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Friday 29 September 2023



Chivas Brothers Holdings, officially on record as Chivas Brothers Ltd., is the Pernod Ricard alcohol segment dedicated entirely to Scotch whisky. It manages, among others, the Chivas Regal brand of Blended Scotch Whiskies, has its headquarters at Paisley, near Glasgow, and operates 14 Scottish malt distilleries, all located in the Speyside area – apart from Scapa on Orkney – along with Strathclyde grain distillery in the Gorbals District of Glasgow.

Its Chivas Regal 12 YO premium Blended Scotch Whisky was at the second spot globally in this category and behind Johnnie Walker Black Label in terms of volume sold till 2014, but has been moving up and down the table, losing ground to other brands, was sixth last year and now lies fifth. Judging by giant German budget supermarkets Aldi and Lidl Scotch Whisky standards, the brand is rather expensive, but invariably very close to the eponymous Black Label. That said, the Black Label is always on some kind of promotion across the globe, with Chivas Regal matching it stride for stride. A 75Cl bottle at 43% ABV is available in the State of Haryana, India at £21, discounted to £19 per on purchase of a case of 12 bottles, lower than most Duty-Free prices across the globe.

What is not generally known is that the Chivas Brothers company came into being only in 1857, when John Chivas joined his elder brother James in his grocery, wine shop and luxury goods emporium in Aberdeen. John, who had been working at a footwear and apparel wholesale company, DL Shirres and Co. Aberdeen since 1838 had risen in status to become a partner there. His Chivas entry, again as a partner, came about after the exit of James’ hitherto partner, Charles Stewart, who left after a tiff over blending malt and grain whiskies covertly and illegally when holding a Royal Warrant. Chivas' records blandly state that the split took place because Charles was unhappy with James' domineering attitude and sold off his half to join another company in the same business. This was strange, because James was well known and popular for his 'can do, will do' approach to all customers, no matter how odd the demand. The company known as Chivas Brothers officially appeared for the first time in the 1858–1859  Aberdeen Directory. It would appear there for over a century. John died early at only 48, in 1862 and James at 75 in 1886.

In 1854, at age 44, James met and married Joyce Clapperton. They had four children, Julia Abercrombie, Alexander James, Williamina Joyce and Charles James. When James died, his Will stipulated that his wife and all four children be given £ 5,000 each. To their horror, they found this impossible due to lack of money and settled instead for a monthly packet of £ 100 each for five years, overcoming stiff resistance by the shiftless Charles James who had met and married one Emma Grosskopf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

The last actively connected Chivas family member, James' son Alexander Chivas, died in 1893, and control was handed over to two temporary directors, Messrs Smith and Taylor, while matters were resolved in the incredibly haphazard, dishonest and unscrupulous market of Scottish/ Scotch whisky. For example, there was no statute on the age factor of Blended Whisky, forcing customers to rely entirely on the vendor’s statement. The first ever law on such age statements started as The Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act 1915, which required the ageing of both grain and malt-based alcohol in barrels for at least 2 years in a Bonded Warehouse, quickly extended to 3 years later that same year, while charging holding taxes on a quarterly basis.

The statement on both the carton and bottle 'From 1801' is without foundation. The Chivas brothers in question, James and John, weren’t even born then. It is quite probably a legal loophole that is being exploited. James Chivas’ first sniff of whisky came when he was 28 years old, in 1838, when he joined William Edward, fine grocer and wine seller, in his first job as a full-time hired employee. This fine grocery business, which was destined for fame under another name, had been founded in 1801 by John Forrest at 47 Castle Street, Aberdeen. Forrest died in 1828 and Edward, his manager, bought the company from the bereaved family and registered himself as a grocer, wine, and spirits purveyor and provision merchant, one of 209 others in Aberdeen, besides 193 vintners. Edward soon bought the cellar, 46 Castle Street as he expanded. He then added a portfolio as a “total service merchant” for Aberdeen’s thriving wealthy citizens, acting as an employment agency for domestic help, which type of work was his forte and something the dashing James would later revel in and establish numerous contacts.

The business continued to expand with time, and 49 Castle Street replaced the smaller premises at 47 Castle Street. In 1837, Edward, seeking even larger quarters to house his newly added retail and service placement businesses, moved uptown to a fashionable location at 13, King's Street. James Chivas, hired in 1838, rose to minor partner that very year, with almost total control over the wines and spirits department, as Edward was struck with a 'palsy' and died overseas just three years later in Madeira in March '41. As Edward had died intestate, his legacy went under judicial probate. In this indistinct period for business out of those premises, James left and joined a similar victuals provender, Charles Stewart as junior partner, registering themselves as Stewart and Chivas, 39 Woolmanhill Street. They bought the vacant 13, King Street property available post-probate later that year and relocated there as a “One-stop-shop.”

James Chivas remained the sole common partner/owner till his death. The company, when known as Edward and Chivas (1838-41) and later Stewart and Chivas (1841-57), had furthered the ex-Forrest company's reputation for excellence from the extravagant shop at 13 King Street and obtained a Royal Warrant to supply luxury goods to Queen Victoria in 1843. Between 1843-51, they expanded further and added 9,11 and 23 King Street. James purchased 21 King Street as his residence.

The Forbes-Mackenzie Act permitting vatting of whiskies when in a bonded warehouse was passed in 1853, with a proviso that the bonded warehouse would be no further than one-quarter mile from a town. A larger variety of blended malts were now available to vendors to sell. Initially open to selling outsourced Blended Malt whiskies that met their stringent quality standards, they moved up to blending, ageing and selling proprietary deluxe malt whiskies starting in 1854.

Privy then through Andrew Usher—a major brewer but small-time distiller and sales agent for George Smith's The Drumin Glenlivat (sic) of King George IV's 1822 demand fame, who had outreach into the corridors of power—to PM Henry J Temple’s tacit approval of his Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone's plan to permit the blending of malt and grain whisky in bond by 1860 under the Spirits Act (often called the Scotch Whisky Act of 1860), James started to secretly blend malt and grain whisky as suggested by Usher and requested by his customers, aiming to create a proprietary aged blend by 1860. This Act, when published, was surprisingly limited to distillers and brewers only, benefiting Usher but not James. It took a further three years till grocers could carry out the blending of such "spirituous liquors" in Bond on-premises and sale under their own label legally, under an Extension to the tariff-related Anglo-French Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860. In this period, many other grocers and wines & spirits merchants got set to enter the business full-time—John Walker, George Ballantine, Peter Thomson of Beneagles, William Teacher and the Berry brothers are good examples. Matthew Gloag of the Famous Grouse was to follow much later.

From 1864 spirit strength could be reduced using water in approved warehouses, and 1867 saw the bottling of whisky for domestic consumption in bonded warehouses. The blending boom, which would really take off during the 1870s, was a growing interest in malt whiskies distilled in what is now called the Speyside region of production in north-east Scotland, specifically an 80 sq miles tract lying between Tomnavoulin and Ballindaloch that was usually referred to in the 19th century as ‘Glenlivet.’ Their favourite whisky was Scotland's first Single Malt, GJ Smith's The Glenlivet. This brand soldiered on as it was found too mild in an era of heavy,complex and dense Blended Malt.

Their most popular malt whiskies were:
  • Magna Charta Blended Malt Scotch, 5-Year-Old (initially outsourced, but bought in 1858).
  • Royal Glen Dee Blended Malt Scotch, 6-Year-Old (in-house).
  • Royal Glendee Blended Malt Scotch, 8-Year-Old (in-house).
When the company was dissolved in 1857 and renamed Chivas Brothers Holdings with the advent of John Chivas, new ideas and concepts came to fruition. Using the cellar beneath their emporium as a part workshop, they conducted experiments in blending ageing whiskies to move upmarket en bloc and entice an upper-class word-of-mouth clientele with a smooth, rich and expensive whisky experience. The three popular malts supra were then given a re-look, i.e., replaced, improved or renamed, with a concomitant increase in selling price. Another blended Malt whisky was added, the 8-YO Chivas Brothers Old Highland Whisky to mark the arrival of John Chivas as a partner. This brand was discontinued after John’s untimely demise.

In 1854, Edwards and Chivas launched their first self-owned Blended Malt Scotch for local consumption, the Royal Glen Dee, followed by other proprietary Blended Malt Scotch Whiskies. In 1857, they switched to quarter-gallon (quart, 1.132 L) tall bottles. Most blended Malt whiskies were between 60-65% ABV! Chivas Brothers' first Blended Scotch whisky, the Royal Strathythan was launched in 1863. The grain Scotch added along with water brought the ABV down below 50%, a not unpleasant outcome. They gradually realised that a good diluted Grain Scotch whisky would help soften and marry the heavy malts and could be used in volumes that would bring down the overall strength of the whisky, which, surprisingly, tasted smoother and far more flavoursome at 46-50% ABV. By 1900, Chivas Brothers had six in-house blended whiskies on their books: 
  • Chivas Old Vat Blended Malt Scotch 5-Year-Old which had replaced in 1895 the outsourced and then acquired in 1858 Magna Charta and was made with better malts.
  • Royal Glen Dee Blended Malt Scotch 6-Year-Old, but allowed to fade out in 1885.
  • Royal Glendee Reserve Blended Malt Scotch 8-Year-Old, improved by blending some of the select malts used for the fading 6-Year-Old which had now aged two years more with better malts from the wider range available.
  • Royal Glen Gaudie Blended Malt Scotch 8-Year-Old, Master Blender Charles Stewart Howard's- ex J&G Stewart- first contribution, blended in 1894 at 48% ABV and targeted at the local market and then at the promising market in Australia: Popular in Australia.
  • Royal Strathythan Blended Scotch 10-Year-Old: Popular in the US and Australia.
  • Royal Loch Nevis Blended Scotch 20-Year-Old: Very popular in the US.
The last actively occupied Chivas family member, Alexander, died of a throat fungal infection in 1893 aged 37 and his wife Alyce died of the same malady three days later, not out of shock and broken everlasting love, as romanticists would have us believe. Two temporary directors, Alexander Smith and Taylor, kept control till Alexander Chivas’s mother Joyce and two sisters Julia and Williamina and the Board of Trustees could meet to discuss the future course of action. They agreed that control of the company would be exercised by Alexander Smith, close friend, aide and confidante of the late Alexander Chivas and their Master Blender, Charles Stewart Howard. In 1895, Smith and Howard told the Board of Trustees that they wished to buy them and the distaff side of the Chivas family out. The offer was accepted with the one proviso that the brand would remain (and has remained) unchanged as Chivas Brothers, a Ltd. company till this day. In doing so, they neglected any rights Alexander Chivas’s younger but shiftless brother Charles James Joyce Chivas- a bĂȘte noire, mistakenly called James Jr elsewhere, banished to the USA-had in the matter of succession. Charles Chivas died in 1908 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Chivas had agents incessantly assessing market conditions in the US through the 1890s. The marketing team reported a rapidly booming economy in the US which was looking for luxury. In 1900, Howard decided to create a new blend that would pay tribute to the legacy of the founding brothers, James and John. Using select malts from the Royal Loch Nevis and other aged malts procured from the Highlands and Campbeltown, Howard found a malt-dominated recipe fitting the bill. Introducing the term ‘Regal’ for the first time ever, Howard created in 1909, all of 9 years later, what he believed to be the finest whisky ever made, a 25-year-old whisky called Chivas Regal that met all regulatory parameters for bottling and labelling as the oldest Blended Scotch Whisky of its era, establishing it as the world’s first and oldest luxury whisky. The ABV was deliberately reduced to 46% to make it an excellent base for a Highball. It made its debut in a specially designed heavy green glass bottle — with gold and silver trimmings as well as a cork made in Portugal — in the USA to a glamorous reception in 1909.

Chivas Regal Blended Scotch 25 YO met with resounding success. Ironically, no member of the Chivas family had, or would ever have, any connection with this ultra-premium successful blend, or, for that matter, its substitute in later days, the 12 YO. The basic price was a steep 38 shillings per gallon, eight more than that of Royal Loch Nevis and 15 more than The Glenlivet 12 YO, which was destined to become USA’s leading Single Malt after WW II. It was all one-way street for the Chivas Regal, from 1909 till end 1914, when WW I started to become a sluggish long drawn affair (1914-18). Existing stocks were exhausted quickly as demand outstripped supply. Shipping lanes to the USA closed down and Chivas Bros switched to building reserves at home.

WW I was to hurt most brands across Scotland, particularly exporters to the USA, and Chivas was no exception. The war did not hamper the production of its two aged brands as the malt whiskies required were over 20/25 years and older, and stock held in reserve was adequate. There was no requirement for fresh barley or other grains, the use of which for liquor had been severely restricted if not almost banned by the Govt to cater for daily living. This limitation led to the production of whiskies with ABVs between 40-43%. Huge stocks in barrels were piled up in anticipation of large-scale export to the USA as soon as the war ended. Production of the Royal Loch Nevis was shrewdly slowed down in phases to shift all focus to the flagship brand. Sadly, an extended unhappy period lay in store for the Chivas Regal 25 in the form of the US Prohibition (1920-33) that followed immediately after WW I, catching the company totally unaware in terms of stock, and the unrelated deaths of both its senior partners in 1935. For the standard and inexpensive at-home Blended Scotch brands, Prohibition was a godsend.

The surviving partner William Mitchell, unable to handle Chivas Brothers, sold off the entire holdings to whisky brokers Morrison & Lundie in 1936 on an 'as is' basis. Well stocked, Morrison decided that it was far too onerous to maintain aged barrels of whisky. They wound up the Loch Nevis and reduced the production of the Chivas 25 drastically, resulting in its withdrawal as their standard-bearer and ultimate demise. They disposed off most of the aged stock in a greedy market to recover their cost of investment in no time. Morrison & Lundie sold the Chivas Brand for just £85,000 to Canadian Samuel Bronfman’s (1889-1971)Seagram Limited Company, who switched his attention to a 12 YO premium brand, a decision that would be seen as wise a lustrum later, when WW II (1939-1945) broke out in Europe, 4,000 miles from the USA. 1939 saw the debut of Chivas Regal 12 YO in the USA at what was to become a global standard proof value of 75°, i.e., 42.8% ABV (86° proof in USA).

By now, the 12 Years Old status had become a definitive attribute of a premium whisky and the Chivas Regal 12 YO was an immediate success in the USA. Sadly, this was to turn out a very short-lived flash in the pan. Things were quite different across the pond. In the shaky post-war economy, with no barley to make whisky, the industry had stalled in Scotland. The USA suffered in its wake and Chivas Regal went off the market and was soon forgotten. Samuel Bronfman had been tracking Morrison & Lundie, having bought some of the aged whisky barrels that they had earlier disposed off. These would come in handy later when the Royal Salute luxury whisky brand would emerge in 1953 as a 21 YO tribute to the ascent of Queen Elizabeth to the throne. In 1945, there were NO 12 YO Blended Scotch Whiskies except in the USA! The Glenlivet had 12 YO whiskies in the UK, but these were single malts. WW II had brought in many curbs and Blended Scotch whisky had suffered. The Chivas Regal 12 YO had to be imported from the USA, for a grand comeback, whereas other blenders had to wait for another three years.

Bronfman was on the lookout for a distillery as a home base. His agent found one in 1950 called the Milton Distillery at Strathisla, Keith. The owner, one George (Jay) Pomeroy, a known scoundrel, wanted an astronomical sum, so Bronfman backed off. But the owner was jailed that year for fraud and Milton (aka Milltown) Distillery was put up for auction. Seagram purchased Milton for £71,000 at a public auction in Aberdeen in April 1950. This purchase was the second time Milton Distillery had changed hands in a public auction. 

Bronfman changed its name to Strathisla, as its water came from the river Isla, pronounced exactly as the peat haven of Islay. He had unknowingly struck gold as Strathisla distillery housed a vast amount of ageing whiskies underground, both malt and grain, mainly the Strathisla Old Highland Malt Whiskies, and another warehouse beneath the Glasgow railway yard, all between 6 & 10 YO. He then needed a good Master Blender and hijacked the Master Blender of J&B, the preeminent Charles Julian, who revealed that with the huge quantity of whiskies available at his new home, he could produce a superb 12 YO, only by 1954, but in great and annually repeating volumes. This was kept secret since Bronfman wanted to make headlines with the first deluxe 12 YO Scotch whisky after the War. Seagram employees were made to feel that Bronfman, an overly dynamic, brash and irascible man, seemed to be at odds and ends, juggling various whisky brands to keep the cash flow alive.

In the spring of 1954 and after an absence of over five years in the marketplace, Distillers Corporation-Seagrams Ltd. rolled out in grandeur the Chivas Regal 12-year-old Blended Scotch Whisky in the United States. This also kept British authorities happy with export income. Chivas Regal 12 YO sold at $8.00 per 750 ml bottle, vs the $3.5-5.0 for lesser whiskies in the 'fine' and 'rare' categories. It was also sparingly sold in the UK soon thereafter.

Bronfman’s shrewd philosophy of sale was an artificial creation of a shortage: The early advertising strategies devised by Sam Bronfman and his team for marketing and promoting Chivas Regal was to create the illusion of overwhelming demand for Chivas Regal in a time of acute shortage. “What assets do we have? Its [Chivas Regal] label is terrible but seems genuine. We have a Royal Warrant, and own one of the oldest operating distilleries in the Scottish Highlands, but to what avail? Only time will tell.” This was the initial refrain making the rounds in both the USA and the UK.

In the USA 1953-54, Sam’s advertising agency created and ran multi-page, full-colour ads in upmarket magazines and key trade publications. The flashy inserts heralded the coming of Chivas Regal. Full-colour free booklets that told the Chivas Regal story were sent to thousands of intrigued consumers across the country. Sales staff were to tease distributors by selling them only small amounts of Chivas Regal when it came, thereby instigating an instant “shortage” as soon as Chivas Regal hit the streets, a brilliant move. Bronfman wilfully told distributors, salesmen and retailers that there would never be enough Chivas Regal. He wanted them to get a fast turnover and come back for more. People always wanted what they couldn’t get.

He wrote to 200,000+ moneyed men, “As a connoisseur in this class, I urge you to visit your pub or spirit shop and to ask for a bottle of Chivas Regal, which, though very limited in quantity, will be reserved for you, who appreciates the best in Scotch whisky.” His ad agency devised a series of “shortage crisis” print ads disclosing the deficit situation of Chivas Regal. Consumers were asked to show ‘patience’ while more Chivas Regal was being produced and matured across the Atlantic and their wait wouldn’t be overly long. All such statements were patently false, a shrewd marketing strategy. 

The “CR shortage” strategy worked better than expected. Distributors quickly ran out of Chivas Regal and immediately reordered, but were then only given another carefully meted out case amount. Retailers placed Chivas Regal on strict allocation exclusively to their best, most affluent clientele because “The best people in town were talking about Chivas Regal. . . . Styles start at the top and percolate downward...” The perceived, if hollow, scarcity snowballed into a minor feeding frenzy for Chivas Regal in the major US markets throughout 1954 and 1955. The backbone single malt in the Chivas Regal family was the Strathisla, buttressed by Glenlivet and rounded off with Braeval and Longmorn. Other malts were added to maintain consistency in flavour and taste.

Bronfman decided to finance Chivas as its whisky and gin producing arm, with the Chivas Regal 12 YO Blended Scotch Whisky bringing in the money from across the globe, bar the Middle East, soon to become a new and growing oil-spawned market. Since Bronfman was Jewish, the Seagram brands, including Chivas Regal, were not seen in the Middle East until 2001 and firmly under Pernod Ricard patronage. Phipson's Black Dog 12 YO Blended Scotch, an 1889 product that ruled the roost over the Australasian half of the British Empire up to 1983 gave way to Haig's Dimple 12 YO, and Diageo's Johnnie Walker Black Label thereafter.

In 1957 a ‘sister’ distillery named Glen Keith was constructed close to Strathisla, while thirty racked warehouses at Keith Bond were developed as a maturation and blending facility, slowly being expanded as time passed. The 100 Pipers blended Scotch whisky was created at Glen Keith, to match both Cutty Sark and J&B in the USA. Growth of whisky sales during the 1970s led Chivas to construct Allt-a-Bhainne and Braes of Glenlivet (1973). The latter dropped the Glenlivet suffix in 1994 to become Braeval distillery, all providing additional malt capacity.

In the next 25 years, Aberlour, Glenallachie, Edradour, The Glenlivet, Glen Grant and Longmorn distilleries were brought into their fold by Seagram. Benriach joined its fold for just two years and was hived off as it was found complex for Chivas' classic style of blending.

Their prize catch was a controlling stake in The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd in 1978, for which Edgar, the eldest son of late Samuel Bronfman paid £46 million (~ $88 million at the time). Its sister distillery Glen Grant was also acquired, allowing him to aggressively market a 5 YO Glen Grant in Italy and simultaneously insert Chivas Regal into that market. The valuable lessons learnt when promoting the Glen Keith malts assisted Strathisla product 100 Pipers in the USA to counter the Cutty Sark and J&B Rare were employed here.

Today, Seagram is part of Pernod Ricard and Chivas Brothers is the second-largest Scotch whisky company after Diageo. This perplexing statement reflects how fortunes fluctuate in the liquor industry.

In 1994, Edgar Bronfman handed over control to his eldest son, Edgar Jr who had little interest in whisky, preferring the glamour of the cinematic world. He led Chivas Regal into almost total ruin with a series of appalling decisions, despite sane advice to the contrary. His worst experiment ever was the “Chivas DeDanu,” a specially concocted blend geared for younger drinkers in Italy. It failed on Day 1. To the shock of old-time Seagram money managers the world over, the dim-witted Edgar Jr sold their entire blue chip 24% Du Pont holding in 1995 at a price 13 % lower than the market rate. Commentators said, “Buying Du Pont was the deal of the century; selling it was the dumbest deal of the century.”

The epigram "from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations" was proved.

He moved the excellent Something Special 12 and 15 YO Blends out of Asia into South America, where it rose immediately to No 1, later settling as No 3 when the Something Special 12 YO went NAS. In his mind, entertainment was “in” and booze was “out.” He spent $5.6 billion on MCA Inc., which made movies and operated theme parks. In October 1999, he along with Jean-Marie Messier, the blustery top manager at Vivendi, the French water and utility firm, formed a dubious bond that would on December 8, 2000, resulting in the ill-fated union of Seagram and Vivendi. Edgar traded the family’s controlling stake in Seagram for what amounted to less than 9% of Vivendi and the two giant companies evolved into a single corporate entity, the Vivendi Universal. In August 2002, Vivendi Universal went bust and Bronfman was on the street, easy pickings for Pernod Ricard S.A. of France and Diageo plc of the UK. It retained its name, Chivas Brothers, as promised almost a century ago.

It officially opened its latest state-of-the-art malt distillery, Dalmunach (situated on the site of the mothballed Imperial Distillery) at Carron near the River Spey in June 2015, increasing malt whisky distillation capacity by 17% as Dalmunach is capable of producing up to 10 million litres per year. Pernod Ricard’s ownership had the following distilleries and their products in its bag:
  • Aberlour: Speyside Single Malt (SMS) Scotch Whisky
  • Allt-a-Bhainne: Speyside SMS Whisky
  • Braeval: Speyside SMS Whisky
  • Caperdonich: Speyside SMS Whisky (Glen Grant No. 2), mothballed in 2002. Still provides very old single malt whiskies, though.  
  • Dalmunach: Speyside SMS Whisky
  • Glen Keith: Speyside SMS Whisky, which also produced the double-peated Craigduff SMS Whisky, never released as a distillery offering. Chivas insists, however, that Craigduff was made at Strathclyde.
  • GlenAllachie: Speyside SMS Whisky
  • Glenburgie: Speyside SMS Whisky
  • Glentauchers: Speyside SMS Whisky
  • Longmorn: Speyside SMS Whisky. Key component of Chivas Regal and Something Special. Something Special was very popular in India, and Chivas Bros, sensing a potential conflict with Chivas Regal, had Seagram move Something Special out to South America in 1980, where it met with instant success.
  • Miltonduff: Speyside SMS Whisky, key component of Chivas Regal. Also produced Mosstowie SMS Whisky.
  • Strathisla: Speyside SMS Whisky, key component of Chivas Regal.
  • The Glenlivet: Speyside SMS Whisky
  • Tormore: Speyside SMS Whisky
  • Strathclyde: Lowland Single Grain Scotch Whisky, key component of Chivas Regal.
  • Glenugie: Highland SMS Whisky, shut down in 1983, but provides diminishing stock of very aged whiskies for the 30-YO plus category, like Chivas Brothers’ Deoch an Doras range and Royal Salute 32, 38, 50 and 62 YO.
  • Scapa: Islands SMS Whisky
The Chivas Regal 25-Year-Old, designed to woo the high societies of the US, had a higher malt content than the other blends of the time, its intention being to offer a more sophisticated and complex palate to its rivals. The malt content was 65% and the grain 35%. Since then, with tighter cask management by its owner, Chivas Brothers, the flagship expression 12-year-old has a lower malt content than its predecessor, believed to be ~40% Malt, ~60% Grain.

The typically Speyside character of the blend’s malt constituent displays as green apples and orchard fruits; the palate is smooth, sweet honey, applesauce, and hazelnut making way for creamy vanilla, wet sand and heather; the finish has a mild but ephemeral hint of cereal sweetness, while the heather and sea salt linger nicely and dry across the palate. Its excellent grain content lends a honeyed sweetness and does not turn bitter and splattered after a while. 

All its malts are from Speyside. There is no Islay, Lowland or Highland Malt as erroneously stated by some well-meaning writers. The core single malt is Strathisla, a dominant Speysider; the other major malts are Longmorn, Miltonduff; Braes Glenlivet aka Braeval; Glen Keith, Allt-a-Bhainne, Aberlour, The Glenlivet and GlenAllachie. The grain is from Strathclyde, the only ingredient not from Speyside, as it is a Lowlands Grain WhiskyEach distillery can contribute more than one Single Malt Whisky; Strathisla provides up to five to six strains while Longmorn and Miltonduff provide up to three to four each. The Strathclyde provides all desired Single Grain whiskies. The exact recipe is something to kill for.

In view of the falling sales, the Ad Agency was changed, the bottle was changed from dark green to clear glass to accentuate the striking tawny-amber colour of Chivas Regal and a new ad followed. The headline read: ‘What Idiot Changed the Chivas Regal Package?’ The copy explained the reasons (you could now see the whisky, etc, etc). Its conclusion: ‘Maybe the Idiot Was a Genius.’” This one ad turned a fading Chivas Regal into the shining star it is today.

In 1958, Chivas Brothers closed both the King Street and the Union Place shops and moved to a new retail location at 387-391 Union Street. The new site included a restaurant, called Chivas Brothers. In early 1960, a bar called the Crusader Bar was opened. The restaurant turned into a popular meeting place for well-to-do Aberdonians throughout the 1960s and 1970s. On January 31, 1980, Chivas Brothers closed down for good and has never reopened.


Interestingly, Strathisla has its own 12 YO Single Malt and Strathclyde its own 12 YO Single Grain, both under the Chivas Regal label, and sold as the Chivas Distillery Collection.







As the 20th century came to a close, work intensified on at a stepped up pace in the vast Scotch Whisky empire, as more and more millennials came of drinking age. Anticipating the boom, the fifth Master Blender at Chivas Brothers, Colin Scott, with the help of then Deputy Master Blender Sandy Hyslop and his wide expertise in blending, particularly Single and Blended Malts, set about creating new whiskies for the international market, while retaining tight control over the flagship 12 Year Old. Under a sustained push by Pernod Ricard, the 12 YO blend was allowed in the Middle East and quickly moved into the vast market that it controlled, including lands as far afield as India and China. 

The new blends introduced by the Chivas family to the market were the Chivas Regal Extra, Chivas Regal Mizunara, Chivas Regal 18 YO, the Chivas Regal Ultis- a blended Malt, the Chivas Regal Extra 13 in four separate moulds, 15 Single Malts from four famous but quiet distilleries, the Chivas Regal 25 YO in 2007 and the Chivas Regal 15 YO in 2019. Surprisingly, the Chivas 18 is rated higher than the much older Royal Salute. The relaunch of the 25 YO in the USA was a sentimental moment for Chivas Bros, as Master Blender Colin Scott released the very first bottle on 28 September 2007 in New York, 98 years after its global debut in the USA.

Chivas has unveiled a fresh new look for its flagship blend - the biggest redesign in Chivas’ 113-year history, in a re-evaluation of what luxury looks like. Chivas 12 has undergone an extensive redesign of its bottle, label, and pack to usher in a striking new look that blends boldness, modernity, and status while still flexing the luxury and distinguished heritage long associated with Chivas. The iconic Chivas 12 bottle has been reshaped and elongated to stand taller and prouder while still retaining its recognisable rounded shoulders, while shedding weight. A redesigned crest shines a light on the beating heart of Chivas – the ‘luckenbooth’. The outer box has undergone a complete renewal with a vibrant burgundy replacing the familiar silver and gold tones as the principal colour scheme. The package retains the intricate detailing and textured finish loved by Chivas fans worldwide.
The Icon: Chivas Regal The Icon is the pinnacle of the Chivas range. This blend is made up of more than 20 of Scotland’s rarest whiskies, some of which come from ghost distilleries now lost forever, making their products extremely rare and incredibly exclusive. Coveted by whisky aficionados the world over, these precious rare malts are blended together and matured to craft a timeless expression released in highly limited qualities every year. Each decanter used for Chivas The Icon is hand-blown and hand-finished by dedicated master craftsmen at Dartington Crystal. The artistry ensures a sublime finish reminiscent of the iconic green Chivas Regal bottle that captivated high society over a century ago. The crystal decanter carries an intricately designed metal Chivas Regal logo, and an exquisite heavy stopper bearing the Chivas luckenbooth, an ancient Scottish symbol of love, which embodies the Chivas’ love for Scotch whisky.

Though a NAS whisky, it has often been quoted as a 25 YO and a decanter recently auctioned by Sotheby’s was a 50 YO, distilled in 1968 and bottled in 2018, in memory of Manchester United’s European Cup final victory in 1968. Do note that there is no reference to the Royal Salute family, which comes from a totally disparate genre.


In March 2020, Chivas launched the Chivas Extra 13 collection: a range of four 13 year old whiskies that deliver extra flavour with the addition of one of four casks during the whisky-making process: Oloroso Sherry, Rum, American Rye, and Tequila.

The new collection was inspired by pioneering whisky blenders and founding brothers James and John Chivas who imported rums, exotic spices, and luxury food items from across the globe to their emporium at 13 King Street, Aberdeen. Each additional cask brought into the maturation or finishing process imparts its own unique combination of characteristics onto the Chivas blend, bringing a number of new flavour notes to the spirit for the first time:

– Chivas Extra 13 Oloroso Sherry Cask: the selective Oloroso Sherry cask maturation delivers a richer finish, with hints of sweet ripe pears in syrup, vanilla caramel, cinnamon sweets and almonds.

– Chivas Extra 13 Rum Cask: the selective Rum cask finish delivers a sweet finish with rich flavours of juicy orange, sweet apricot jam and honey offset by warm and spicy cinnamon flavours.

– Chivas Extra 13 American Rye Cask: the selective American Rye cask finish delivers an exceptionally smooth and mellow finish, with flavours of sweet and juicy orange and creamy milk chocolate.

– Chivas Extra 13 Tequila Cask: the selective Tequila cask finish delivers a sweet and round finish, with hints of grapefruit and pineapple.

With each new expression featuring artwork by renowned street artist Greg Gossel, Chivas has once again established new boundaries of traditional Scotch whisky with a fresh approach to pack design – blending images from its history with contemporary designs celebrating each finishing cask’s vibrant heritage. The four new whiskies rolled out globally in select markets from March, with the Chivas Extra 13 Rum Cask available exclusively via travel retail outlets from July that year. 



 In 2016, Chivas produced their first blended malt after the 1894 Royal Glen Gaudie in the form of Chivas Regal Ultis. Ultis is presented in a snazzy bottle, housed in a snazzy box and has some snazzy marketing behind it - a story of the five master blenders who have preserved the Chivas house style since 1895.

The single malts used in Chivas Ultis are:

  • Tormore: Presenting the palate with rich citrus orange notes.
  • Longmorn: Revealing a creamy smooth vanilla toffee character.
  • Strathisla: The heart of every Chivas whisky, full of malty and fruity charm with a subtle sweetness.
  • Allt-a-Bhainne: Bringing balance in the form of spice and malt, adding subtlety to the blend.
  • Braeval: Displaying a complex floral scent with green notes.

The five blenders: Charles Howard (of the first ever Chivas Regal blend, the luxurious 25 YO of 1909 fame), Charles Julian, Allan Baille, Jimmy Laing and Colin Scott (current Master Blender) are honoured in several ways with Ultis; visually, the bottle has five etched rings around the closure, as well as a giant embossed V on the bottom of the bottle; spirit-wise, five different single malts have been selected. While the actual constituents in terms of volumes and ages are not specified, it is known that all five are close to the 20 YO mark. It’s not cheap either at £170. Sadly, this is a listless 40% ABV whisky in a 70 CL bottle. It is fading into oblivion.

Chivas Regal Ultis is now history. Its successor Chivas Ultis XX is the ultimate indulgence. Every bottle contains an exclusive blend of Chivas’ rarest and most precious single malts, married with their signature single grain.

This whisky was created with five blended malt Scotch whiskies; Master Blender Sandy Hyslop made this whisky in honour of his five predecessors who held crucial roles in Chivas history, adding predecessor Colin Scott to the pathfinders. The importance of this number can be seen in the five copper rings across the bottle’s neck. Aged for 20 years, this is the ultimate blend to mark an occasion.

With less than 1% of the millions of casks within their inventory used, and each cask individually hand-selected and nosed, they have ensured only the highest quality are included in a blend worthy of a celebration.


Subsequent to The Excise Act 1823, all malt whiskies had to be stored in bond. The date of entry was printed on the barrel, as was the date of withdrawal. This gave the owner a genuine age certificate. But unscrupulous vendors would fetch another barrel (or more), forge the dates of entry and withdrawal, add a cheap malt whisky to the original, bulking up the volume, and sell two or more barrels at an inflated price. Worse was to follow from 1860, when Blended Scotch Whisky hit the market. Rogues would add only 5-10% of the aged Malt Whisky to a fresh barrel of some unknown grain whisky from one day to one year old, creating 9-10 barrels off one and sell them at a hyped-up price.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer under PM Henry Temple in 1860, Gladstone was under pressure from distillers because of his Malt Tax, which depended directly on ABV. Average Malt ABV was 65%. So, under his fiat, Revenue authorities agreed to allow the blending of “plain British spirit” with pot still malt whiskey. Dealers were permitted to bring any spirit from any part of the UK (including Ireland at that point) to any other part and mix it in any quantity. After an outcry, Gladstone accepted the proposal of Patent Still whisky (grain whisky) which was bland and weak as the additive to Malt Whisky, in ANY proportion. But ONLY distillers could do this blending. Grocers were added in 1863, but the whiskies had to be in an inconvenient BOND house. After pressure from Scotland, this rule was withdrawn and amended and Grocers could now blend at home in Bond, providing the distillery was no further than one-quarter mile from town.

Hardly anybody put his malts in Bond. A survey showed average storage time worked out to three months, most probably the transit time by ship to foreign ports. Those that were stored were found to be much better after three years or more; quality rose after maturation, volume dropped due angel’s share and price increased exponentially. No such barrel was ever seen in a pub. Between 1823 and 1890, after the publication of Acts by the dozen, most malts were being stored in Bond, but for an average of SIX months! There were many honest distillers, though, who allowed their barrels to age six, eight, ten years and more.

Timeline: Strathisla Distillery

Strathisla Distillery started life as the brewery of the local monastery and turned itself to the making of whisky in 1786, one of the few distilleries in what is now the Speyside region to go legal.

1786: Alexander Milne and George Taylor license Milltown distillery in 1796, making it the oldest registered plant
          in Scotland.
1823: The distillery is bought by McDonald Ingram and Co.
1830: William Longmore purchases the distillery.
1880: Longmore retires and his son-in-law JG Brown takes over.
1890: The distillery is renamed Milton.
1940: J Pomeroy purchases a majority share of the distillery.
1950: Seagram purchases the distillery when Pomeroy is jailed for fraud and the 
          plant is rendered bankrupt.
1951: The name is changed to Strathisla.
1970: The distillery begins a heavily peated run of Craigduff.
2001: Taken over by Pernod Ricard.
2013: The Strathisla brand is given a packaging update.

Timeline: Chivas Brother's Holdings

1801: Forrest opens Grocery, 47 Castle Street
1820: Hires William Edwards as Manager
1828: Forrest dies. Grocery bought by William Edwards.
1828: William Edwards expands Grocery by buying 46 Castle Street. Changes shop designation to Grocer,
          Wine and Spirits Purveyor and Provisions Merchant.
1834: Relocates to larger premises at 49 Castle Street. Adds Employment Agency to the portfolio.
1837: Relocates to 13 King Street.
1838: Hires James Chivas as his assistant. Chivas goes on to prove his worth.
1838: John Chivas employed by Apparel Merchant and Wholesale Dealer, DL Shirres.
1841: William Edwards dies intestate overseas. Legal formalities require closure of store.
1841: James Chivas leaves and joins food and wine merchant enterprise of Charles Stewart as junior partner,
          Stewart and Chivas, 39 Woolmanhill Street. Purchase vacant 13 King Street later that year and relocate there
          as a “One-stop-shop,” and excel in servicing disparate demands.
1843-51: Expand further to add 9,11 and 23 King Street. Purchase 21 King Street as residence for James Chivas.
1857: Charles Stewart leaves. John Chivas joins James as Partner, Chivas Brothers.
1862: John Chivas dies.
1886: James Chivas dies and control goes to James' son Alexander Chivas.
1893: Alexander Chivas dies, marking the end of the Chivas family’s association with products bearing their name.
1909: The first ever Chivas Regal bottling, the ultra-luxurious 25 YO makes its debut in the USA. No Chivas family member
          is associated with this release, essentially dedicated to/in honour of the departed James and John Chivas.

First published on 15 Dec 2019.

Wednesday 27 September 2023



Cardhu distillery in Speyside is, upon arriving at it, like many others in the area. There are beautiful stone buildings, a large forecourt, a visitor’s centre, stills, washbacks, casks… the things one would expect to find at any whisky-making outpost in the region. But it has a most curious and unique history.

It is when you pierce below its surface to understand more of its past that you realise this was no ordinary distillery. The history of Cardhu is forever entangled with the stories of two of the sharpest, most inventive and strong-willed women in Scotland’s early whisky narrative: Helen and Elizabeth Cumming. The former laid the foundations for success while the latter built on those and took Cardhu to being one of the most important in the region.

The distillery was registered with their trade mark as Car-dhu by John Cummings in 1795 and founded as Cardow (Gaelic for black rock) by John and his wife Helen in 1811. They had taken a 19-year lease on Cardow Farm at Knockando on Speyside, a remote spot with easy access to water and peat, it was the perfect place for illicit distillation. John grew his barley in the leased family farm to produce his own uisge beatha and peat. The Cumming's intent was quite clear from the outset, viz., illicit distillation of aqua vitae.

He thus began as a moonshine distiller by choice. The proximity of the river Spey was ideal for a distillery and the surrounding hills offered a hide-out in case of raids by the excise men. In 1816, John was convicted for distilling without official license three times. Distilling to small extents was usual for the farmers at that time and nearly no one cared for licenses. Cardow was distilling long before licenses to do so arrived in the valley in 1824. From about 1813, records show that John was busy taking care of the farmlands while the wily Helen was equally busy running the household and distilling the whisky. It is, therefore, not surprising, that Cardhu is accepted in history to have been the first of the Speyside distilleries to take out one of the new licences after the Excise Act was passed in 1823.

According to extracts from the insightful whisky encyclopedia by Alfred Barnard – published in 1893 – Helen was “a most remarkable character and a woman of many resources; she possessed the courage and energy of a man, and in devices and plans to evade the surveillance of the gaugers [those who hunted down illicit stills and the root of the word gauging], no man nor woman in the district could equal her.” In short: she was rather good at hiding her work from the authorities.

It was not just her ability to hide her illegal distilling that made her a famous character. It was the fact she did it with such aplomb and respect for her neighbours. Stories go that when Helen discovered the gaugers were on their way to do inspections, she would raise a red flag or hang out her washing to alert her neighbours and the prochahs, or boys who would run messages around the district, would see the signal and run to tell others. Then, she would invite the gaugers in, give them a bed for the night and wish them well on their way the next morning. You’ve got to admire her cheek!

Stories also go that she would walk all the way to Elgin – some 20 miles away – with bladders of whisky tied up underneath her skirts to sell on to willing consumers. The quality of her spirit was recognised early on so that by the time licences were being granted to distilleries such as Glenlivet (as it was known then, without a ‘The’), she did not need to put that name before her product, unlike many in the region which would have used Glenlivet as a prefix to give their spirit more credibility.

Helen outlived her husband by 39 years, reaching the incredibly ripe old age of 98. Not only did she run the distillery but she also managed to have eight children and 56 grandchildren.


But while she remained – it is said – of good mind until her death, it was her daughter-in-law who eventually took on the reins. Elizabeth was the wife of Helen’s son, Lewis, who had run the distillery in the late 1860s, increasing its output from 240 gallons a week to 500. When he died prematurely in 1872, it was Elizabeth who took on running the distillery.

According to Barnard: “Mrs Lewis Cumming personally conducted the business for nearly seventeen years, and to her efforts alone is the continued success of the distillery entirely due. It was this lady who enlarged the distillery in 1884, previous to which time the plant could only make 500 gallons per week; after she had made the alterations and extensive additions the new distillery turned out 1,680 gallons. As a book-keeper and correspondent, Mrs Cumming has not, in her own sex, an equal in this country.” Actually, Elizabeth rebuilt the primitive set-up in 1884 completely, selling the old stills and waterwheel to William Grant, who was planning to build his family distillery, called Glenfiddich, in Dufftown. By then, Cardhu had established itself as a favourite of blenders, but was also available as a single malt in London as early as 1888.

Barnard had viewed the single malt barn and the kiln which were of standard description; now there are two old barns and kilns but they have not been used as such since 1968 when malt barn no. 2 was converted into a warehouse.

The original mill was powered by a large 18 feet diameter waterwheel, presumably powered by the Cardow Burn that feeds a small dam beside the site and a larger one further upstream. The process water was and still is piped over two miles from a spring on Mannoch Hill, yet another distillery making use of this important watershed. I’m going to have to take a proper count of the number of distilleries that rely on Mannoch for water in one form or another - it may be more than Benrinnes and perhaps more than any other hill in Scotland since the Campbeltown heydays when Beinn Ghuilean was the filter for the waters of Crosshill Loch. The peat used at Cardow was also cut from moss land on Mannoch Hill but today the malt is almost unpeated.

The mash tun was originally quite small at just 12 feet wide by 5 feet deep and there were 6 washbacks holding 18,200 litres each. The current tun is a much larger stainless steel full lauter vessel that produces 35,000 litres of worts per mash to fill into one of the ten washbacks, eight of Douglas fir and two of stainless steel. Fermentation is a fairly regulation 72 hours.

The stills were also quite small at first, 9,100 litres for the wash still and 7,300 litres for the spirit, and the spirit was condensed in a cement worm tub that no longer exists. There were two more stills added (together with a larger mash tun and new washbacks) in 1899 and a further two in 1960. The wash stills now take a 17,375 litre charge and the spirit stills 14,780 litres. The lyne arms on the wash stills are horizontal but they rise very slightly on the spirit stills to create a lighter, yet still oily spirit that is condensed in internally placed shell and tube condensers.
The new distillery was capable of producing 273,000 litres p.a. but working to 182,000 litres at the time, compared to 114,000 litres p.a. at the old farm distillery. The capacity of those six stills is now 3.2m litres placing Cardhu inside the top 50% in Scotland by volume. Only bourbon casks are used for the 12yo single malt but some of the production is matured in sherry casks, all intended for blending. There are around 7,500 casks in five dunnage warehouses around the site but most of the production is for blending and is stored in central bond-houses. There is a dedication stone on the front of warehouse no.7 inscribed ‘E.C. 1884’ in recognition of the founding of the new site by Elizabeth Cumming.

Barnard’s reporting of Cardow doesn’t stop there though.  He returned to the distillery around seven or eight years later as part of his research for a chapter in a pamphlet he wrote for John Walker & Sons Ltd which also included reports on their Kilmarnock operations and Annandale Distillery that they took over soon after buying Cardow. In 1893 Elizabeth made a very important decision: She sold Cardow to John Walker & Sons for 20,500 pounds and ensured her family shareholding in Walker’s company. She died one year later and didn’t have the chance to see the success of her wise decision: Under the shield of the big company Cardow could stand the hard times caused by the whisky market crash in 1898.

The Cardow sale to John Walker & Sons Ltd. in Sept. 1893 and Barnard's mention that it was quite recent dates his journey soon after.  He also mentions that Elizabeth Cumming had retired from the distillery but still retains the house and farm, and her son John had taken over as manager and also appointed as a Director of John Walker & Sons. Elizabeth died in May 1894 so this dates Barnard’s second visit to late 93/early 94.

At that time, the distillery would have been selling most of its product on to blenders, one of which was Alexander Walker, from John Walker & Sons. In the late 1800s, the distillery was purchased by the blending house, one of the first malt distilleries in its portfolio.

Elizabeth did not simply walk away from the business that she and her mother-in-law had so faithfully built up. Instead, she ensured that her son – John Cumming – became a board member, while she continued living on the estate. She also made certain all of the distillery workers kept their jobs and that electricity was brought to the area – one of the first places to do so in the Spey Valley.

More than 120 years later, the distillery is owned by Diageo, which of course, in turn owns Johnnie Walker. It is now the ‘home’ of Johnnie Walker, with an impressive corporate hospitality area incorporating the brand’s history. Its output has also increased substantially – to 3.3 million litres per annum – but without the work and foundations laid by these two whisky women it wouldn’t have become the place it is.

The Single Malt and the Blended Malt

An alternative spelling to the distillery name, Cardhu, emerged after the Second World War, when it the distillery start promoting single malt bottlings. The distillery was formally registrated as Cardhu Distillery in 1981.

About 30% of the production is sold as single malt, the remaining entering in blends, most significantly of Johnnie Walkers blends, Red, Black, Green and Blue labels. The whisky fell victim to its own success, when Diageo (the current owners) decided to  introduce a vatted malt, Cardhu Pure Malt, (augmented by other single malts of the Diageo group), as it was not able satisfy all the demand for Cardhu single malt.



However in 2006 Cardhu recommenced producing a single malt. The Cardhu single malt bottlings are distinguished by their smooth, delicate, easy drinking character. Versions of over 12 years old demonstrate more fat texture and caramelised nuttiness, that makes them a good match to desserts. More of Cardhu Single Malts, 12/15/18 YOs are entering the market in keeping with common economic sense. The quality of the cheaper blends are declining.

In 2018, Diageo started to implement plans to spend £150m on upgrading tourism facilities across Scotland, including a new brand home for Johnnie Walker in Edinburgh, and improved visitor centres at Cardhu, Clynelish, Caol Ila and Glenkinchie, representing some of the regional styles present in Walker. Cardhu’s upgrade, with scenic access and an orchard planted highlights the history of the distillery, reflecting the influence of Helen and Elizabeth Cumming.

In the stonework of that calm outlook, the tranquility and the enduring cheek of that distillery – there is a stuffed lion toy that gets placed in random parts of the distillery so look out for it if you visit – you can feel the ghosts of these women. And, in my belief, it is all the more enriched for it.


Elizabeth Cumming registered the Car-Dhu trademark in 1795, changing it to Cardow in 1811 and licensing it as such in 1824. It was reverted to Cardhu in 1981. John and Helen Cumming handed over Cardow’s operations to their son, Lewis Cumming circa 1832. As other Speyside distilleries expanded, he made great play of Cardow being ‘the smallest distillery in Scotland’, extolling the virtues of the ‘sma’ still’ and winning a growing reputation for his whisky.

Lewis Cumming died in 1872, aged 69, survived by his 95-year-old mother Helen, who died two years later. Tales of her exploits persist to this day, with one Knockando resident of the mid-1980s recalling his grandmother describing how ‘Granny Cumming’ would sell whisky through the kitchen window of Cardow Farm. To say that Lewis Cumming’s death left his widow Elizabeth, 45, with a few challenges would be an understatement. Apart from running the farm and the distillery, she had two young sons to care for, a five-year-old daughter who died suddenly three days after her father, and she was pregnant at the time with a third son.

Nonetheless, the changes that Elizabeth Cumming wrought over the next two decades, among them the registering of the Car-Dhu trademark, were remarkable. By this time, Cardow was becoming antiquated, so Elizabeth secured a ‘feu’ or tenure over adjoining land and, in 1884-5, set about building a new distillery.

Alfred Barnard was able to observe Cardow past and future. The old buildings were, he wrote, ‘of the most straggling and primitive description’, whereas the recently completed new distillery was ‘a handsome pile of buildings’. The spirit, he added, was ‘of the thickest and richest description, and admirably adapted for blending purposes. Our guide told us that a single gallon of it is sufficient to cover ten gallons of plain spirit, and that it commands a very high price in the market’.

Elizabeth’s decision to build a new distillery was prompted by more than the need to modernise. As Barnard implies, Cardow’s spirit was highly sought-after by blenders, so it was imperative to increase production (from 25,000 gallons to 40,000 gallons a year, according to Barnard, although other sources say production trebled to 60,000 gallons).

Their second son James Cumming, a wine and spirits merchant in Edinburgh and a regular customer, was their greatest critic. In a letter to Lewis dated 31 December 1847, he wrote: ‘I wish very much you would if at all possible make your aqua [spirit] with less flavour and a great deal less soap; it tastes of nothing but soap and although I cannot say so here Glengrant whisky is worth a shilling per gallon more than yours for this part of the county, if you cannot use less soap you should put a higher head on your still … If I did not mix yours with Buchans I could not sell a gallon of it.’

Granny Helen Cumming’ would sell whisky through the kitchen window of Cardow Farm at a shilling a bottle.

In 1816, John Cumming was convicted three times for malting and distilling ‘privately’, but it was probably Helen who was operating the stills. ‘On one occasion, when brewing, she was warned that they were approaching. There was just enough time to hide the distilling apparatus, to substitute the materials of bread-making, and to smear her arms and hands with flour. When the knock came at the door, she opened it with a welcoming smile and the words: “Come awa’ ben, I’m just baking.”’

In those days, the Knockando area was littered with illicit stills. When the excisemen arrived at Cardow Farm – they were often billeted there while conducting their local investigations – Helen Cumming would cook them a meal and, while they ate, slip out of the back door and raise a red flag to warn the neighbours of their arrival.

In time, the excisemen grew rather frustrated, according to Ronnie Cox, brands heritage director, spirits, at Berry Bros & Rudd, and Helen Cumming’s great-great-great-grandson. ‘They were fed up with not finding any illegal stills, so they decided to offer her a bribe,’ he says. At first, Helen Cumming refused, but eventually she gave in, telling the men to return in a fortnight.

‘But within those two weeks, she told everybody what her plan was,’ says Cox. ‘She would go to the cave behind the big black rock [Cardow/Cardhu comes from the Scots Gaelic for black rock] and they would discover what looked like a still. But it would be the old, worn-out parts of a still. Then she would split the bribe with the neighbours and they would use it to buy new equipment.’

As a result, Cox adds, everyone was happy. ‘The Customs & Excise people won, in that they went away with the still parts as evidence – and everyone else went back to distilling again because they could now afford new parts.’

One of Cardow’s chief customers was the newly-formed Distillers Company Limited (DCL), which was keen to secure its supply in the best way possible – by buying the new distillery. Founded in 1877 as a trade cartel to set prices for grain whiskies, DCL grew into a controlling giant in the Scotch whisky industry, continually opening and closing distilleries in an attempt to match whisky supply with demand. The company approached Elizabeth Cumming in 1886 through her merchant brother-in-law, James, but she wrote back to him that she ‘could not possibly entertain such an idea’ as it ‘would not be justice to my family’.

Seven years later, Elizabeth’s eldest son, Lewis, died suddenly, so second son John Fleetwood Cumming had been forced to give up his medical studies in Aberdeen and return to the farm. In September 1893, Elizabeth agreed to sell Cardow to blender John Walker & Sons

Selling Cardow secured the future of family and distillery alike. The Cummings were now wealthy people! The sale was also one of Elizabeth Cumming’s last actions at Cardow; a year later, she died suddenly at the age of 67.