Johnnie Walker

The story of the world’s biggest Scotch whisky brand begins in 1819, when the trust representing 14-year-old John Walker sold his family farm after the death of his father. The following year the proceeds from Todriggs farm were used to buy young John a...

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The story of the world’s biggest Scotch whisky brand begins in 1819, when the trust representing 14-year-old John Walker sold his family farm after the death of his father. The following year the proceeds from Todriggs farm were used to buy young John a grocery shop to run in the Ayrshire town of Kilmarnock, twenty miles south of Glasgow in the Scottish Lowlands.

Walker’s shop was initially styled as an Italian Warehouse (an exotic phrase for a local delicatessen) and soon was specialising in tea, wines and spirits, but it wasn’t until John Walker’s son Alexander joined the business in 1856 that whisky began to take centre stage. John Walker passed away the following year and under Alexander Walker’s direction the company switched from retail to wholesale whisky sales.

The timing for this move was propitious. Within a few years the blending together of single malt and blended Scotch whiskies had been legalised and soon blended Scotch whisky as we know it today was in the ascendancy. John Walker & Sons was able to take advantage of Kilmarnock’s proximity to Glasgow and status as a textile trade hub to spread their product south via visiting English businessmen, and the canny Alexander also made sure his whisky was served on ships sailing from Glasgow to every corner of the British empire by giving the ships’ captains a commission on every bottle sold. 

Nevertheless, the expansion of the Walker’s whisky business was dramatic, and the Kilmarnock premises were expanded in the 1860s as sales of Walker’s whisky reached 100,000 gallons (over 450,000 litres) of blended whisky per year, necessitating the opening of a London office for the company in 1880.

It was Alexander Walker who designed the slanting label for his house blend, Walker’s Old Highland Whisky, in 1865, registering the brand in 1867 as one of the earliest commercial copyrights, and who introduced Johnnie Walker’s famous square-sided bottles in the 1870s - the bottles were chosen because their shape made them efficient to pack and export in bulk. 

Alexander Walker’s sons Alec and George took over after his death in 1889 and continued to expand the business, with George moving down to London to take charge of marketing, while Alec - who had apprenticed as a tea blender - took over the blending side of the business. 

In 1890 a remarkable young businessman named James Stevenson joined the Walker brothers, soon rising to Managing Director, while Alexander Sr’s other son, John, was sent to open an office in Australia, the company’s most important export market. John was later to die in Australia, but the medals Walker’s Old Highland Whisky garnered at Australian trade shows in the late 19th century decorated bottles of Johnnie Walker whisky for many decades and have only recently disappeared from the labels.

The Cardhu single malt distillery was acquired by Alec Walker in 1893 to secure blending stock, and by the early 1900s Walker’s Old Highland Whisky was sold at three ages denoted by different colours, with a white label indicating whisky over 5 years old, a red label for whisky over 9 years old and a black label for whiskies over 12 years old. In 1908, the commercial artist Tom Browne was commissioned to produce a marketing poster featuring the original John Walker; his Striding Man design, along with James Stevenson’s tagline ‘Born In 1820 - Still Going Strong’ sent the brand into the stratosphere and in 1909 Walker’s Old Highland Whiskies were rebranded simply as Johnnie Walker White, Red and Black. 

During WWI, the company took shares in Coleburn, Clynelish, Dailuaine and Talisker distilleries to protect future supply and in 1923, John Walker & Sons went public; two years later the company was to join rival blending behemoths Dewar’s and Buchanan’s in an enormous merger with the Distillers Company Limited (DCL). Johnnie Walker was already the biggest Scotch whisky blender, and was to remain one of the DCL’s most important brands.

With White Label having been dropped around the time of WWI, Johnnie Walker Swing (sometimes known as Johnnie Walker Celebrity) was introduced for export markets in 1932. Half a century later in 1983, with Johnnie Walker still the world's best-selling blend, Johnnie Walker Harmony was launched for the Japanese market; it was followed in 1987 by arguably the first modern ultra-premium blended Scotch whisky, Johnnie Walker Oldest, which became Johnnie Walker Blue Label in 1992.

The huge success of Johnnie Walker Blue Label prompted further developments. After a limited release of Johnnie Walker Gold Label 15-year-old was launched in Japan in 1990 to great acclaim, an 18-year-old Gold Label joined the core range in 1995 as Johnnie Walker Gold Label Centenary Blend and was followed in 1997 by Johnnie Walker Pure Malt 15-year-old. In 1999 Johnnie Walker launched their famous 'Keep Walking' global marketing campaign, which brought the brand even greater success.

Following the unedifying Cardhu Pure Malt controversy in 2003, Johnnie Walker Pure Malt 15-year-old was withdrawn and relaunched as Johnnie Walker Green Label 15-year-old in 2004, then discontinued in 2012 and revived without an age statement in 2016. A new smokier blend, Johnnie Walker Double Black, made a successful launch in travel retail in 2011 and soon became part of the core range. 

Johnnie Walker Gold Label, meanwhile, was stripped of its 18-year-old age statement and rebranded as the no-age-statement Johnnie Walker Gold Reserve in a 2013 range revamp which also saw the introduction of a more expensive new 18-year-old Johnnie Walker named Platinum Reserve, to the ire and dismay of many whisky fans. 

Numerous brand extensions and limited editions of Johnnie Walker Blue Label have appeared this century, with the most prominent being Johnnie Walker King George V, which debuted in 2008 and has since been incorporated into the core range. Sadly, the Johnnie Walker brand’s last link with its home town was severed in 2012 when DCL successors Diageo took the decision to close their bottling plant in Kilmarnock.

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