The original Mrs doubtfire

The original Mrs doubtfire

A woman's touch has made Drambuie the force it is today, with a little bit of help form Bonnie Prince Charlei. Tom Bruce Gardyne sheds light on some legendary characters.

History | 16 Jun 2000 | Issue 10 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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Million dollar secret of the Cannie Wee Grannie by Herbert Kretzmer, blazed a 1961 headline in the US Sunday Dispatch. “ ... a little Scots grannie with snow-white hair and forget-me-not blue eyes .. [who] .. seems so frail, so wispy “.The interview took place up the Eiffel Tower and its subject was Gina MacKinnon who, for all Kretzmer’s gushing prose, refused to divulge him the secret of her millions, the recipe for
making Drambuie.Sales of the famous whisky liqueur were then booming and Mrs MacKinnon was reaping the rewards of years of flag-bearing for the family firm. It was thanks to her, and her late husband Malcolm, that Drambuie was truly propelled onto the world stage. But perhaps one should start with Bonnie Prince Charlie, indeed given the strength of the brand’s Jacobite connection, the ‘link with the ‘45’, it would be hard not to. On the 16 April, 1746, the battle of Culloden put a brutal end to Charles Edward Stewart’s attempt to regain the throne. Now all was lost and as the Duke of Cumberland’s dragoons bayoneted the wounded where they lay, Charles fled to the Western Isles. A reward of £30,000, an incredible £15 million in today’s money, was placed on his head. He was accompanied by a much diminished band of followers to be passed from one friendly local to the next as Cumberland’s men closed in and set fire to the homes of any suspected Jacobite. On the evening of the 2nd July with a Captain Malcolm Macleod, he landed on Skye’s Troternish peninsula and walked the 20 miles to Strathaird disguised as a servant girl. This was MacKinnon country which Macleod knew to be safe as the chief of the clan had led 120 men to join the Jacobite army the previous autumn. On the morning of 4th July they arrived at the house of Captain John MacKinnon of Elgol.It was decided that the safest course for Charles was to return to the mainland straight away. That night they crossed the sea to Morar and hid for a few days in the heather. At one point, in a boat on Loch Nevis, they ran into a party of Government militia and had to row for their lives while Charles lay hidden under a MacKinnon plaid. The plan had been to pass him to the family of Clanranald, but they refused, wishing merely to be rid of the Prince and the government persecution he brought with him. It was a moment of deep despair when all around seemed to be deserting the Prince in his hour of need. Captain MacKinnon and his chief swore their allegiance and that they would follow ‘His Royal Highness’ to the ends of the world, the latter with tears streaming down his face. On the morning of the 11th, the Captain safely delivered Charles to Borrodale to continue his flight, and in gratitude he handed MacKinnon the secret of Drambuie.The thought of Bonnie Prince Charlie reaching for his recipe book may seem a little bizarre. Even the early adverts during World War One tended to refer to a ‘follower of the Prince’ rather than the Prince himself. Yet he did like to bestow gifts, often a lock of his hair, and he had a hearty appetite for spirits which was to be his undoing in exile. It is known that the French court at Versailles was by then importing whisky for compounding into Rissoly by adding rose, jasmine, lily, cinnamon, orange-blossom and cloves. Up in the Highlands meanwhile, there was no tradition of maturing whisky – what was made today was drunk tomorrow. The result would have resembled the roughest poitin far more than any malt we would know today. No wonder there was a wish to dampen the fire by adding herbs and honey.And what with this being the wettest corner of Skye where colds, rheumatism and nervous fevers were rife, it would have made an excellent hot toddy when mixed with boiling water – still the best cure for ‘flu. So whether it was the Prince who gave MacKinnon the recipe or the other way round who can say.Given the intense romanticism of Jacobite history, telling fact from fiction is never easy, but the origins of Drambuie make a good story nonetheless. If there is any fault in all this it lies with some of the early advertising which at times tended to set the story in stone. As the current generation of MacKinnons would doubtless acknowledge, the publicity machine may have run away with itself on occasion. What seems clear is that the ‘secret’ was a fairly open one, known to several branches of the Mackinnon family and later served at the neighbouring Broadford Inn by John Ross who was given a copy of the recipe by a Mackinnon of Kilbride. It may have been here that someone first raised a glass and declared ‘An Dram Buidheach’, Gaelic for the ‘drink that satisfies’, or else the name refers to its golden colour. Either way Drambuie was born, and in 1893 it was registered as a trade mark by John Ross’s son James.By this stage the descendants of Captain John Mackinnon were farmers in Glenmore and Glen Varrigill on Skye. In 1900 Malcolm, the seventh child of John and Marion Mackinnon, decided to leave the island for Edinburgh and found work with W MacBeth & Co, a wholesale whisky merchant on Union Street. Two years later James Ross died and his widow Eleanor moved to Edinburgh to be close to her children. The two Skye families became friends in a strange city and it was apparently at Eleanor’s house that Malcolm first met the redoubtable Georgina Davidson – the snow-white grannie we met at the start. In 1909, Malcolm, by now a joint partner at MacBeth’s, suggested the company start producing Drambuie commercially for the first time.Undeterred by negligible sales – just 12 cases in the first year – MacBeth & Co offered to buy the trademark from the Ross family in 1912. The events led to certain ructions, with Eleanor’s descendants accusing the Mackinnons of being a family in denial who have air-brushed the Rosses out of history. Whether or not the Mackinnons should have acknowledged who first trademarked the brand is one thing, but in terms of who took Drambuie from Skye and spread it around the world there seems little doubt. Until around 1910 the drink does not appear on any wine and spirit wholesale list, no earlier bottles have been found and there is no reference to any excise duty ever being paid.Just before the outbreak of World War One, Malcolm became sole proprietor of MacBeth & Co, and established the Drambuie Liqueur Company as a separate entity. The new company was to promote and sell Drambuie and began placing adverts in the press establishing the bond with Bonnie Prince Charlie. A year later Malcolm married Gina who was eventually to become Drambuie’s chairman and brand ambassador extraordinaire. While the male Mackinnons have tended to shun the limelight, Gina had no such reticence. From early on she realised that given a brand with such intimate family connections it was up to the family to promote it.The war gave Drambuie a much needed boost. There was the fact that liqueur production in occupied France and Holland was severely restricted, and there was Drambuie’s growing popularity among the Scottish regiments abroad. While it became part of the officer’s mess on the front, one hundred bottles were ordered by the House of Lords who declared it “of excellent quality and much appreciated”. Production was stepped up and by Christmas 1919 an advertising campaign was in full swing in the major broadsheets and magazines. Apart from the heavy Jacobite slant, the copywriters claimed it a ‘Favourite of the Great West Highland Families for 170 years’. Below was a sketch of a butler poised by the dining-room door bearing a tray with the famous squat bottle. This dinner-party theme, the idea that the meal just wouldn’t be complete without that sweet, rich, heathery taste runs right through the advertising to this day. Television advertisements in the 1970s featured Robert Hardy and then the even smoother Robert Powell who demands Drambuie on ice for his Venetian guests.No rootling about in the freezer for Powell however. Instead we see Ski Extreme champion Vaila MacDonald, hurtle down the mountain with a chunk of Alpine glacier to be delivered by Ferrari and Drambuie’s record-breaking power-boat. Only of course the ice-bucket shatters and so we begin again.Back in the late 1920s, despite American Prohibition, Drambuie was doing well enough for the Mackinnons to buy Hillwood House, a grand, somewhat baronial, town-house on the summit of Edinburgh’s Corstorphine hill. With or without Prohibition, the Americans had clearly gained a taste for Drambuie, and once it was lifted sales soared. Then came the war and once again the brand prospered, achieving record shipments of 22,000 cases in 1941. As those famously ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ US troops arrived, Malcolm MacKinnon was on hand to supply their UK bases with as much Drambuie as GI Joe could drink. After Malcolm’s death, Hillwood House was sold and Gina and her brother, who had been a board director since the late 1920s, took over the running of the company. It was decided to move production to a purpose-built site on Edinburgh’s Easter Road and establish a new head office at 12 York Place. To build the brand in the US a fresh approach was needed in Drambuie’s advertising, as one couldn’t rely on any real loyalty or even understanding of the Jacobite cause. Step forward an engaging pair of bug-eyed cartoon characters invariably clad in black-tie, whether dining among the Eskimos or lost in the jungle. “No matter where you are,” declared the strap-line, “after dinner there’s nothing like a dram* of Drambuie”. The asterisk rather sweetly explains what a dram is.It was a big success and helped boost American sales to over 68,000 cases in 1959, well over a third of the worldwide total. By now Gina’s son Norman was managing director and Drambuie was selling more per month than it had sold in any year up until 1947. Newspaper clippings
of the time reveal this was the age of Gina MacKinnon’s great American tours, serenaded by her two private pipers wherever she went. According to one account in the News of the World; when not on her 500 acre estate of The Craigs near Linlithgow, she could be found at her suite in the Dorchester or at the Sherry Netherland in New York. And when not tending her pedigree herd of Jersey cows she would ascend the stairs of her 300-year old mansion to a private laboratory in one of the turrets and every day mix her magic potion. Remember this was the woman who married the man from MacBeth’s!

The tales were legendary – of how she would tour the countryside in her Bentley gathering wild herbs, of how the potent phials of elixir were ferried to Edinburgh by her chauffeur, and how the secret recipe was locked in a Bank of Scotland vault. Flicking through contemporary photos you wonder if it ever went to her head what with her Queen Mum hat, tartan plaid and pipers by her side. On second thoughts, I think she knew exactly what she was doing. Gina died in 1972 and Drambuie is now run by her grandsons, Duncan and Malcolm, whose wife Pamela now holds the secret recipe that has always passed through the female line. The company have become generous sponsors of the arts and of sport, especially power-boat racing.They have built up an important collection of Scottish paintings and Jacobite glass, and recently bought back Hillwood House to be the company HQ. But something’s missing, the larger than life figure of Gina MacKinnon – the original
Mrs Doubtfire.
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