had ‘issues’ with the Distillers Company Ltd, the dominant player in the Scotch whisky industry, which in 1933 had rejected a proposal to work in partnership with Seagrams in the USA.
Feeling snubbed, he became obsessed with the idea of creating a blended Scotch that could compete with the popularity of Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker and the other great DCL brands. Jimmy, who had been his business associate and a friend since Prohibition days, was happy to lend a hand.
In 1935, Jimmy purchased the Glasgow firm Robert Brown Ltd for Seagrams and began to amass the large inventory of aged grain and malt whiskies that would be required for the launch of the new blended Scotch.
© ZEFA Above: Sam Bronfman at the opening of the Paisley Plant in the 1960s; Below: Sam Bronfman (on right) viewing the pot stills at Strathisla, 1952 He husbanded the stocks through the dark days of the Second World War and even found ways and means to add to them. In 1949, when reserves of pre-war whiskies were at an all-time low, and even the mighty DCL had been forced to remove the age statement from Johnnie Walker Black Label, Bronfman decided to make his move.
First, Jimmy was asked to find an established Scotch whisky brand that Seagrams could develop.
He acquired the Aberdeen grocer Chivas Brothers for Seagrams, along with the rights to the venerable Chivas Regal brand name and the privilege of displaying a Royal Warrant on its label.
Bronfman also wanted to acquire a distillery to guarantee supplies of a malt whisky ‘heart’ for his blend, and in 1950 Jimmy arranged the purchase of the Milton (renamed Strathisla) Distillery in Keith.
Finally, the Canadian needed a bottling plant in Scotland. Jimmy just happened to have one in Glasgow, and put it at Seagrams’ disposal.
Cockney master blender Charlie Julian was employed to re-formulate Chivas Regal as a rich 12 year old blend, and it was launched in New York in August 1951.
At a time when bottles of older Scotches were hard to find, it stood out from the crowd and became THE fashionable drink in the city’s bars. Chivas Regal’s popularity grew and by 1960 Seagrams were selling more than 100,000 cases in the USAeach year.
Jimmy left the Chivas board in the late 1950s. The Barclay connection with the firm survived in the form of his son Lothian, who was one of the architects of the firm’s new Paisley headquarters, bottling and warehousing complex in 1958.
Meanwhile, Jimmy remained a major player in the whisky industry. When he died in 1963, it was said that his company, T & A McClelland, held larger stocks of Scotch whisky than any other private firm.