Top of the class

Top of the class

Tom Bruce-Gardyne examines the life and times of the determined, self-made whisky pioneer William Teacher

People | 16 Jan 2003 | Issue 28 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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Of all the founding fathers of the Scotch whisky industry, there is something endearingly down-to-earth about William Teacher. In a photograph taken shortly before his death in 1876, he stands square-on to the camera, wrapped in a thick Astrakhan coat and hat, his eyes peeking out above a magnificent beard with a look of ferocious determination. In contrast to that strutting dandy, Johnnie Walker, with his cheeky grin and flapping tails, there was absolutely nothing frivolous about William Teacher.His story is a classic tale of rags to riches – the self-made man who seized his chance with both hands and never let go. With his father ‘lost at sea’, William joined his mother at a spinning mill near Glasgow aged seven, after just six months at the village school. A few years later, he became an apprentice to a local tailor, whose wife read to him while he stitched in the workroom. Though it proved to be a brief respite and he was soon back at the cotton mill, it gave him a glimpse of a better life.


Back on the shop floor, in a demonstration over pay and conditions, William discovered how brutal the bosses could be when they ordered the two ringleaders to be strung up. William escaped with a warning as he was under 18. The incident left a deep impression, and though he became one of the bosses himself rather than a hot-headed radical, he was a lifelong utilitarian and a man of cast-iron principles.His chance came when a Mrs McDonald needed a man to help in her grocery store in Anderston, then a village on the city’s outskirts, in around 1830. A few years later he married her daughter Agnes and was soon selling whisky alongside the teas and coffees sold in the shop. According to Bill Bergius, William’s great-great-grandson and now Brand Heritage Director at Teacher’s’ parent company, Allied Domecq, the system worked as follows. “People would have come in with a sample of whisky and said ‘can you match it?’ and you’d have a range of single whiskies to work from.” And having learned about vatting, these all being malts, it was but a short step to creating one’s own blend once the law changed in 1860.


By then, William had begun selling his whisky through his own chain of workingmen’s pubs that had grown to 18 by the time he died, making him the biggest licensee in Glasgow. “In the Teacher’s dram shops,” says Bill Bergius, “you got what you saw – a good quality whisky that was not adulterated with spirit from Spain or France.” Also, by being heavily branded, they were ahead of their time. They were all painted dark green, while the barmen, who were usually big, brawny Highlanders, had to follow a manual as closely as any modern manager at Macdonald’s. In other respects they were fairly idiosyncratic.For today’s corporate man, ‘maximising purchase at point of sale’ is a mantra to be repeated through life’s endless flow of meetings and probably in bed while asleep. This was clearly not the case for William Teacher. In a city founded on the tobacco trade, there was to be no smoking in his pubs. Nor was the buying of rounds permitted – every man had to pay for his own drink. This won approval from the temperance lobby and apparently from women who knew what happened when men got together in a pub, but it must have lost the business countless sales. And there was zero tolerance of anyone being the least bit ‘pished’, as they say in Scotland. Though the ban on smoking was dropped, the rules concerning ‘Tipsy Persons’ remained right till the end. In 1958, two years before the chain was finally sold, barmen were instructed: “never serve any person who is the slightest degree under the influence of liquor, either for consumption on the premises or for carrying out. If you are in any doubt, not being quite sure if he really is under the influence, you are to be on the safe side and refuse him. If a tipsy person forms part of a party, although the others may be perfectly sober, all are to be refused.”


The interior of the dram shops, judging from a 1950s photograph, was stark if spotlessly clean. Just imagine what William Teacher would think if he could see his home town now on a Friday night. Standing in the doorway of one of the city’s trendy bars in his Astrakhan coat he would see the flower of Glasgow’s youth, packed in like sardines and buzzing on a cocktail of rap music and sweetened vodka. There would be just time to register the lack of Teacher’s Highland Cream, before the shock sent him back to the grave.


As it was, William Teacher was killed by a grandfather clock, or rather the effort from trying to move it which burst a blood vessel in his brain at his home in Rhu on the Gareloch near Helensburgh. To safeguard his beloved dram shops he left a bequest of £5,000 to the city on the understanding that none of his licenses would be revoked. Two of his sons, Adam and William, were already in the business developing the blend and making the first tentative exports, with an initial shipment to New Zealand as early as 1878. Yet the pubs remained the cornerstone of the business for many years to come.According to Bill Bergius, a bottle with a Teacher’s label has been dated by experts to the 1870s, making it the world’s oldest surviving example of a branded bottle of Scotch. A short while earlier, Adam Teacher had set off with two ships on a swashbuckling adventure to the South Atlantic. Though he did make a few whisky contacts, his main purpose was to find guano. In the late 19th century, before the discovery of artificial fertilisers, whole fortunes were built on bird muck. So if the second ship had not sunk along with 400 bags of guano on the return voyage, the history of Teacher’s might have been very different.


From the outset, Teacher’s Highland Cream, which was registered as a brand in 1884, had the sweet Aberdeenshire malt of Glendronach at its heart. As sales grew through the dram shops and beyond, the family realised they needed a distillery of their own. The story goes that Adam Teacher spotted the perfect site for Ardmore from the window of the Aberdeen- Inverness train. “But quite honestly,” says Bill Bergius, “the family didn’t know that much about distilling and relied heavily on the Manager of Glendronach nearby.” Sadly, just before Ardmore’s completion in the summer of 1899, Adam Teacher died. Though he left over half a million pounds, the money was tied up in the business, which meant it took years to pay off the debts from building the distillery. With the entire Scotch whisky industry reeling from the Patterson crash, it was not a good time to be seriously in debt. But Teacher’s survived and remained an independent family firm unlike many that were gobbled up in the inter-war years by the big white whale of the drink’s trade – DCL.


For some, American Prohibition was a heaven-sent opportunity to break into the US market, but Teacher’s hesitated: “My grandfather was unwilling to do business with what he considered out-and-out criminals,” explains Bill Bergius. By 1923, a steady stream of Highland Cream began pouring into Vancouver and from there into Detroit. “We are doing good work in this illegal business,” wrote William Manera Bergius, who was Adam’s nephew and now Managing Director. “We are letting Americans have good Scotch whisky to drink in place of their own somewhat poisonous distillations, and we are bringing good American money into this impoverished country.” Meanwhile, down in London a photographer strolling through Brixton snapped a pair of mischievous looking urchins playing cricket. When the photograph appeared in the Sunday Pictorial in 1926, someone at Teacher’s spotted that one of the wickets was an empty bottle of Highland Cream. Thus was born the ‘Right Spirit’ campaign, for which the firm paid the boys’ mother £10 a year until she died in 1978, aged 92. Of course the adverts had long been dropped – by then the use of kids to sell booze would have landed you in big trouble. Inevitably, much of the advertising featured mortarboards, first with a teacher receiving a case of Highland Cream from grateful pupils, and later with a smouldering blonde, as in ‘Pick up a Teacher’.


There were some notable design innovations along the way. In 1913 Teacher’s pioneered the use of chill filtering and the cork stoppers now favoured by single malt producers. The brand was number one in the States in 1940, and in its biggest market, the UK, until it was overtaken by Bell’s and The Famous Grouse in the mid-’70s. The effects of 20 years without a UK price-rise and the burden of duty payments to the government soon pushed Teacher’s into the arms of Allied Distillers who decamped to Dumbarton in 1991. Whatever the changes – the loss of family control and the move out of Glasgow – the blend itself has stayed true to its roots and the memory of William Teacher.

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