Tuesday, 7 February 2017



The sale of a rare bottle of Dalmore 64-year-old Scotch whisky in November 2011 for nearly $200,000 evoked typical reactions. “If you pay that much, you canna drink it, and wha’s the use a just lookin’ at the bottle?” asked a Gaelic patriarch. But just as there are wine geeks, there are people who get carried away over Scotch.

The rituals are the same — the swirling, the sniffing, the mouth sluicing — and so is much of the vocabulary. Hint of pear, cinnamon, crushed almonds, marzipan; whiff of tobacco, leaf-smoke, moist leather. Geography matters for whisky just as much as for wine. Not only are the products of Scotland’s main whisky-making regions — Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown — characteristically distinct, but even whiskies from distilleries just a couple of miles apart can taste vastly different. This one is sweet and grassy, with a hint of barn straw and damp car seat; that one smoky and peaty, with notes of dried moss and wet sheepdog. There are no vintages for whisky — the distiller’s aim is a product that is consistent from year to year — and once bottled, whisky doesn’t age. But before bottling, it does age in the cask, taking on flavour from the wood and the bourbon or sherry that used to be stored there. With wine, older is generally better; the same holds good for whisky and whisky collectors regularly shell out huge sums for rare bottles.

For $160 or so, collectors in America will shortly be able to buy, nestled in a little crate made in China to look authentically Scottish, not a rarity, exactly, but a replica of one: whisky fabricated to resemble the whisky that the explorer Ernest Shackleton took with him to the Antarctic so long ago that people had forgotten all about it. 

In February 2007, workers trying to restore Shackleton’s hut there accidentally came across three cases of Scotch — “Rare old Highland malt whisky, blended and bottled by Chas. Mackinlay & Co.” — frozen in the permafrost. The labels on the whisky say it was intended for what Shackleton was planning to call the Endurance expedition but ended up being known as the Nimrod expedition of 1907, which was the earlier and lesser-known of his two great journeys but the more successful. He actually got to within about 100 miles of the South Pole, farther south than anyone had gone previously. 

Shackleton would have loved the idea of a replica whisky. An improvident man, always in debt, he was partial to get-rich-quick schemes, including a Hungarian gold mine. By today’s standards, he was an unlikely explorer, with little scientific training or interest. He wasn’t even particularly enthralled by snow and ice. What motivated him was the lure of fame and wealth, and exploration was the best way he knew to get them. Shackleton’s great gift was his personality. He was irresistibly charming, especially to women, and for his time — he was born in 1874 — was a highly advanced adulterer, who liked sharing his girlfriends with their husbands. Men adored him, too, in part because he ignored social hierarchy and treated everyone the same. He was an instinctive, natural leader who somehow inspired others to share impossible hardships with him.

The whole Nimrod expedition was almost comically ill equipped, partly because it was underfinanced but also because of Shackleton’s stubbornness. He believed in doing things the hard way — in manly, British fashion. Norwegian explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen had already demonstrated that the best way to get around in the polar regions was to use cross-country skis and to have sled dogs pull the supplies. Shackleton had skis, but neither he nor anyone on his team could be bothered to really learn how to use them. Robert Scott, whose 1901 Discovery expedition included Shackleton, detested dogs, because they had the ungentlemanly habit of eating their own excrement, and Shackleton seems to have inherited the prejudice. For the Nimrod expedition, he took along Manchurian ponies, who sank in the snow up to their bellies and proved more useful as food than as transport, and a motorcar, which repeatedly became stuck in the drifts. For most of the journey, he and his men pulled their own sledges, as Scott’s team had, sometimes trudging through waist-deep snow.

There was no fresh fruit or vegetables, but in all there were 25 cases of whisky — for warmth and a little perk-up, presumably — along with 12 of brandy and 6 of port. They were a hard-drinking crowd. The excellent and helpful “Shackleton,” by Roland Huntford, describes how at a midwinter Christmas party in June 1908, the men wore paper hats and funny noses; Alistair Mackay, the second surgeon, passed out after drinking two-thirds of a bottle of whisky; another of the team, Frank Wild, got moody and tried to pick a fight, as he tended to do. Shackleton himself liked to pull a cork, and heavy drinking and smoking may account for his death of a heart attack aged 47.

Why was the whisky found under the hut and not inside with the other rations? One theory is that Shackleton himself put it there in the fall of 1908, before setting off for the pole, in anticipation of a victory celebration when he returned. But the fact that one case was found pried open, with a bottle missing, suggests that the whisky there may have been someone’s secret stash. Wild, who was known to have a drinking problem, is a possible candidate.

Whisky lovers also like to imagine that the occasional bracing, restorative tot helped Shackleton and his three companions — Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams — withstand the hardship of their 1,700-mile trek south and back. On Christmas Day, they celebrated with crème de menthe. It’s unlikely, though, especially on the return leg, when exhausted and malnourished and racing to get back before the Nimrod left, that they would have wanted the burden of whisky bottles. What really got them through was cocaine — in the form of pills called Forced March, which at one point Marshall fed the group every hour or so.

Shackleton thought that the trip to the South Pole and back would take about 90 days, but in the end he was gone for 122, most of them miserable. They left in late October, and by January it was clear that though they might reach the pole, it was very unlikely they would return alive. After making one last, desperate push, Shackleton reluctantly turned back for the hut on Jan. 9. “A live donkey is better than a dead lion,” he later told his wife. By the end they were on half rations and barely made it. Shackleton, who disliked wearing goggles, suffered agonies from snowblindness. All the men developed dysentery, Wild worst of all, most likely from eating tainted pony meat. When supplies ran low Shackleton characteristically gave him his own share. “By God, I shall never forget,” Wild wrote. “Thousands of pounds would not have bought that one biscuit.” When the four got back to the hut, they were barely recognizable. These were all men in their 20s and 30s, and yet in a famous photograph taken onboard the Nimrod, they look ancient, weather-worn and leathery, almost like those prehistoric bodies dug up from peat bogs. A good stiff drink right then would have knocked them flat.

Mackinlay whisky stopped being made in significant quantities in 2006. The brand is now owned by Whyte & Mackay, a venerable Glasgow firm founded in the late 19th century by two disciples of Bacchus, who both died of cirrhosis. (Alcoholism is, or used to be, an occupational hazard in the whisky industry, especially in the pre-1970 days of “dramming,” when distillery workers were allowed three hefty rations of newly distilled, undiluted spirit a day, the first at 7 in the morning.) Starting in the 1970s, as part of the worldwide consolidation of the spirits business, Whyte & Mackay was sold to one conglomerate after another, and in 2007 the firm was acquired by Vijay Mallya, an Indian billionaire and beer baron. In 2014, W&M was sold to Emperador, a Philippines-based drinks manufacturer for US$ 430 million, a loss of $165 million in real terms, but in excess of $200 million in actual terms.

In India, Mallya was known as the King of Good Times. Some observers thought he wildly overpaid for Whyte & Mackay, perhaps out of sentimentality, because Jura, one of the company’s brands, was his father’s favourite whisky. But Mallya insisted that he knew exactly what he was doing: acquiring enough whisky supply to satisfy the Indian market, which he expected shortly to become the world’s largest. “I’m in the spirits business, and I wanted to ensure I had ample stock,” he said. . . “No spirits-business line is complete without Scotch.” India became the world’s largest whisky market in 2014 and a lot of Scotch whisky is moving thataway. Except for one thing-the King of good times has been dethroned and has run away to England for non-payment of dues in the hundreds of millions! Diageo, which had wrested control of USL, the parent of Whyte & Mackay and many others, is laughing behind the arras.

There is a general impression that John Walker, of Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, was the first and largest recognised blender of Scotch Whisky, once the blending of several whiskies became legal in 1860. The fact is that it was the Mackinlay’s of Leith who were the largest blenders of the 19th century, expanding to Inverness as money rolled in rapidly from sales of their own brands. In 1883, they produced a globally bestselling 5 YO blended whisky for a brand desired by one Arthur Millard, an employee of Phipson & Co. Wine Merchants, Apollo Road, Bombay(now Mumbai), India, named Millard’s Black Dog. In 1889, Phipson placed an order for a 12 YO premium blend using up to 25 single malts and grain whiskies named Phipson’s Black Dog to replace diminishing stocks of the earlier version 5 YO Millard’s Black Dog. This new premium whisky predated Walker’s Extra Special Old Highland Whisky, first blended in 1899, further refined and renamed Johnnie Walkers Black Label in 1909 by ten years. Not only was it more popular, it was also more expensive. 

Charles Mackinlay was born in Ayrshire in 1809 and created Charles Mackinlay & Co. in 1847, legalising his grocer father's highly lucrative grocery cum vatted whisky shop established in 1815, from where he sold illicit blended Scotch whisky. Charles used to enjoy a round of golf on the nearby course at Leith, and he conceived The Original Mackinlay to match this sporting spirit.

In 1875, Charles registered the brand Mackinlays Vatted Old Benvorlich Scotch whisky and opened offices in London, first on Queen Victoria Street then to Crutched Friars. Thus, Mackinlays Vatted Old Benvorlich, probably one of the first blended Scotch whiskies to be marketed, was introduced to London. An early account was established with the Refreshment Department at the House of Commons. Whisky was still being provided there as late as 22 December 1885, according to a letter from Alexander Gordon & Co., Ltd, Pro & Es.

Charles Mackinlay & Co. purchased Corbett Borthwicks Warehouse, East Old Dock, Leith, in 1875. Notable Mackinlay & Co. employees included James Buchanan (1879), Thomas Dewar (cashier, 1881) and James Watson (1891). In 1885, James Buchanan left the Company to found Black & White Scotch Whisky and became Lord Woolavington. James Mackinlay and John Birnie built the Glen Mhor Distillery, Inverness, trading as Mackinlays & Birnie, Ltd. Working with a Frenchman named Saladin, this distillery became the first to install a Saladin box (during the 1950’s), which was to revolutionize the malting process. His son Alexander MacKenzie bought the Glen Ord distillery and began marketing and selling some of Glen Ord under the name of Glen Oran. In 1896, MacKenzie sold the distillery to James Watson & Son, whisky blenders of Dundee. The company had previously acquired three other distilleries as they were primarily invested in selling blended high quality whiskies, particularly Watson's No. 10.Watson was to sell off the distillery to Dewar and Sons in 1923.
The 5YO

Mackinlay–McPherson Ltd was formed in 1962 to combine and run the wine and spirit side of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries Ltd, Edinburgh, Scotland, gaining control of Glenallachie Distillery Co Ltd, Aberlour–on–Spey, Scotland, and Isle of Jura Distillery Co Ltd, Craighouse, Isle of Jura, Scotland, in the 1960s. The company was formed by a merger between Charles Mackinlay & Co, whisky blenders and merchants, Leith, Scotland, founded in 1815, John Ewan McPherson & Sons Ltd, brewers and whisky blenders, Newcastle–uponvTyne, England, founded in 1857,  and the Scottish & Newcastle Breweries’ Wine and Spirit Department. Until the formation of Waverly Vintners Ltd they controlled the wine and spirit interests of the group.

When Waverly Vintners Ltd was formed in 1974, Macinlay–McPherson became their national wholesale company. Macinlay–McPherson offered a vast selection of own brand and proprietary wines and spirits to the tied and free trade. Waverly Vintners was still a part of Scottish & Newcastle plc in 2001.

Invergordon Distillers acquired Charles Mackinlay, Ltd in 1985 and, thus, control of Jura and Glenallachie distilleries from Scottish & Newcastle Breweries. Mackinlay standard whisky is at least five years old (all constituents of their three brands - 5, 12 and 21-year old - all must exceed the stated age), with portions drawn from both grain distillation and malt whisky. Charles Mackinlay & Co. Ltd - in 1989 part of the Invergordon Distillers Group - operated from five distilleries. The grain distillery churns out clear spirit that is the price reducer for all standard whisky. These whiskies are regarded by their spirit proportions, with the 5 YO having 34 percent malt.

Charles Mackinlay & Co. Ltd. thus had malt whisky distilleries on the Isle of Jura, in Speyside at Glenallachie and one in the Highlands, Tullibardine at Blackford. The focus of malt whisky content in blended whisky becomes much more apparent with Mackinlay’s two older deluxe whiskies - Legacy 12 year-old and 21-year old. Malt whisky continued to create interest worldwide, with sales globally at three percent of the whisky market in 1988, while only 1.5 percent in 1985. The Original Mackinlay is described as “sweet, mellow, full-bodied, lingering taste, malty, rich amber colour.”

Invergordon was acquired by Whyte & Mackay Group for American Brands, Inc., in 1995. Jim Beam Brands World-Wide, Inc., in turn, subsequently acquired Whyte & Mackay Group, before selling out to Vijay Mallya. 

Today the Original Mackinlay continues asserting its claim to be one of the great traditional Scotch whiskies as it was when under the strict control of master blender Donald Mackinlay, the fifth generation of the family. One hundred and ninety years of experience go into the unique skill of achieving a perfect balance of malts and grains, of providing a distinctive five year old with a rounder more mellow quality. Charles Mackinlay and Company are fortunate to be part of a group owning some of the finest distilleries in Scotland. 

In summary, the story of conceiving, distilling and bottling The Original Mackinlay by Charles Mackinlay during the 19th century is fascinating. 

Copyrighted material. Do not copy without express permission from the author.

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