This year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Johnnie Walker, a book has been published called A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s no. 1 Scotch Whisky. We talk to the author Nicholas Morgan about how a blend from a small shop in Kilmarnock went global.

Before I even knew what whisky was, I’d heard of Johnnie Walker. As a boy growing up in the 1980s, I remember seeing the famous Striding Man on the back of a magazine with the legend, “Born 1820 and still going strong,” and marvelling at this extremely long-lived man.

For nearly half of the brand’s existence, however, the Striding Man didn’t exist and the whisky wasn’t even called Johnnie Walker. I learnt all this and more from a fascinating new book called A Long Stride by Dr. Nicholas Morgan. Morgan is the grandly-titled head of whisky outreach at Diageo but this is no corporate cutting job. Morgan taught Scottish history at Glasgow University before joining United Distillers (forerunner of Diageo) in 1989. In his research, Morgan has delved deep into the substantial Walker archive, with help of research assistant Laura Chilton. Refreshingly, he isn’t afraid to chart the lows as well as the highs, as we’ll see. 

“Hi Dr Nick!”

The result is a fascinating account of how one whisky became one of the world’s best known brands but it’s also a portrait of the Walker family, the town of Kilmarnock, and a rich history of the 19th and 20th centuries. We spent a very pleasurable hour discussing the book…

Early days:

It all began in 1820 when John Walker, son of a local farmer, went into the grocery business with a shop in Kilmarnock. Many grocers had their own blends of whisky – the idea of blended whisky came from tea blending where the grocers would blend teas of different types and qualities into a consistent product – but it was Walker’s blend, known as Old Highland Whisky, that began to build a reputation outside of the town, especially after John’s son, Alexander took over in 1857. Morgan explained why: “I would say consistency. It’s clear from Alexander’s correspondence that they were striving to improve the quality of their product and get this consistency, while doing everything on a bigger scale.” This was based on holding vast quantities of whisky stocks. “But also,” he continued”, “consistency in presentation, a square bottle, for the most part, with a slanty label on it.” This distinctive look that continues to this day began came in in the 1860s. That’s when the firm began to go global. To assist, it had a great sales team in London and later around the world, driven by Kilmarnock men. Morgan explained: “Alexander trusted everyone from Kilmarnock more than anyone else!”

Enter the Striding Man:

One thing that John Walker & Sons didn’t do was advertise. That was left up to Johnny-come-lately brands like Dewar’s. One of the big contrasts in the book is between the extravagant Dewars, who saw themselves as the young guns of the industry, and the more diffident Walkers: “I certainly had the Walker’s as my heroes,” said Morgan, “And then if I had villains, there would be the Dewar’s, these arriviste, self-publicity-seeking… ‘narcissists’ was one of the words I used to describe Tommy Dewar.”

The brand had become colloquially known as Johnnie Walker but the firm always referred to itself as John Walker & Sons, and the principal blend as Old Highland Whisky. Morgan explained: “John Walker’s widow lived until 1890 and she exerted a huge influence over Alexander and no doubt over her grandchildren. You can imagine what that was like: ‘Johnnie Walker’ no no no, we’re not going to do that!” It was James Stevenson, a non-family member, who shook things up. Morgan said: “He’d come into the business as an office boy but ended up in effect as marketing director and was a marketing genius. It took Stevenson to persuade the family of the power of this thing called ‘Johnnie Walker’ that lived in the minds of the public.”

Johnnie Walker ad from Punch magazine, 1922

The firm engaged American adman Paul E. Derrick, who was behind the Quaker Oats campaign. “Between Derrick and Stevenson they wrote this brief and rejected all that tartan, old men, Highland chiefs drinking,” said Morgan, “and that was the brief that finally went to a very famous cartoonist Tom Browne.” The result was utterly different to anything else in whisky. A Morgan puts it “A Georgian man walking along, with a dog originally, vigorous, striding, a bit rakish. An interesting sort of fellow. That was the character that suddenly leapt off full colour posters all around the UK in 1908. This was before TV. What are you going to talk about in the office? The adverts you saw. It was popular currency. To suddenly see this figure and everyone say ‘that’s Johnnie Walker! That’s the guy we’ve been talking about for 25 years and suddenly he’s come alive and he’s everywhere!’” Meanwhile, Walker’s blends were rebranded with Old Highland becoming White Label (later discontinued), Special Old Highland Red Label and Extra Special Black Label

The campaign was a huge success: sales went through the roof and transformed the brand. The image is so strong that it has been used to sell Johnnie Walker, on and off, ever since. And the clever thing is that much of the time, the adverts don’t even mention whisky. 

Upsetting the old guard:

It’s hard to imagine now that blends are the establishment, but in the late 19th century they were the disruptors, taking business away from malt whiskies. One of the most interesting parts of the book is Morgan’s take on the famous “What is Whisky?” case. This is usually told from the malt distillers perspective, defending their good name against inferior grain and blended whiskies but, as Morgan discovered, it’s a lot more complicated than that. 

“The rise of blended Scotch whisky disrupted a whole range of very well established economic relationships”, Morgan explained. These included the agricultural lobby put out by the imported grain used in blends and the old Highland distillers, “who did like to think of themselves as the sort of elite of the world of whisky. Suddenly they were simply suppliers of whisky to blenders. And the little interest there had been in malt whisky was taken away because everyone wanted to drink blended Scotch.” Both groups had powerful allies in parliament. 

The final piece in the jigsaw were retailers and wine merchants. “You have a system of retailing which is fundamentally threatened by the existence of advertised or promoted proprietary brands. It takes away the independence of retailers and it takes away the position of those wholesaling companies who have been supplying them.” Biggest of these were Gilbeys, the wine merchants, which, Morgan said, “led a campaign against blended Scotch and grain whisky. From the 1890s they were already trying to get acts of parliament through which would constrain what blenders could do”. In the end, however, the blenders won out and could continue to call their products ‘whisky’.

The evolution of the Striding Man

Tribulations and consolidation:

The 20th century was a turbulent time for Scotch. There was the fall-out from the collapse of Pattisons whisky business in 1898 which, though Walker’s were not involved, reverberated through the industry. Morgan explains: “There was a huge bubble of speculation and the Pattison crash brought that bubble down at a stroke. It depressed prices for new-make whiskies and for mature whiskies which speculators were holding, so a whole range of people suffered financially very badly from that and it knocked a lot of confidence out of the whole Scotch sector and it meant that banks wouldn’t loan.” 

But this wasn’t the only problem the industry faced. There was world war one followed by the influenza epidemic. Then prohibition not just in the US, but in Canada and New Zealand plus a real possibility that something similar would be enacted in Britain; Prime Minister Lloyd George was a teetotaler. 

The uncertain times led to a merger between Dewar’s, Buchanan’s, the Distillers Company (which owned grain distilleries) and John Walker & Sons in 1924/5. The Walkers, however, bargained hard not to be subsumed within this new whisky behemoth: “What came out of this merger, which was as the Walkers had intended, were cost savings on the production side but companies that still quite aggressively competed with each other in the marketplace.” Johnnie Walker preserved its semi-independence until the Distillers Company was bought by Guinness in 1986. Alexander Walker II, John’s grandson, was the last family member to run the business. 

Downs and ups:

Morgan’s book is largely a portrait of great men with vision, making bold decisions, and selling a quality product. But the Johnnie Walker board didn’t always make the wisest choices. Perhaps the most bizarre thing in the book was when they  went up against the might of the EEC, which Britain had joined in 1973, over the pricing of Red Label. “They had one set of pricing for the UK and they had one set of pricing for European customers. That was in contravention of the EEC regulations,” says Morgan. “So the European Commission took them [the Distillers Company] to the European Court and a ruling came out that that was not a permissible way of doing business which affected everyone in the trade.”

Rather than put UK prices up, the management decided to remove entirely the Red Label brand, which was selling 1.25 million cases at home, from the British market. The plan was to replace it with a new brand called John Barr,  “which was not a success in any way”, Morgan said with some understatement. This decision had a momentous impact on the industry. You’ve probably heard that the infamous ‘whisky loch’ was caused by overproduction in the 60s and 70s, but according to Morgan “it’s really the Red Label loch because that million cases are out of the market”. 

This  presented an opportunity for other brands like Famous Grouse and Bell’s. But also led directly to the upsurge in single malts:  Morgans explains: “As a member of one of those [single malt] families gleefully told me when we were talking about the book, at a dinner last year, ‘boy when Red Label went it was just hoorah, hoorah!’” Meanwhile at DCL, the management thought that single malts had no future and actively thwarted the rise of Cardhu, a brand which was taking off in Spain and Italy. D’oh!

It’s a great-looking book with lots of illustrations and photos

But Johnnie Walker recovered: the book explains how much of the vigour returned to the brand in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Opportunities for de luxe whiskies, especially in emerging markets, were capitalised on with the launches of Blue, Gold and Green Label. Meanwhile the Striding Man himself was invigorated: “At the beginning of this century, a bit like happened in 1908 with the creation of the Striding Man, that character was absolutely rejuvenated by BBH [ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty] in the ‘Keeping Walking’ campaign, which actually saw the brand grow again, from around ten million cases to 20 million, astonishing in a short period.” He went on to say: “In the same way that the Striding Man had reached out to consumers in the early 20th century, this new manifestation based around this idea of personal progress, captured consumers’ imaginations and it was brought to life with all that same brilliant creativity that had been seen in the Edwardian era.”

As we enter another extremely uncertain period in history, it’s somehow reassuring that Johnnie Walker has come through far worse adversity. Morgan said: “There is a story in the book about resilience which is good for this current moment. “ So, let’s raise a glass to another 200 years of the Striding Man!

A Long Stride: The Story of the World’s No. 1 Scotch Whisky by Nicholas Morgan is published by Canongate.