The phrase ‘pioneering spirit’ is perhaps something we take a little for granted in Scotch whisky today, given the fast pace the business now moves at and the sheer number of luminaries and brands celebrated across the industry. It hints at risk-taking, treading a visionary path before anyone else and, above all, a confident, adventurous outlook. For Francis and Walter Berry and Hugh Rudd of London wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd, this pioneering spirit was truly the beating heart of the conversation at a lunch meeting on 23 March 1923, when they set out to conceive the Cutty Sark blended Scotch whisky brand.
Little did they know that, 100 years later, this same pioneering spirit shows no sign of being diminished. Now under the ownership of French spirits powerhouse La Martiniquaise-Bardinet, Cutty Sark celebrated its centenary in style this September, with a global gathering held at the brand’s spiritual home: the museum for the famous tea clipper ship of the same name, a ship which still proudly adorns the label, on the bank of the River Thames in Greenwich, South London. The event gave time for the assembled guests – travelling from as far afield as Japan and the USA – to reflect on quite how influential Cutty Sark whisky has been historically around the world.
From the moment Scottish artist James McBey roughly sketched the label at the aforementioned fateful lunch, which shows the famous three-mast tea clipper at full sail on the high seas, the founders knew they wanted to create something as equally ground-breaking and adventurous which would challenge the perception of blended Scotch – not only in the UK, but also across the Atlantic in the USA.
The whisky was designed to be lighter and more ‘mixable’ in style, with smoother, softer fragrant orchard fruit notes, in contrast to the bolder, smoke-laden blends which were prevalent in the early 1920s. Given the US was in the grip of Prohibition at the time, introducing a new-style whisky into the market was a high-risk strategy, but one which ultimately paid off.
First exported from the UK to the Bahamas – and then smuggled into the US over the sea by the infamous rum runner Captain William ‘Bill’ McCoy (whose notoriety and reputation for quality product gave rise to the phrase ‘the real McCoy’) – the new blend quickly found favour in speakeasies and cocktail joints, thanks to its lighter, more mixable style. Sales of Cutty Sark really took off after Prohibition ended in 1933, growing from 7,000 to 80,000 cases, and, by 1961, Cutty Sark was the first Scotch whisky brand to sell more than one million cases in the US alone.
As its international appeal grew, so too did Cutty’s celebrity status, with the whisky being enjoyed in some of the biggest silver screen classics of the day, including the James Bond film Thunderball, Steve McQueen’s Bullitt, and later into the 70s and 80s, the Martin Scorsese masterpieces Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Scorsese was reportedly such a fan that he revisited the brand in 1990, showcasing it in a number of scenes in Goodfellas. More recently, Cutty Sark has been enjoyed by the iconic Mad Men character Don Draper and in the HBO Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire. Just as the brand’s sales went stratospheric, so too did the whisky itself, quite literally, with astronaut Gordon Cooper smuggling a 5cl bottle of Cutty Sark onboard the 1963 Mercury 9 mission – legitimately making it the first whisky in space.
As drinkers began to demand a greater depth and complexity in their whiskies, Cutty Sark was given a permanent 12 Years Old age statement, to sit alongside the Original, as well as a higher strength (50% ABV) Prohibition Edition, in homage to the meteoric rise the brand first experienced in the 1930s. It’s a range which master blender Stephen Woodcock can be proud of.
“To me, ‘honour’ and ‘privilege’ are very important words for a whisky maker to reflect upon, when working with an iconic brand like Cutty Sark, considering the milestones it has reached,” he explains. In preparation for Cutty’s 100th birthday, Stephen was tasked with creating something extra special for the occasion – a challenge which first started for him more than 18 months ago, back in 2022.
“Excusing the nautical pun, for a second,” he smiles, “but I needed an anchor point: something to start working from. One thing which resonated passionately with me was the number 23 – both the year and exact day when Cutty Sark was first conceived.”
Looking closely at the company’s whisky stock inventory, Stephen discovered a small parcel of single malt laid down in 1999. “It was labelled as ‘sherry into port’ and packed full of dried fruit, chocolate, and coffee notes,” he says of the whisky, which was well over 23 years old when bottled. After bringing these casks together with older, softer malts from the 1970s and some grain whiskies (some from a closed distillery), he created a tawny-coloured, highly complex blend, which perfectly fitted the bill: Cutty Sark Centenary Edition, a blended Scotch bottled at 52.2% ABV and limited to just 1,435 bottles globally. The packaging brings suitably nautical cues, housing the bottle in a canvas mainsail, topped off by a gold rope cleat for a stopper.
Given the huge milestones Cutty Sark has achieved in its 100-year tenure – its continued success with whisky drinkers across the globe; its forward-thinking, easily approachable and versatile style, first dreamt up in a small office in London’s St James all those years ago; and the commitment by its new owner, La Martiniquaise-Bardinet, to keep pushing new boundaries – it’s hard to predict which epic voyage the good ship Cutty Sark will take next. Yet its direction remains crystal clear and its mission statement that ‘you can’t discover a new ocean until you have the courage to leave the shore’ will no doubt keep it on the right course well into its next century.
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