Whisky trailblazers

A few humble ingredients cooked up in a still, filled into wood and banished to the depths of a warehouse, only to emerge as something unique years later. Therein lies the beauty of Scotch that is both timeless and in constant evolution. But what was drunk by our Victorian ancestors is a far cry from the whisky of today. Tom Bruce-Gardyne turns his attention to some of the step changes along the way


While researching his book on Johnnie Walker, A Long Stride, Nick Morgan says he came to realise that “really up until the 1880s and 90s respectable whisky drinking, as opposed to drinking in dram shops, was predominantly toddy drinking.” The ritual involved whisky, hot water, sugar and “if you were lucky, a lemon” he says. “But toddy whiskies, which were mainly blends, were very heavy and oily.”

If Scotch was ever to replace brandy and soda in the middle-class drawing rooms of the time, it needed to lighten up. “The blenders had to change blends and find whiskies that would deliver a lighter, fresher, fruitier style,” says Nick. The malt distillers complied, and blended Scotch evolved into a finished drink. Not that blenders can take all the credit because that would be denying Aeneas Coffey, the man who gave us continual distillation in 1822. As Arthur Motley, head buyer at Royal Mile Whiskies, says: “It was the consistency of the Coffey still that was the real gamechanger.”

BELOW: Arthur Motley at Royal Mile Whiskies

Aeneas Coffey

Benromach and its iconic brick chimney

George Urquhart


The whisky writer Charlie Maclean calls George Urquhart “the father of the modern interest in malt whiskies.” Gordon & MacPhail’s late chairman, a modest man by all accounts, would have dismissed such a claim, and it’s true there were other pioneers, notably Glenfiddich. But he still deserves credit for showcasing the diversity of malt whisky with the Connoisseur’s Choice range, launched in 1968, and helping to open the world’s first real single malt market – in Italy.

“George was seen as eccentric to the point of mad because he was ageing whiskies for way longer than anyone else,” says his grandson and Gordon & MacPhail’s director of prestige, Stephen Rankin. Not that the firm was overcharging, with a 1937 Macallan selling for £4.54 in 1972, about double the price of a top blend. Aware that it would have to start making whisky to maintain supply, Gordon & MacPhail bought Benromach distillery in 1993. This paved the way for other independent bottlers and later entrepreneurs to acquire or build their own distilleries focussed on malts and detached from the business of blended Scotch.

BELOW: JG Thomson Limited in Leith, the future spiritual home of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society brought the joy of the single cask to a wider audience when it set home at The Vaults in Leith in 1983, providing an endlessly varied selection of small batch whiskies, bottled at cask strength and non-chill-filtered. It was such a radical move alongside the ‘same old, same old’ world of big blends that the whisky establishment at the time said there was no chance this quirky members club could possibly succeed.

Dave Broom is looking forward to the next innovation


John Glaser had his eureka moment while working at Diageo. “I vividly recall the day,” he says. “We were tasting some key components of Johnnie Walker Black Label, and I was just struck by this great 12-year-old grain whisky from Cameronbridge, aged in first-fill American oak. It was so delicious … so approachable, I said ‘this is beautiful, why don’t we bottle it?’”

Which is just what he did, but only by leaving to set up Compass Box and launching Hedonism in 2000. It was an equal blend of 10-year-old Cambus and 20-year-old Caledonian grain whisky, and priced at £40, like a high-end single malt. Glaser sold just 40 boxes in his first six months, but the feedback was so positive he persevered to make Compass Box one of the most exciting whisky start-ups in a generation.

“When aged in the right casks, and that’s an important caveat, it can be one of the world’s most delicious whiskies,” he says. “The problem is no-one is ageing enough grain whisky in active enough casks to make it an interesting drink.”

Until that changes, the good stuff will remain a secret for those in the know. If you want a hint – look for the letter ‘G’ on SMWS bottlings.

BELOW: John Glaser compares components

Compass Box’s sample room

One from the archive: David Stewart with a younger Balvenie cask


While the six ‘Classic Malts’ launched in 1987 helped push single malts and the idea of whisky regions into the mainstream, it was cask finishes that brought the importance of maturation to the fore. Both approaches, that of regionality and types of wood, have helped whisky drinkers navigate their way into single malts, but the cask now tends to lead the conversation, with provenance in pursuit. Much of this is down to the pair who pioneered wood finishes in the 1980s and 90s – Balvenie’s malt master, David Stewart MBE, and Glenmorangie’s Dr Bill Lumsden.

“From the work of Dr Bill and David Stewart, people started talking about flavour in a different way,” says Arthur Motley. “It really changes the way people appreciate whisky once they start to understand that the cask has a big impact on flavour.” In his view, the old-style approach was to declare “the spirit is born in this place and comes almost fully-formed from the earth.” However, as whisky writer Dave Broom points out: “Finishes were an innovation in the 1990s, but they’re not one now.” Arguably it’s time the industry found a new obsession.

BELOW: David Stewart checks on progress at Balvenie

Dr Bill Lumsden

Highland rye in the making at Arbikie


Few spirits are as quintessentially American as rye whiskey, which is enjoying a huge surge of interest in the States. Sales last year topped 1.4 million cases, a 10-fold increase in a decade. Its popularity has prompted a few Scottish distillers to release their ‘inner cowboy’ and give it a whirl. However, there is precedent in Scotland, as Ian Palmer of InchDairnie in Fife would tell you. Rye was certainly being used to make Scotch in the early 1900s, and it’s back with his new RyeLaw whisky.

But the Stirling brothers at Arbikie, up the coast in Angus, got there first in late 2018. “As a ‘field to bottle’ distillery, the opportunity to go back and grow rye to make whisky for the first time in over a century was too good to miss,” says Arbikie co-founder Iain Stirling. It is neither easy to grow nor high-yielding, which explains why it lost out to barley, but it is certainly worth reviving if Arbikie Highland Rye is anything to go by.

BELOW: Arbikie’s stillroom

Arbikie co-founder John Stirling