A Primer on Blended Scotch Whisky and 007’s Favorite Labels
It was a good plan. You managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain a madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target. But then his right-hand-man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you found yourself tied down in front of a villain sitting in an egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow-moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain to you his nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be blended scotch whisky.
For the villains of old spy and Bollywood thrillers, no secret lair or fortified chateau was complete without a hidden panel that slid open to reveal a silver serving tray, two rocks glasses, and a bottle of whisky. They drink it to celebrate. They offer it to the captured hero to gloat. They drink it again when their nefarious schemes begin to crumble around them. It’s near universal. Italy, Germany, India, Turkey, the United States—it doesn’t matter where you are. If you are a megalomaniac bent on world destruction or just a common thug who is sick and tired of Maurizio Merli slapping you around, chances are your drink of choice is scotch. You’re not going to catch Blofeld toasting the demise of James Bond with a wine cooler, and you’d never catch Bond wooing a sultry woman by ordering a Fuzzy Navel. Those drinks have their place, but that place is not a secret lair inside a volcano.
James Bond, one of global culture’s most recognized imbibers, drinks no fewer than 317 drinks throughout the series of books authored by Ian Fleming. Most of those are whiskey or whiskey cocktails, with Bond favoring bourbon over scotch. It’s not random that Bond champions the American spirit; he likes to tweak his nose at his country of origin from time to time. Ian Fleming famously switched from gin to bourbon because his doctor told him it was better for his health. But scotch need not worry. Bond’s number one drinking buddy, American CIA agent Felix Leiter, has only two functions in the novels: to slap his forehead and exclaim, “James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” and to order Haig & Haig on the rocks.
Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from grains and water, with yeast added to activate fermentation. Scotch, simply enough, is whisky made in Scotland. Like champagne is to a specific type of sparkling wine from a specific region in France, so is “scotch” a legally defined and pugnaciously protected term. It has to be whisky, and it has to be from Scotland. There are other rules, but those are the basics. Within the sub-category of scotch, there are subdivisions, but the most important for now are single malt and blended scotch. A single malt is a whisky that comes from one distillery and is made from 100% malted barley. It does not have to be from a single batch distilled at the same time; just from the same distillery. For years, single malt was a niche product, but during the scotch revival of the 2000s, that changed.
Even with that change, blended scotch still makes up the bulk of the scotch that is made and consumed. Blended scotch combines a number of single malts in pursuit of a particular profile. These malts can come from any distillery, as long as it’s in Scotland. This blend is then further blended “neutral grain spirit”—something close to vodka, produced inexpensively and in large quantities. Traditionally, when people referred to scotch, they were referring to a blend, and when someone is asked to name a scotch brand, chances are that if they don’t say “Jack Daniels,” they’ll probably name a blended scotch: Johnnie Walker, most likely.
In a blend, the neutral spirit generally makes up the bulk of what you’re drinking. The higher the price, most times, the higher the amount of single malt in the blend, or the older the single malts. If you are going to put an age on the whisky, for single malts it is the duration between when it goes into a barrel and when it goes into a bottle. Whisky does not age once bottled. A ten-year-old whiskey from 1940 is still a ten-year-old whiskey. On a blend, if it carries an age statement, the age is of the youngest whiskey present. So if you combine a 50-year-old scotch and a four-year-old scotch, you have a four-year-old blend.
Because most single malts, despite the market for them on their own, are still sold to professional blenders (in fact, quite a few single malts will never be tasted by consumers, as 100% of the output is allocated for blending), and because less actual “whisky” goes into them, blends are less expensive and, thus more popular. Some are great, some are good, and some are terrible, but master blenders have been at this game for a long time now, and in a competitive market like whisky, few producers manage for very long with an inferior product.
If you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of scotch, or if you are looking for a gift for an old-timer, blends are almost always the best bet. Master blenders work hard and have passed knowledge down for decades about creating appealing, enjoyable, and above all, consistent blends. Single malts, lacking the cheaper-to-make neutral grain spirit, are usually more expensive and have traditionally been less popular. However, among whisky connoisseurs, single malts enjoy much greater popularity, even if master blenders will joke that drinking a single malt is like eating the ingredients of a cake instead of combining them to make a cake.
Of War and Whisky, Monks and Malts
Trying to pinpoint the “first” whisky is a fun but pointless endeavor. By the time people get around to writing something down, it’s been around for ages. For the sake of verifiable facts, however, let’s begin in 1494, which is the first known recorded appearance of whisky in Scotland. “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” With that entry into the Scottish Exchequer Rolls, whisky revealed its existence. But of course, that was just for the tax man. It had been around longer.
According to whisky lore, distillation came to Scotland by way of Ireland and is likely traced back to North Africa. St. Patrick, it is said, introduced distilling to Ireland in the fifth century, and the Dalriadic Scots took the process with them when they migrated to Scotland. St. Patty himself apparently learned the process from people in France and Spain, where distillation was used to create perfume and later used on grapes to create brandy. In areas where there were no grapes, and thus no wine-making, distillation of “mashes” made with an assortment of grain was adopted. The official use for this concoction, of course, was medicinal. Things that make you tipsy have a long history of being “medicinal.” Surprisingly, it was sometimes even true. Scientists figured out that the presence of certain antibiotics, which would not be discovered by medicine for thousands of years, in Egyptians mummies was because they occurred naturally in the beer Egyptians consumed.
The medieval version of whisky—the water of life, aqua vitae, or usquebaugh in Gaelic, sometimes shortened to usky and later…well, you can figure it out—was raw stuff that had more in common with backwoods moonshine that modern scotch. Distillation was primitive. The recipe and process varied from one maker to the next. Aging it in a barrel was basically non-existent. It was a local drink, growing in popularity but with no sort of agreed-upon definition or production method. A modicum of organization was introduced in 1505 when King James IV of Scotland granted the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh sole rights to make and sell usquebaugh in the capital. Whisky’s popularity continued to grow during the 1500s. The quality of spirit improved. Advances in still design and distillation produced spirits considerably less harsh than the early whiskies. And then there were the monks.
At the end of the 1400s, Europe and Britain were in a hopeless tangle of treaties that seemed designed to guarantee rather than prevent war. The first to go at each other were Italy and France, in what would become known as The Italian Wars. If there’s one thing England loved, it was going to war with France, so England allied itself with Italy. James IV of Scotland, however, had a binding treaty with France. In 1295, Scotsman John Balliol and Philip IV of France agreed that one country would always help the other if attacked by England. This agreement, known as The Auld Alliance, was renewed from time to time with little consequence, until eventually French monarch Louis XII called in the favor. As England came into the war on the side of Italy, Scotland was obliged by the Auld Alliance to invade England in support of France.
Italy—which is to say, Pope Leo X—was most displeased with Scotland and threatened the Scottish monarch with censure. England’s King Henry VIII decided that if the Pope was mad at James IV, Henry (himself not exactly a fan of popes, but whatever) might as well declare himself overlord of Scotland. He felt justified in doing this since, in 1502, England and Scotland had signed a non-aggression pact. By fulfilling Scotland’s old treaty with France, James IV was violating the newer one with England. James IV defied both king and pope, carrying out raids and sending Scottish sailors to reinforce the French navy. The war between the two neighbors came to a head in 1513, when James IV led a host of 30,000 Scots into battle against the English. the Battle of Flodden, sometimes known as the Battle of Branxton since that’s actually where it took place, went poorly for the Scots. James IV himself led the army and paid the ultimate price, falling in battle and effectively ending Scotland’s involvement in what was now being called War of the League of Cambrai.
Things settled down, but not for long. Henry VIII’s support of Italy in the wars had less to do with England’s love of the Pope and more to do with their hatred of France. The Reformation, which among other things sought to combat the vast wealth of the Church and the terrible poverty of its followers, was gaining steam throughout Europe, and Rome was scrambling to curtail the damage. In distant England, Henry VIII was pushing through a series of reforms to the Church of England that better reflected the mood of the population—and also happened to make it easier for the crown to confiscate wealth from the Church (and get a divorce). In 1534, Henry issued the first Act of Supremacy, naming the Crown, rather than the Pope, supreme head of the Church of England.
Among the things Henry did as the Church of England extracted itself from the Roman Catholic Church was begin the dissolution of monasteries. Monks were the original distillers. What else are a bunch of dudes living together going to do with their time? You can only chant so much. When Henry declared the monasteries to be no more, suddenly a lot of monks were out of a job. Forced to make it in the outside world, many fell back on their distilling skills, resulting in an influx of knowledgeable experts to the world of whisky-making and substantial advancement in the art and science of distilling. Whisky making continued to thrive and evolve in a loose and wild style, with the occasional violent conflict over taxation, until 1823 when the Excise Act essentially laid the foundations for the modern whisky industry. At that time, whisky was still a pretty rough spirit. The knowledge of the monks advanced the process substantially, but that’s “advanced” by the standards of the 16th century. It remained largely a provincial indulgence sold locally by grocers—grocers who had surnames like Walker, Dewar, Ballantine, and Chivas.
Blend in the Wind
In 1831, an inventor by the name of Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey, or Patent, still, sometimes also called a continuous or column still because why let something have one name when it can have like half a dozen? Traditionally, whisky had been made in a pot still consisting of a rotund “pot” with a neck where condensation takes place. In a pot still, you could only distill one batch of whisky at a time. Then you had to drain it, clean it, and pour in the next batch. By contrast, the Coffey still ran liquid through a long column that enabled distillers to ply their craft in a continuous flow. The only time you had to stop distilling was when you needed to clean the still or your workers went on holiday.
The invention of the column still also led to the production of “grain whisky.” But isn’t all whisky “grain” whisky, what with the legal definition of whisky being that it has to be made from grains? Well yes, but the designation of something as “grain” whisky at the time meant that it is made with, well, pretty much any grain other than barley. It is more accurate to call them “neutral” grain spirits, as the goal eventually became to produce a mostly-flavorless spirit, which generally occurs because it is distilled at a higher proof. Not everything that comes off a column still is a neutral grain spirit. Many bourbons, for example, are produced using column stills, and many grain spirits are rich in flavor because they are distilled at a lower proof and then aged. So, a little fuzzy sure, but if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the history and laws of booze are fuzzy.
Grain whisky off those early column stills had an altogether different taste than the rustic pot still whisky being cooked up by Scottish hillbillies. But that hillbilly stuff, well, it had it’s good points, too. A man named Andrew Usher wondered what might happen if you took that big, beastly pot still whisky and blended it with the more refined , delicate column still whisky. What might happen, it turns out, is you might create the biggest whisky market in the world. Since then, “blended” scotch has dominated the market. Up until very recently, it was pretty much all any whisky drinker consumed. Single malts were a statistically non-existent sliver of the market. As far as most people were concerned, single malts were nothing more than the raw ingredients that went into making true scotch; that is to say, blended scotch.
Yet, as mentioned, many hardcore whisky aficionados have changed their tune, trumpeting single malts as the true expression of a whisky while blends are diluted and “dumbed down” for the masses. Go to any reputable whisky shop these days and you will almost certainly see the bulk of the shelves taken up with an array of single malt scotches—Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and so forth—while the blends are relegated to the bottom shelf. This arrangement does not reflect the reality of the market as a whole, however, even if it may reflect the focus of people at that particular specialty shop. First of all, anyone who thinks a single malt is superior to a blend purely by virtue of being a single malt is a person whose opinion should not be trusted in any matter of import. There are fantastic, complex single malts. There are also dumb, simple, one-note single malts. There’s everything in between as well. The same is true of blends. There are blended scotches that can easily go toe-to-toe with the best single malt has to offer. There are also blends that are terrible, and the whole range in between.
The heavy weighting of a specialty shop’s whisky selection toward single malts also doesn’t reflect the simple economics of the industry. Over 90% of the single malt produced is used to make blends. There would be no single malt market if not for the demands of blended scotch. The world over, blends are still overwhelmingly what people drink. Chances are when ordering your first whisky, you probably ordered a blend. Those are the brands everyone knows. If your grandfather drank scotch, he almost certainly drank a blend (your dad didn’t drink scotch, at least not when he was your age; he drank beer and smoked weed). Recently, that wave of single malt snobs has come back around to the blends they once dismissed. Boutique whisky makers started making blends glamorous again. The over-inflation of single malt prices as they gear themselves more toward ultra-mega-billionaire investors and portfolio managers rather than drinkers also meant that people with less money to spend started eying blends. What they discovered was that a lot of these blends are good.
Going for a Walk
When you talk blends, especially blends favored by movie villains, there is no more obvious a place to start than Johnnie Walker, the drink of choice for screen villains and heroes alike. Johnnie Walker boasts an almost incomprehensible cinematic pedigree, thanks to its popularity, along with VAT 69, in the prolific film industry of India. Johnnie Walker has appeared in more Bollywood films than any other actor, including Johnnie Walker, a comedic actor who changed his name to reflect the popularity of, well, Johnnie Walker.
To count the number of villains who have sipped Johnnie Walker while relaxing in their lair, plotting the overthrow of the government, is an impossible task. Everyone from Dev Anand to Amitabh Bachchan to Dharmendra has celebrated victory or drowned defeat with Red or Black Label. Pretty much every Bollywood hero has had it offered to him by a sneering villain or femme fatale. The “dancing while displaying a bottle of whisky” routine that appears in so many Bollywood movies has resulted in Johnnie Walker Red likely being popular dancer Helen’s most frequent on-screen partner.
Johnnie Walker started as an experiment conducted by Kilmarnock farmer-turned-grocer John Walker, whose specialty was blending tea leaves. He figured that, although tea leaves were nothing like whisky, the experience could apply to making the harsh spirits commonly thought of as whisky into something more palatable. He began mixing malts together, then blended them with less abrasive grain whisky to create his signature store brand. It was a modest success but hardly a global juggernaut—at least until 1857, when Walker’s son took over the business. Alexander Walker was ambitious. He was the one who created the brand’s unique identity with the slightly askew black and gold label. He was the one who came up with the square bottle, a design that reduced breakage during shipping and also enabled retailers to fit more onto a shelf.
Alexander Walker’s three sons took over the business in 1889. Alexander Walker Jr. expanded and improved 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 and sporting a black label. In 1909, the three brand names were simplified: White Label, Red Label, and Black Label. In 1909, George Walker hired cartoonist Tom Browne to create a logo for the brand. Browne created a likeness of John Walker sporting a top hat, waistcoat and high boots—the iconic Walking Man.
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 experimentation with Prohibition, Johnnie Walker 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 dislike engendered in so many people by Diageo and its business practices is a matter of debate. 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 movies, Johnnie Walker represents the schizophrenia 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, whisky is heralded as a symbol that you (and India) made it, that you have attained a better standard in life. 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 ruin. Whatever the case, you’ll see 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, but at least you’ll die with the satisfaction of knowing you got a minor whisky-related leg up on the megalomaniac super villain.
Bond In a Pinch
Ironically, the most recognizable scotch in the world never makes an appearance in Ian Fleming’s 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.
Perhaps no other brand is mentioned by name and consumed quite so often as Haig & Haig, 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—was one of the first-recorded whiskey distilling companies. Well, in a manner of speaking. It got on the books 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 proper 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, introduced sometime in the 1890s. Like many scotches, Haig & Haig was eventually absorbed into the conglomerate United Distillers and Vintner, and later became part of beverage leviathan Diageo.
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 & Haigs on the rocks in Casino Royale. In fact, it shares space with perhaps the single most quoted drinks order in James Bond history, short of “vodka Martini…shaken, not stirred.”
Bond insisted ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman. “A Dry Martini”, he said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet…Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?” That’s Haig & Haig, rubbing shoulders with the cocktail soon to be known as the Vesper.
In Live and Let Die, Bond and Leiter drink it in Harlem and share a bottle when they’re in Florida. Bond also drinks Haig & Haig 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 meets 007. Draco is 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), so having him prefer Pinch is a glowing endorsement.
Bond in Black and White
Bond also proves fond of Black & 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 through 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 five years later, acquiring casks of whiskey for private clients.
He soon noticed that the bulk of the product available on the market did not appeal to the London palette. He set out to create a blend that would find purchase among the denizens of the big city. The result was House of Commons, deriving its name from one of Buchanan’s biggest booze clients, the British House of Commons. However, the distinctive packaging—a black bottle with a white label depicting a Scottish Terrier and white Westhighland Terrier—eventually became so recognizable that the whiskey changed its name to Black & White.
Buchanan pushed Black & White into other markets: 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.
Buchanan, like many distillers, ran into hard times because of Prohibition. The industry was already in turmoil. Many distilleries were going out of business, so distillers began forming coalitions. Chief among these was the Distillers Company, Ltd. (DCL). Buchanan and some associates formed their own Scotch Whisky Brands, Ltd. in 1915. When, on top of that, Prohibition began across the Atlantic, things got dire. After a merger in 1919, Buchanan’s coalition changed its name to Buchanan-Dewar’s. Eventually, “Buchanan” was dropped. Dewar’s became part of the DCL family. Black & 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 it turns out is actually controlled by SPECTRE mastermind Ernst Stavros Blofeld (citation needed).
Bond drinks his first Black & 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 & White in the movie Dr. No when he, Leiter, and Quarrel are having a post-dinner round before they confront a mysterious female photographer trying to snap their pictures.
Starting in the Pierce Brosnan era of movies, single malts started making appearances, first int he form of Talisker and, in the Craig era, Macallan. Additionally, the movies finally started tapping into that spirit that truly captured 007’s heart: bourbon. And that is another tale.