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.