Bottled in Bond, part 2 of 4: The Walking Man

Johnnie Walker is the drink of choice for conniving screen villains — and heroes — boasts an almost incomprehensible pedigree, thanks primarily to its popularity in the prolific film industry of India. I think it’s safe to say that Johnnie Walker has appeared in more Bollywood films than any other actor. So prolific is its career in Indian cinema that one of Bollywood’s most famous comedic actors took his name from the whisky. To count the number of villains who have sipped Johnnie Walker while relaxing in their lair, plotting the overthrow of some government or other, is an impossible task. Everyone from Dev Anand to Amitabh Bachchan has celebrated victory or tried to drown defeat by hitting the Red or Black Label, and pretty much every Bollywood action hero has had it offered to them by a sneering villain or seductive femme fatale. The seductive “dancing while displaying a bottle of whisky” routine that appears in so many Bollywood movies has resulted in a bottle of Johnnie Walker likely being popular dancer Helen’s most frequent on-screen partner.

Johnnie Walker started out as an experiment conducted by Kilmarnock farmer turned grocer John Walker, whose specialty was blending tea leaves. He eventually decided that, although tea leaves are nothing like whisky, the experience could apply to making the harsh spirits commonly thought of as whisky into something more drinkable. And so he began mixing single malts together, then further blended them with cheaper, less abrasive grain whisky to create his store brand. It was a modest success but hardly a global juggernaut — at least until 1857, when Walker’s son took over the business after the passing of his father. Alexander Walker was substantially more ambitious with the whisky brand. He was the man who established the brand’s identity with the slightly askew black and gold label. He was also the one who came up with the square bottle, a design decision that not only reduced breakage but also allowed a retailer to fit more bottles onto a shelf. Alexander Walker’s three sons took over the business from him in 1889, and then the push began in earnest as the era of marketing was upon us.

In 1909, George Walker hired a cartoonist named Tom Browne to create a logo for the brand. Browne used a likeness of John Walker sporting a top hat, waistcoat and high boots — the now iconic Walking Man. Around the same time, Alexander Walker Jr. was greatly expanding and improving the product portfolio. By 1906, the John Walker & Sons whisky company offered three blends: the basic blend with a white label; Extra Special Old Highland with a red label; and Walkers Old Highland Whisky, 12 years old with a black label (in a blended whisky, age statements reflect not the average age of the single malts put into it, but rather must be the age of the youngest whisky in the blend). In 1909, the three brand names were simplified: White Label, Red Label, and Black Label.

Through a combination of canny, aggressive advertising and quality product, Johnnie Walker became one of the pre-eminent global brands. In 1925, when a lot of consolidation was happening and businesses were reeling from American Prohibition, the company merged with Distillers Co. Ltd, an arrangement that stayed in place until they became part of Guinness in 1986. In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo — the whisky world’s number one Blofeld-esque supervillain. Diageo’s stewardship of Johnnie Walker has been fraught with controversy, as are most things involving Diageo. The global beverage mega-corporation shuttered the facility in Kilmarnock, causing substantial economic strife in a small town who’s number one industry was Johnnie Walker. Accusations of a substantial drop in quality plagued the brand as well, though whether these are true or simply a symptom of the intense dislike engendered in so many people by Diageo and its business practices is a matter that will never be settled. Suffice it to say that there’s a pretty good chance the entire town of Kilmarnock found itself dangling over a crocodile pit while Diageo offered it a tumbler of Johnnie Walker and explained its dastardly plan to close the plant (citation needed).

Bollywood’s relationship with whisky in general and Johnnie Walker in particular, is also contentious and often contradictory. India consumes more Johnnie Walker than anywhere else in the world, and their fondness for it is what makes it the most popular whisky in the world. In fact, Johnnie is so popular in India that there are years when Indian consumers purchase more Johnnie Walker than is actually made. Counterfeiting Johnnie Walker is a booming business that India is only just now beginning to get under control, a fact that has led to a seemingly endless economic and legal battle between India and the Scotch Whisky Association — the body tasked with enforcing a variety of trade agreements and copyright issues.

In the movies, Johnnie Walker represents the schizophrenia often inherent in judging the perceived vices of others. Out of one side of the mouth, Indian cinema frames alcohol as a demon stalking virtue and traditional Indian goodness — Johnnie Walker, more times than not, is the drink of the evil or a crutch for the weak. Out of the other side of its mouth, of course, the whisky and whisky consumption is heralded as a symbol that you (and India) made it, that you have attained a better standard in life. Of course, that message of Johnnie Walker equating to a more sophisticated status is often undercut by the need to pander both to the urbane city dweller and the more suspicious traditionalists who see such advancement as horrifying and immoral. Ultimately, the morality expressed by most Indian cinema is the same as the one espoused by the cinema of most other countries: buy a ticket. So Johnnie Walker remains both hero and villain, success and failure. Whatever the case, you’re going to be seeing a lot of it. When the villain swivels around to offer you a pour from his bottle of Johnnie Black, sneer at him and say, “I prefer Green Label. But then, it’s less common so perhaps you’ve not familiar with it.” You may still get strapped to the nose of a nuclear missile targeting Moscow so as to spark a world war, but at least you’ll die with the satisfaction of knowing you got a minor whisky-related leg up on the megalomaniacal super villain who tied you to the rocket in the first place.

The Felix Leiter of Whiskies

Ironically, the most recognizable scotch in the world never makes an appearance in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Fleming himself, when he wasn’t downing a pint of gin or whatever, preferred bourbon because he thought it was healthier (he also thought Miller High Life was the greatest beer in the world). But as mentioned, while James Bond might have reflected Fleming’s taste for the American spirit, and while Johnnie Walker may be conspicuous by its absence, there’s no shortage of scotch consumed in the Bond books, most of it by Bond’s number one sidekick, Felix Leiter. And there’s nothing Leiter likes more than Haig & Haig on the rocks.

don’t think any brand is mentioned by name and consumed quite so often as Haig & Haig — which is known these days as Pinch and instantly recognizable thanks to the odd-shaped bottle enclosed in a thin web. Haig & Haig, or Pinch — or Dimple, as it’s known everywhere but the United States — has a storied past as one of the very first recorded examples of a whiskey distilling company, when farmer Robert Haig was summoned before church elders in 1655 to answer for the crime of operating his still on the Sabbath. Blue laws, you know. Haig& Haig itself, however, came into existence 1824, when one of the blasphemous farmer’s descendants, John Haig, opened a distillery in Cameronbridge, Scotland. In 1870, John’s son, John, became the first Haig to go into scotch blending. One of his best creations was Pinch, which was introduced to the market sometime in the 1890s. Haig and Haig was eventually absorbed into the conglomerate United Distillers and Vintner, and later became part of multi-national beverage leviathan Diageo, which still markets Pinch.

Massive quantities of the stuff, still referred to at the time as Haig & Haig (that portion of the name was eventually dropped) are consumed in the Bond novels. Felix Leiter has two Haig and Haigs on the rocks in Casino Royale. In Live and Let Die, both Bond and Leiter drink it in Harlem, and then share a bottle when they’re in Florida. Bond also drinks the scotch by himself while wasting time in his hotel room in New York. In Moonraker, Bond finds a half a bottle of Haig & Haig in the villain’s desk and drains it with Gala Brandt. You know, to prepare for the harrowing life-or-death mission ahead. The Dimple also makes appearances in Goldfinger, the short story The Living Daylights, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where Marc-Ange Draco drinks Pinch when he first meets 007. As Draco seems to be one of the Bond associates for whom Fleming had the most affection (note his “warm, dry handshake” — a sure sign of trustworthiness in any Bond novel), having him prefer Pinch is a glowing endorsement.

Scotties and Westies

Bond also proves fond of another classic malt — Black and White, a blended scotch whiskey that traces its beginnings to the 1880s. It was an offshoot of London-based whiskey makers James Buchanan and Company’s Buchanan Blend and was originally known as House of Commons. Buchanan was actually born in Canada, lived in Scotland, and was raised in Northern Ireland. He got into the whiskey business largely as a result of his brother’s grain company, and after picking up experience, became a London agent for whiskey blenders Charles Mackinlay & Co. He set up his own company, acquiring casks of whiskey for clients, five years later but soon noted that the bulk of the product available on the market did not appeal to the London palette. So he set out to create a blend that would find purchase among the denizens of the big city.

The result was House of Commons, taking its name from the fact that one of Buchanan’s biggest clients for the spirit were London music halls belonging to the United Music Halls Co. and the British House of Commons political body. However, the distinctive packaging — a black bottle with a white label depicting a black Scottish Terrier and white Westhighland Terrier — eventually became so recognizable that the whiskey changed its name to Black and White. Buchanan pushed Black and White into other markets — specifically in France, Germany, Canada, The United States, New Zealand and South Africa. He established satellite offices in Paris, New York, Hamburg and Buenos Aires. He used the money from his success to purchase several Scottish distilleries, including the lowland distillery Bankier and the highland distillery Convalmore. He built his own distillery, Glentauchers, at Mullben in 1898 and later acquired the Campbeltown Distillery Lochruan.

Unfortunately, Buchanan — like many distillers — ran into hard times when the American folly known as Prohibition went into effect. The turn of the century already saw the industry in turmoil, with many distilleries folding. Distillers in the UK began forming coalitions. Chief among these was the Distillers Company, Ltd. Buchanan and some associates formed their own Scotch Whisky Brands, Ltd. in 1915. When, on top of that, such a significant market for their wares suddenly dried up thanks to a gang of unruly teetotalers across the Atlantic, things got really dire. Buchanan’s coalition changed its name in 1919 to Buchanan-Dewar’s after a merger. Eventually, the Buchanan portion of the equation was dropped, and Dewar’s became part of the DCL family. Black and White changed hands a couple more times, passing for a time to Guinness before finding its way to its current home under the globe-encompassing umbrella of spirits megalith Diageo, which I hear is actually controlled by SPECTRE mastermind Ernst Stavros Blofeld (citation needed).

Bond drinks his first Black and White in the novel Moonraker, when he stops in at a Dover pub called World Without Want to investigate the murder of a Ministry of Supply security officer. He also enjoys a Black and White in the movies, when in Dr. No he, Leiter, and Quarrel are enjoying a post-dinner round right before they confront a mysterious female photographer trying to snap their pictures. Speaking of mysterious women…at one point, no less an icon than Jane Birkin recorded a promotional song for Black & White.

 

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