Some would argue that a better title would be one where the word “Scotch” was deleted, but then we would no doubt get arguments from our American friends who believe that one or two of their own brands command equal recognition. And so, we will content ourselves in looking at the leading Scotch brand in the world, although its significance in the wider context of global whisky is clearly touched upon in this text.
Why has it taken so long for this important story to be told? The simple answer is that we have all been waiting for the estimable Dr Nicholas Morgan to move on from his other duties in order to be able to produce what is a thorough and enjoyable account of this world-renowned brand, because, frankly, no one else would’ve had the qualifications to take on such a task.
Individual company histories can sometimes be over detailed and become somewhat tedious and repetitive. Not so in this case and that is a reflection of the innovation, dedication and imagination of the early Walkers - and then their successors and in particular Sir James, later Baron, Stevenson - in driving home and capitalising on the germ of the Johnnie Walker magic as it first emerged in the somewhat pedestrian town of Kilmarnock in the south of Scotland.
The story of Johnnie Walker is very much the story of Scotch whisky itself particularly in terms of the blended product. Very often Walker was at the forefront of new developments in blending, packaging and marketing. Oddly enough, despite creating one of the most famous figures in advertising, i.e. the striding man, the Walkers were wary in the early years of throwing money at marketing and product promotion. However, once they realised that their emblem had become an icon not only in the United Kingdom but in overseas markets, the striding man was given full rein and has been a totem to unbridled commercial success for more than a century, which is quite an achievement in this world of constant change.
There is much to praise in this book. Some would find the approach somewhat scholarly, with all of the footnotes and references, but that is the sign of a carefully researched work. It is equally a good read and flows well enough to be a bedtime companion. Where I might take a little issue with the author is twofold: firstly, he passes over somewhat lightly the way that the present brand owners, Diageo, and their immediate predecessors, respectively, DCL and United Distillers, have “corporatised” the Johnnie Walker brand in a way that has downplayed some of their other equally distinguished products such as White Horse, Buchanan’s and Old Parr. Moreover, some commentary on all those other former secondary DCL brands which have disappeared, presumably as a result of centralising marketing efforts on Johnnie Walker, would also have been enlightening. One might hope that Dr Morgan has that in mind for a second volume as that would give much pleasure to whisky scholars and devotees of those brands alike!
And what of my own association with Johnnie Walker? I never touch Red Label nor Green Label (I prefer my malts to be single); Black Label is perfectly acceptable but just make sure it is the real thing in certain Asian markets; Gold Label is excellent value for money and I have a case of it in my whisky stock to call on when a blend is in order rather than a malt; Blue Label (originally Oldest) is for special occasions and special friends and I recall being much impressed when first introduced to it in a top Hong Kong night club by the owner whose premises had been selected as one of the venues to trial this new and exciting product away back in the early 1990s. No wonder I have enjoyed Nicholas Morgan’s book despite no mention of other JW expressions, some rather short-lived, such as Excelsior, Honour, Old Harmony and Quest. But, as I say, there is room for a second volume! Perhaps he might take on the task of writing the follow up volume to Professor Ronald Weir’s ‘The History of the Distillers Company, 1877-1939’.