As the Queen celebrates 70 years on the throne this long weekend, Dr Nick Morgan takes a look at the long interlinked history of the Royal Family and the Scotch whisky industry. That royal touch has certainly helped shift a good few bottles down the centuries.
For over seven hundred years from the reign of Edward the Confessor there was a belief throughout the kingdom that the sovereign had either magical or God-given powers to heal a variety of ailments by touch. Of these scrofula, or the King’s Evil (a tubercular inflammation of the lymph glands) became the most prominent, and successive monarchs ‘cured’ thousands of supplicants in carefully stage-managed ceremonies, until the practice fell out of favour in the age of Hanoverian rationalism.
The royal touch
Residual beliefs die hard; in nineteenth century Scotland some still believed that Queen Victoria possessed the power of healing, and she certainly deployed her royal touch publicly and systematically to demonstrate the intimacy of the relationship she shared with her subjects. By this time others had come to see that the power of the royal touch transcended matters of mere mortality, and that it could be one of the most persuasive marketing tools available. Royal Warrants of Appointment, granted by the Lord Chamberlain on behalf of the monarch, were precious endorsements for ambitious businesses, and as Scotch malt whisky emerged from the dark days of illegal production and violent smuggling in the early 1800s Scotland’s distillers were as keen as any to obtain the healing touch of royal legitimacy.
Captain William Fraser of Brackla, near Nairn, the first distiller to exploit this sovereign power, has not suffered well at the hands of whisky writers. Most have chosen to accept the unflattering portrait of him as an overbearing tyrant painted in The Reminiscences of a Gauger, written by Joseph Pacy. Pacy was posted as excise officer to Fraser’s distillery on his Brackla estate, and Fraser’s habit of playing fast and loose with excise regulations clearly sat badly with the jobsworth gauger (exciseman). As a prominent agriculturalist and magistrate Fraser was a leading figure in the local community, where he was remembered more for his commercial acumen, cordiality and conviviality than Pacey’s alleged vexatiousness. ‘Overflowing bumpers’ seemed to follow him from dinner to dinner; ploughing matches on his estate were preceded by drams, the weary ploughmen ‘plentifully regaled with whisky, bread and cheese’ at the finish, while guests enjoyed ‘Captain Fraser’s well-known hospitality.’ He was, said one neighbour at a local farmer’s dinner, ‘the soul and spirit of our entertainments.’
Excise Act to the rescue
Fraser took advantage of changes in the law to set up his distillery in 1817, but he complained of the competition from unlicensed distillers and smugglers who controlled the local market for whisky, and in 1820 advertised the distillery for lease or hire. The profound structural changes in the Highland distilling industry that followed the passing of the 1823 Excise Act came to his rescue and he expanded and totally re–equipped the distillery over the following two years. Production rose from 5,660 gallons in 1821 to nearly 40,000 gallons in 1833. Fraser had opened ‘the Brackla spirit cellar’ in Inverness to sell his whisky there (and to help guarantee to consumers that it was not being blended, or ‘adulterated with south country spirits’), and was regularly shipping from there to Aberdeen and also, from 1826, to London, his whisky having been ‘found very suitable for the English market.’ He also began to set up a network of agents. What he needed now was something to attract consumer’s attention and drive sales.
On the last day of July in 1833 a Captain Fraser was presented to King William IV in London. This may, or may not, have been William Fraser of Brackla. The following month it was reported that the King had granted Fraser permission ‘to use the Royal Arms on everything connected with his distillery, owing to the fine quality of the spirits made at the works.’ A court circular explained that this was ‘a mark of approbation of the complete success which has attended his efforts to make Highland Whiskey by licensed distillation, equal in quality to the spirit from illicit stills.’ One newspaper described Brackla as ‘glorious whisky.’ This regal seal of approval was both a vindication of the earlier changes in the distilling laws and regulations and a clear message from the highest seat in the land that Highland malt whisky, previously little known in London, had arrived. In a sense it did for Scotch whisky what George IV’s famously tartan-draped visit to Edinburgh in 1822 had done for Scotland. Over the next few years Fraser’s marketing went into overdrive. The royal touch did the trick. It made Scotch respectable.
In January 1834 Fraser’s Aberdeen agent, under a large illustration of the Royal Arms, declared Brackla ‘so superior in quality to any other spirit that it has attained the patronage of royalty.’ A Liverpool merchant advertised whisky ‘from the Royal Distillery at Brackla’. ‘The King’s own whisky, distilled expressly for his own use … is perhaps the only malt spirit which proves alike congenial to the palate and constitution of connoisseurs of every country’ read a notice from London agent Henry Brett. He supplied the whisky in sealed bottles or, ‘for gentlemen who appreciate the peculiar mellowness derived from contact with the wood’, in ‘casks of any dimensions, securely fitted with lock taps’, advising that it ‘produces the most excellent punch or toddy.’ Royal Brackla was also recommended to ‘Members of Parliament who wish for an exchange of ideas, to multiply their powers and quicken their imagination.’
Regular adverts appeared in the Morning Post and numerous other London and suburban titles. Fraser and his agents were relentless in reminding readers of his royal connections. In January 1836 Brett warned that ‘demand exceeds the supply … of this incomparable whisky’. Even the graceless Pacy acknowledged that the distillery was ‘well known throughout Scotland, and I may say England and Ireland, as The Royal Brackla Distillery’. ‘The Captain’s whisky’, he wrote, ‘had a great name, it fetched the best price in the market.’ The power of the regal touch had made Royal Brackla one of the best known whiskies in the land, but Fraser’s exclusivity was short lived. William IV died in June 1837, and much to Fraser’s ire the new Queen appointed John Windsor, a partner in the business that owned Glenury Distillery near Stonehaven, ‘to the place of Distiller to Her Majesty in ordinary’ in January 1838.
Glenury’s royal too
Production at Glenury had been substantially increased the previous year, ‘to such an extent as to rank it with the first distilleries in the north’, producing ‘a still better spirit than hitherto’ and Windsor had taken over as manager. With a significant investment to recoup the company was looking for a boost to its business. Captain Robert Barclay of Ury, also a partner, was a sporting celebrity and well known at court, so it was probably his influence that earned distillery the powerful endorsement which was widely reported in newspapers throughout England and Scotland. When Barclay was entertained to dinner by the local farming community in the malt barn of the distillery in July behind him was ‘a painting of the Royal Arms, and Captain Barclay’s armorial bearings, beautifully emblazoned.’
Fraser’s response to the loss of his unique selling point was to accuse Windsor of falsification, which provoked an unseemly and very public dispute between the two, played out in the pages of Scottish newspapers. Accusations were hurled back and forth as each tried to claim exclusivity for their appointment (Fraser’s having been renewed by the Queen in May 1838). Fraser continued to assert in these exchanges and advertising that he was ‘the only distiller in the Kingdom who has the high honour of supplying the royal table with Highland whisky.’ However, circumstance soon lent a hand to assuage his fury. Amidst ongoing financial difficulties Glenury Royal was put up for sale at the end of 1838 (it was to be after more than ten years and several price reductions that a deal was finally done). Windsor was declared bankrupt in 1839 and the partnership more or less collapsed. Captain Barclay was too busy feasting and fornicating to attend to business. The royal rival to Brackla was scotched.
And now Lochnagar
If William IV’s Warrant to Captain Fraser had made Scotch whisky respectable, then it would be Queen Victoria who made it both fashionable and popular following her visit to Lochnagar distillery (a close neighbour of Balmoral Castle) in the autumn of 1848. With her Consort and children, the Queen toured the distillery with the owner John Begg, ‘the prince tasted the result of the operation he had witnessed and the Queen condescendingly putting it to her lips’, pronounced ‘the quality to be very fine.’ The Queen’s fascination with Scotland had caught the imagination of the public and the press, including new publications like the Illustrated London News. Her every move was followed and reported on: John Begg’s star shone in her firmament. Royalty from all over Europe beat a path to his door.
News of Begg’s Royal Warrant appeared in the press immediately, and his London agents placed stories and adverts across a variety of carefully chosen consumer-facing titles from the Morning Post to the Lady’s Own Magazine. Within a few months the agents noted that Royal Lochnagar had experienced ‘immense sales since its patronage by the Queen and the Prince Consort’ and warned of widespread counterfeiting, such was the whisky’s popularity. Two years later it was said to command ‘a large sale in the markets of the United Kingdom and its colonies … at a higher price than any other distillery’. With a relentless focus on his Royal Warrant Begg’s future was assured: writing in 1887 Peter Mackie wrote that ‘Lagavulin, I believe, is exceptional in having a larger sale as a self whisky that any other bar perhaps Lochnagar …’ Two years later a writer described Begg as ‘the Queen’s favourite, who made himself a name and fortune under the mountains which shadow Lochnagar.’
There can be no doubt that royal patronage, and its skilful exploitation by its recipients, played a large part in the growing popularity of Scotch whisky in England (and around the world) in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is perhaps ironic that these famous ‘royal’ distilleries and their single malts laid the groundwork for the remarkable growth of blended Scotch whiskies from around the 1860s, which would result in the single malt category being almost eviscerated by the start of the First World War. By then over a dozen blending companies had received Warrants since the 1890s, along with Irish and Canadian producers. The royal touch would prove to be just as critical to their success as it had been to their forbears.