They say monks brought the knowledge of distillation to Scotland sometime around 1000AD. It was originally used as medicine, but soon enterprising farmers realized that the leftover barley they used to feed their sheep could be turned into whiskey and sold to purveyors in town.
Whiskey was a big money maker and was soon mixed-up in the Scottish fight for independence. In 1644, the Scottish government imposed a tax on whiskey to raise money for war, but the English won and soon sent in an army of taxmen to try to collect money from whiskey distillers in the north. The distillers were not keen to pay out their hard earned money to the wealthy English monarchy when they could barely afford to feed their children and so began the great tradition of illicit distilling and midnight smuggling runs. Outwitting the redcoats became a national sport and tales of cunning are part of the history of almost all Scottish distilleries.
The illegal distilleries were small portable operations, a big metal pot boiling a fermentation over a big fire. Tax collectors would sit on the top of a hill and look for a spiral of smoke rising. If they caught a smuggler it would mean an extra year’s pay and half of the whiskey seized, but usually by the time the taxman arrived there was only a pile of ash and the distillers would be gone.
The distillers brought the whiskey to a middleman, who then sold it to the shopkeepers, one of these shopkeepers was Johnnie Walker. The first year Walker was in business (at age 15) the English made more than fourteen thousand raids on illegal distillers. Given the circumstances, it was by necessity a rushed distillation process and the whiskey that resulted was harsh on the tongue with strong flavors that varied from jug to jug. The privileged class, whom Walker wanted as customers, didn’t drink the stuff. It simply didn’t taste good. They were drinking the fine wines and cognac that guys like Richard Hennessy were shipping in from France at increasingly cheaper prices.
But Johnnie Walker had a brilliant idea, an idea that made Scottish whiskey what it is today. All of the whiskey being distilled at the time was single malt. Johnnie wondered if, like the teas he sold in his shop, blending the whiskeys together could result in a better taste. At the time blending tea was considered an art form. If done well, the blended tea would taste better than the individual teas as the blend would bring out different flavors, add sugar to spice, lend subtlety to bitterness. With this in mind, Walker began mixing different whiskeys. He found that, as with tea, he could use the different ingredients to make a product that delivered a consistent taste. The mixing also lent the liquor a depth of flavor and refinement. Mixes could favor unique flavor aspects-smoke, honey, fruit- and be marketed to the clientele Walker was after.
As Walker aged so did his blended whiskeys and lines began to form at his little shop. Customers placed orders for specific blends and Johnnie Walker’s fame and business grew.
A few other whiskey purveyors got into blending back in the mid-nineteenth century, and some of the brands are still major labels today: Teacher’s, Chivas, and Cutty Sark, which was named after one of the ships that brought tea from the Far East honoring the interwoven history of the two drinks.
Blends have dominated the market for the last 200 years, but recently single malts have had a significant resurgence. In 1990, only 240,000 cases of malts were sold in the U.S. By 2017, 2.1 million cases were sold, an increase of almost ninefold. The malts of today are vastly different from those of Walker’s time. Like fine wines, different geographic areas are known for distinct flavors. Islay, an island off the west coast of Scotland is known for its smoky, complex malt, while the malts of the Highlands are more fruity and spicy. Blends still vastly outsell malts, but even the Johnnie Walker label has recognized the popularity of malts and in 2011 released Double Black, which is similar in flavor to the peat-heavy single malts. But don’t worry Mr. Walker it’s still a blend.