Sippin’ at Bell’s
An author, a bar, a blended whisky and a musician have a connection. Is this ringing a bell? And if so, which one? That depends in no small part on who answers the question. The whisky enthusiast will probably choose a dram, but the music lover may think of a famous jazz trumpet player and a bar. And the writer? Thoughts immediately drift to Ernest Hemingway — an avid fan of our beloved drink.
Let’s start with the acclaimed writer, who lived from 1899 to 1961. Hemingway’s life was turbulent, to say the least. Known as a daredevil, he endured several serious injuries, survived a plane crash and suffered from frequent depression. Whisky was one of the means he used as self-medication to fight his demons. These haunted him, among other things, from his time as a war reporter during various wars in Europe.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of his most famous books, is set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Published in 1940, the story is about an engineer officer who has been ordered to use republican guerrillas to blow up an old bridge near Segovia. To put it mildly, quite a lot of whisky is consumed while waiting and preparing for the action. In the first few months of its release, more than half a million copies were sold — enough to supply Hemingway with booze for a long time.
Incidentally, he wrote the book in a hotel in Cuba. In the more than 60 years of his life, Hemingway published numerous articles, short stories and a respectable number of books.
The jazz adept will most likely have different thoughts when reading the heading of this column. It’s the title of a bluesy jazz song written by none other than Miles Davis as a tribute to one of his favorite bars in Harlem, N.Y., back in the day. I’ve already written a few things about Miles in Whisky & Jazz, so here I will not elaborate on the inimitable phenomenon, but will leave it with that one, appropriate number. Beautiful versions can be found on YouTube, including one with Charlie Parker. Or maybe you prefer Chet Baker, which is also a great combination.
In either case, pour a dram of Bell’s before sitting down.
And then we automatically end up with the whisky brand. It has a long history that begins in 1840 with Arthur Bell of Perth, Scotland. Exactly a century before Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls Mr. Bell teamed up with the Thomas Sandeman company, who had been trading wine and spirits since 1825. Owner James Roy offered Bell a partnership in 1851, after which the company was renamed Roy & Bell. The former retired in 1862 and Arthur became sole owner.
After both his sons joined the company in 1889 and 1896, the company continued as Arthur Bell & Sons. Father died in 1900 and the brothers then strengthened their position in the whisky world, among other things through acquiring Leith No. 1 Excise Bond, a bottling plant that would remain in operation well into the 1960s. In 1933, a takeover of P. Mackenzie & Co. brought ownership of two distilleries: Blair Athol and Dufftown. Inchgower was to be added in 1936. Meanwhile, the Bells had a partner in the company, a certain W.G. Farquharson. When the Bells died in 1942, he took over the whole business and turned it into a public company in 1949. Then Pittyvaich was built in 1974 (in Dufftown) and Bladnoch was added to the portfolio in 1983.
Through a hostile takeover by Guinness in 1985, the entire company and all distilleries came into possession of Guinness, which would later merge with United Distillers. This conglomerate would eventually become part of the current Diageo, although Pittyvaich was closed in 1993 and demolished a few years later. Bladnoch was divested in 1994. The Bell’s brand name and its blend are still owned by Diageo, as are the Blair Athol, Dufftown and Inchgower distilleries. You can guess what’s in this blended Scotch, but it’s an open secret that Inchgower is Bell’s main ingredient — not least because of the large billboard gracing the road that passes directly in front of the distillery.
Arthur Bell was not only known for his whisky. He was very successful in campaigning for standardizing the contents of whisky bottles. The Zagatti collection contains beautiful old bottles and I couldn’t resist the temptation to include one in this column. Both the front and back are worth it.
The journalist George Plimpton once asked Hemingway what the function of his art [as a creative writer] was. His answer: “From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality.”
You could say that about whisky ...
The Whisky Couple