A long stride
By the Whisky Couple
A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s No. 1 Scotch Whisky
By Dr. Nicholas Morgan
Hardcover, 320 p.
Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2020
This year Scotland’s best-selling whisky worldwide celebrates its 200th anniversary and that does not go unnoticed — online as well as in print and, not unimportantly, in liquid form. Various commemorative bottlings have been released and there is one that your Whisky Couple selected to present — The 200 Years Exclusive Release, bottled at 51 percent ABV. It is a blended Scotch, rich and complex, inspired by the flavors found in the old stock books of the Walker family’s grocery store in the 1860s, composed from whiskies of distilleries that were in production around that time, as can be read on the beautiful packaging that encases this limited edition.
Then there is the book! This is a book that we would have loved to write ourselves, but someone beat us to it. And that someone is without a doubt the best-suited person to have accomplished this memorable task: His name is Dr Nicholas Morgan, head of Global Whisky Outreach at Diageo, which owns Johnnie Walker, as well as Guinness and Tanqueray gin (to name a few) and some 30-odd whisky distilleries worldwide. He was instrumental in setting up the extensive archives of Diageo, currently located in Menstrie, near Stirling, Scotland. Apart from that, Nick is a dear friend and the one responsible for the induction of Hans in the Keepers of the Quaich Society, back in 2016. So, we decided to dedicate our monthly column to write a review, instead of a whole book.
Whisky (history) neat
He had been given three years to complete this book, Nick assured us a year ago at the launch of our books on the Zagatti collection, (see our column in the Charleston Mercury of a year ago), where he was one of the keynote speakers. At the time he was still in the middle of research.
The author has delivered an academic work. There are quite a few numbers in the book and no fewer than 700 footnotes. Fortunately, he has neatly collected them all at the end of the book, so that the story’s momentum is not interrupted.
After the prologue there are 10 chapters:
Chapter 1 – Tea and Whisky: A grocery Shop in Kilmarnock
Chapter 2 – ‘A Great Gulf Stream of Toddy’
Chapter 3 – ‘Our Blend Cannot Be Beat’
Chapter 4 – Modern Times
Chapter 5 – The Triumph of Blended Scotch Whisky
Chapter 6 – The Birth of ‘Johnnie Walker’
Chapter 7 – The Scotch Whisky Triumvirate
Chapter 8 – Carry On
Chapter 9 – ‘Good Work, Good Whisky’
Chapter 10 – Time Marches On
Then an epilogue, a word of thanks, a list of illustrations, the 700 footnotes organized by chapter and a six-page index.
It is fascinating to read how blended whisky was born and how Walker as a company subsequently managed to hold its own between competitors such as Buchanan and Dewar’s, the publicity-hungry Victorian whisky barons, to name a few. The Walkers who successively ran the company preferred to stay out of the spotlight, eventually developing into philanthropists. They also put quality above cost and have always maintained that credo. The Pattison Crash, the Great Depression, Prohibition, World Wars and the Whisky Loch: Johnnie Walker survived them all and the brand steadily grew into what remains the best-selling whisky in the world today.
The development of blended whisky in general — and single malts in its wake — understandably runs like a thread through the story. When Johnnie Walker was taken over by the Distillers Company, Ltd. around 1925, various distilleries came with it, as would later happen to others, for example Bell's (see our column of November this year). Ultimately, through various mergers and acquisitions, the DCL would in 1995 become the group that we now know under the name Diageo. Nick Morgan smartly avoided the trap of getting bogged down in the DCL story, which in itself is an interesting and compelling read, managing to limit himself to Johnnie Walker. The author writes stylishly and pleasantly. We were captivated by the book and learned a great deal.
To stay objective, there is one downside. Unfortunately the publisher has provided a particularly cheap-looking paper type for the interior and the dimensions of the book do not do justice to various illustrations. The story, the brand and the author deserve better. Nonetheless, do buy this book — after all, it is a great read and a perfect Christmas gift, preferably combined with a certain alcoholic beverage. A big “Thank You” to Nick!
The Whisky Couple