Fit for kings

Fit for kings

Noble qualities created Chivas Regal, the 'Chieftain's Tipple' and royals' favourite. Charles MacLean explores the history of the Chivas brand.

History | 16 Oct 1999 | Issue 6 | By Charles MacLean

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What's in a name? Plenty where Chivas Regal is concerned, one of the world's top selling whiskies whose label hints of royal favour and intriguing Celtic ancestry. The figures speak for themselves – three million cases of Chivas are sold every year. A classic case of a superb product, developed and marketed to its maximum potential. But that makes it sound too easy. The Chivas saga is primarily one of hard work and heroic attention to detail. It begins in Schivas, a barony and medieval castle in north east Scotland, some 15 miles north of Aberdeen, on the bank of the River Ythan. The name derives from the Gaelic seimh as, pronounced 'sheev-as', meaning 'narrow place', and indeed the castle stands by a ford on the river.In 1308 the famous warrior king known as Robert the Bruce won the Battle of Inverurie. One of his prizes was the Barony of Schivas, which he awarded to one of his supporters. King Robert's seal decorates at least one of Chivas's current
packaging.Over time the families living in the hamlet of Schivas took the name, and adapted the spelling to 'Chivas'. They kept it even when they moved on as with the case of one family who started to farm near Peterhead, on the north east coast. In 1800, a branch of this family took the lease of a farm six miles to the east of Schivas. There were 12 children, including James, born in 1810, the sixth child, and John, born in 1814, the seventh. These were the Chivas Brothers.They remained on the farm until their twenties, then, in 1836, sought their fortunes in the city of Aberdeen. John became an assistant in a clothing warehouse while James was employed in the shop of a William Edward, a grocer and wine and spirits merchant. Mr Edward's business had been founded in 1801 – the date which appears on Chivas whiskies. Shortly after James joined him he moved shop to King Street. But it was Edward's surprise death while on a trip to Madeira four years later that really changed the course of the brothers' fortunes. James seized the opportunity to take over the business, inviting another merchant, Charles Stewart, to become a partner and invest money.The business was dynamic. Its centre was the shop which sold a wide range of goods including butter, rusks and hams; imported apples, plums and oranges; pickles, sauces and cheese; teas and alcohol.It also operated as a kind of employment agency, supplying butlers, cooks, housemaids and other domestic staff. If there was a need for something, the merchants provided it. But from the outset it was clear, their sights were firmly up-market.
Soon after Chivas & Stewart began to trade, the local paper announced that the shop could supply “every article that families in the country may require ...,” including “... curious brandies, French liqueurs, green and dried fruits, teas as imported, hams, tongues, cheese, pickles and fish sauces, wax and sperm candles ...”They expanded into tobacco and cigars, and began to offer a house-blended whisky called Royal Glendee. Their belief in quality goods and impeccable service quickly paid off. By 1843 James Chivas was appointed Purveyor of Grocery in Ordinary to Her Majesty. This was to be the first of many royal appointments, indeed the business has been granted warrants by every monarch since – apart from Edward V111, who abdicated after just a few months. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert paid their first visit to the north of Scotland in 1842 , Chivas & Stewart probably supplied the royal household. The north-east, especially Deeside, went down so well with Victoria, she described it as “our dear paradise” and bought the Balmoral Estate in 1845. From 1848 to 1894, Chivas was the man who supplied her groceries from joints of meat to the smallest maid's brush and he even recruited the maids as well. Not surprisingly when the Queen was convalescing and needed something to pull her chair out of doors, it was Chivas who supplied the donkey.
In 1857, the Chivas/Stewart partnership came to an end and James persuaded his brother John, who had done well managing a hat firm, to join him. Chivas Brothers was founded, but death again changed the course of events. John died just five years later, and James carried on alone.The bare facts of James Chivas's life say much about the man. He lived the entire time above the shop at 21 King Street,
although he did buy a mansion house in a village called Cults shortly before he died. Queen Victoria's favourite prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, famously described Victorian Britain as a nation of shopkeepers and James was such a one in the best sense of the word. Discreet, honourable, hard-working and responsible, he was the epitome of moral probity and a pillar of the community.In 1863 he was elected a Free Burgess and Guild Brother of the City. A loyal Conservative voter, he was a paid up member of all the right clubs and a committed church goer and a school governor. It was James who raised the funds to buy the chancel for Aberdeen's St Andrew’s Cathedral.On his death in July 1886, his obituary in the Aberdeen Journal remarked: "People ... applied to Mr. Chivas for everything, and it went hard on his own feelings if he disappointed them."The whisky side of the business flourished under him. He installed a bottling plant beneath the King Street shop and, aware that the good name of the firm would serve as a guarantee of quality, he added it to the labels of his brands. He also began to add age statements, one of the first blenders so to do. Royal Strathythan – 10 Year Old, Royal Loch Nevis – 20 Year Old, joined Royal Glendee.The firm's reputation spread from Aberdeenshire throughout the UK. The customers, who had tasted the delights of Chivas while on sporting holidays, helped spread its fame beyond the home shores.The warrants of the Emperor of Austria and the Viceroy of Ireland, the Earl of Aberdeen, joined the shop's display cards. One noble, Lord Ashley, praised the Chivas Brothers’ whisky as "unapproachable in point of excellence." Prince Edward of Saxe Weimar, the commander of the British army's southern district, wrote in 1883: "My consumption of whisky during the last year was exactly 200 bottles." And he made sure that his London club, the United Services, stocked Chivas whiskies. Their reputation continued to grow globally, no doubt along with the expansion of the British Empire. Australia's The Queensland Licensed Victuallers Gazette enthused in 1889 that "Chivas Brothers Glendee Old Highland Whisky is a highly palatable, fine flavoured, rare drop of mountain dew – in truth a royal drink, fit for king's palaces... it stands supreme monarch in the realm of refreshment." A decade later The National Guardian reported from Japan that, at a St Andrew's Night dinner, "Royal Glendee was the chief liquid refreshment, and from that circumstance was appropriately named The Chieftain's Tipple."James Chivas had four children, two sons and two daughters. The sons, Alexander and James Jr, worked in their father's business during the 1870s. until young James, a spendthrift, emigrated to US.Alexander then travelled in Mediterranean Europe learning more about the wine trade. He took control when his father died, although he was obliged to buy out his brother and sisters since James, ever the fair one, had left them equal shares.
Alexander worked tirelessly. In letters he laments being too busy to play golf and that his guns and fishing rods stayed in their cases. He looked back wistfully to his time in Europe and the lively social life there. Life in Scotland was much more disciplined, but in 1890 he met a tax inspector's daughter, Alyce Macaulay, and fell deeply in love. His mother was against the match. Indeed the engagement was announced without her blessing. Reconciliation followed, but Alexander lived only two years more. He died, aged 37, of a throat infection in May 1893. Broken-hearted Alyce followed him only three days later.So ended the Chivas family's direct involvement with the firm which bears their name. The business passed to Alexander's clerk, who took an experienced whisky blender as his partner and determined both that the memory of the Chivas family, and the high standards they had set, be maintained. In 1909 these two resolutions came together when the partners created Chivas Regal, their flagship brand, and today the world's leading premium Scotch.
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