Right foot forward

Right foot forward

The original John Walker supplied tea and biscuits, wine and whisky to the sober bughers of Kilmarnock; his descendant Sir Alec Walker built a bath big enough for Churchill. Charles Maclean looks at a family that took a giant leep.

History | 16 Mar 1999 | Issue 2 | By Charles MacLean

  • Share to:
The striding Regency dandy with a twinkle in his eye, so familiar from the Johnnie Walker label, was first sketched on the back of a menu card over lunch in London in 1908. The artist was Tom Browne, a well-known cartoonist and poster designer of the day; his hosts were George Paterson Walker, chairman of John Walker & Sons, and James Stevenson, who had been appointed to the board earlier that year. It was Stevenson who promptly added the line ‘Born 1820, Still Going Strong’.The character it purported to depict was George’s grandfather, John Walker, and the date was the year he had opened a grocer’s shop in Kilmarnock. In actual fact, Johnnie had been only 15 years old in 1820. His father had died the previous year, leaving £417. This sum was put into trust, and with it was established the grocery business, selling dry goods, teas and coffees, wines and spirits. Nor was the figure remotely like any resident of Kilmarnock in 1820. Johnnie’s father had been a tenant dairy farmer just outside the town, on the estate of John Cunninghame, 15th Earl of Glencairn – today, this part of the Ayrshire is officially called Cunninghame District. Kilmarnock more than tripled in size during the first half of the 19th century as people migrated from the land and sought jobs in the town’s new industries of tanning and shoemaking, carpet-weaving and woollen manufacture and, later, heavy engineering. Not the kinds of occupation likely to breed the dashing man-about-town depicted by Tom Browne, but certainly the kind of people who needed groceries. By the time he died in 1857, Johnnie Walker was a respected member of the local business community, a freeman of the burgh and leader of the local trade association.Shortly before he died, John brought his teenage son into the firm. Alexander Walker had served an apprenticeship in the whisky trade in Glasgow, and was trained in blending teas – and in all probability whiskies as well – by his father. Three years after he took over the business, the Spirits Act of 1860 allowed blending of malt and grain whiskies before duty had to be paid and thus made it possible, for the first time, to produce blended whisky in large quantities. Alexander saw the opportunity and immediately began to develop the whisky side of the family business. He was passionate about the quality of his blends – determined ‘to make our whisky of such quality that nothing in the market shall come before it’ – and his voluminous correspondence in the company’s archive bears testimony to this obsession. By the mid-1860s he was producing 100,000 gallons of whisky a year, and using the new railway network to sell his blends in Glasgow and beyond. In 1867 he registered the copyright to Walker’s Old Highland Whisky – the whisky which eventually became Johnnie Walker Black Label. From its inception it was packaged with a slanting black and gold label, as it is today, and by the late 1870s it was being sold in the distinctive rectangular bottle which has remained the brand’s hallmark.It was the British Empire which provided the springboard for the firm’s growth – particularly Australia, which was the largest export market for Scotch (it remained so until 1939, as a matter of fact). Alexander Walker was a partner in Mason Bros, general import and export merchants, which had branches in Australia, and he developed the market for ‘Walker’s Kilmarnock Whiskies’, as they were generally known, winning top awards at Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Dunedin and Brisbane during the 1880s – a crucial step in establishing the whisky’s credibility in new markets. Just as he had been brought into the business young, so Alexander brought his sons Jack, George and Alexander II into the firm when they were in their late teens. Jack was sent to Australia to sort out a distribution problem, and died there in 1885 aged only 22. George (whom we met earlier) gradually became responsible for the London end of the operation, while Alexander II, the youngest, devoted himself to blending at
Kilmarnock. In 1886, the family firm became a private limited company, John Walker & Sons Ltd, and following Alexander I’s death in 1889, George became chairman. He was 26 – a methodical, retiring man who lived quietly in a London suburb and concentrated on marketing and distribution. By contrast, his step-brother Alexander II was a formidable character, as his father had been: intimidating to those who did not know him, but inspiring absolute devotion in those who did. Together, the Walker brothers steered the company through its most exciting period.The 1890s were the years of the Whisky Boom, a period of unprecedented growth in demand for Scotch whisky. The brothers were young men in a hurry, prepared to take risks in order to expand their business and, even after 1900 – when the Boom burst and the industry became highly unstable – prepared to borrow heavily and flirt with financial disaster.In 1893 the company bought Cardhu Distillery on Speyside and leased the (now defunct) Annandale Distillery in Dumfriesshire to secure fillings for its blends. Later, and in partnership with other whisky companies, Walker’s would purchase St Magdalene, Coleburn, Mortlach, Dailuaine, Talisker and Clynelish Distilleries – a formidable portfolio.During the 1890s, advertising was limited to show cards and engraved notices for ‘John Walker & Sons’ in grocers’ shops and public houses, and occasional signs and placards in railway stations, but in 1906 the name of the company’s leading brand, Old Highland Whisky, was changed to Extra Special Old Highland Whisky (retaining its black label, but soon given a ‘12 Years Old’ age statement) and two younger blends – Old Highland Whisky (with a white label) and Special Old Highland Whisky (with a red label). By 1908, when the name ‘Johnnie Walker’ was registered as a trademark, the members of the range were simply referred to by the colour of their labels, and this was acknowledged the following year when the labels were re-designed and the striding man introduced. Armed with this image, and the slogan ‘Born 1820, Still Going Strong’, the company went on the offensive, using both in a variety of humorous, imperial and patriotic advertisements. By 1910, John Walker & Sons was numbered among the Big Three whisky companies – along withJames Buchanan & Co (of Black & White) and John Dewar & Sons (of White Label).During the difficult years of World War I, under a teetotal prime minister committed to taxing spirits out of existence, Alexander Walker became a respected spokesman for the entire whisky industry in its negotiations with the government, a position he retained until his death. He and his co-directorJames Stevenson devoted their considerable energies to the Ministry of Munitions, supervising the production of ammunition. For their outstanding achievement in this field Alec Walker was knighted in 1920, and Stevenson was made a baronet, and later a peer, as Lord Stevenson. Unlike the other whisky barons of the day, however, the Walkers ploughed all profits back into the company, rather than into racehorses, yachts and country estates, for in spite of his formidable facade, Sir Alec Walker was a shy man and was content to build a modest house for himself at Troon in Ayrshire, not far from his headquarters at Kilmarnock and even closer to the famous golf course.The end of the First World War precipitated deep economic depression in Britain, and Prohibition in the United States. Many whisky companies withdrew from the trade or went bankrupt, and the problem now was not expanding the market for Scotch, it was managing contraction. The Big Three whisky companies amalgamated with the Distillers Company Limited, in the hope that this, in the words of Tommy (by now Lord) Dewar, would ‘take them out of strenuous competition and lead them into the land flowing with respectable dividends’.Sir Alexander Walker saw the commercial advantages to be had from continuing to supply whisky to the United States during Prohibition (1920-33), running it in illegally through Canada or the Bahamas. When the US government obliged the British government to investigate this practice, he spoke for the whole industry before the Royal Commission of 1930, when he was asked:‘Could you, as whisky distillers, stop a large proportion of the export of liquors to the United States?’
‘Certainly not,’ replied Sir Alec.
‘You could not?’
‘We would not if we could’.In 1932, the year before Franklin D. Roosevelt brought an end to Prohibition, Sir Alec created a new blend, Johnnie Walker Swing, designed to appeal to the North American market and to travellers on the great trans-Atlantic liners. Uniquely, its lavish bottle was designed with a convex base, so it would swing as the liner rolled with the Atlantic swell. This is still a feature of the brand, and its sister, Swing Superior.By the mid-1930s the fortunes of the Scotch whisky industry were recovering. Alas, on the outbreak of war in 1939, excise duty was increased to help pay for the conflict (the price of a bottle of whisky doubled between 1939 and 1943), while supplies of barley for distilling were cut. The day was largely saved by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who noted in a famous memo: ‘On no account reduce the barley for whisky. This takes years to mature and is an invaluable export and dollar producer’.In fact Johnnie Walker Black Label was Churchill’s favourite tipple. In place of afternoon tea he wisely preferred to have a long Black Label or two; indeed, he even painted a picture, Bottlescape, which featured the whisky. He was also a close friend of Sir Alec Walker, with whom he would stay from time to time at his home, Piersland House in Troon. Walker even installed a special bath there to accomodate his friend’s ample girth. New expressions of Johnnie Walker – Blue Label , Gold Label and Pure Malt – were introduced in 1992, 1995 and 1996 respectively, to address the de luxe and super-de luxe end of the market. Both the blends use old whiskies (Gold Label makes an 18 Years Old age statement, and some of the fillings for Blue Label are considerably older than even this). Gold Label was, in fact, conceived by Sir Alec Walker in the 1920s as a ‘Centenary Blend’, but sufficiently aged whiskies could not be found. A small amount was blended to his formula in the 1950s, named Extra Special Old Reserve, but stocks were available only to the directors of the company. Pure Malt, is a vatting of nine very distinguished Highland malts (four of them are rated ‘Top Class’ by blenders; the others include the celestial Clynelish, Royal Brakla and Royal Lochnagar). Since his creation, the striding man has gone through only five re-interpretations, all executed by well known artists – the most recent one, in 1995 by Michael Peters. And Johnnie Walker is not resting upon his laurels: his custodians are upholding the tradition of excellence established by the early generations of the family over 100 years ago. And in spite of the size of the concern today, all the whiskies are still
blended and bottled at Kilmarnock, only a short walk from John Walker’s shop and only a few miles from Todriggs Farm, where Johnnie himself was born.
Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One

Consent Preferences