The great scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote that “Freedom an’ whisky gang thegither!” Certainly American history bears out this maxim. George Washington was a distiller, as were many of his contemporaries. Moreover, the first civil uprising in the United States was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, in which 7,000 farmers and other citizens of western Pennsylvania took up arms in rebellion against an imposed excise tax on distilled spirits. The participants in this revolt were predominantly Scotch-Irish immigrants—which perhaps explains why the Land of the Free has such an abiding affinity for Scotland, her people, and all her whiskies. Yet among the United States’ Scotch whisky fanciers, none has a deeper appreciation (or greater obsession) with his spirit of choice than the single-malt Scotch whisky enthusiast. The origins of this passion remain obscure, and opinion varies as to which brand first catalyzed the frenzy. As the president of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America—a private membership club whose members are among the most ardent and knowledgeable enthusiasts of the rarest whiskies—I have absorbed a fair amount of history on single malts, but even I hesitated recently when asked which was the first single-malt Scotch whisky brand to arrive on U.S. shores. I decided to investigate the matter.
From the early days, single-malt Scotch whisky was almost completely unknown to those outside the trade. Industry insiders, both here and in Scotland, termed it “straight Scotch whisky” until as recently as the 1970s. Prior to 1853, however, virtually all Scotch whisky was single malt, which means it was produced from 100 percent malted barley from a single distillery in small pot stills in Scotland. Then, in that fateful year, came the invention of the column still, which could produce high capacities of grain alcohol from less expensive crops than barley at a much faster rate. The artful blending of one or more single malts together with aged grain alcohol resulted in blended Scotch whisky—or simply Scotch whisky, as it has come to be called.
By the 1870s, blended Scotch whisky (which is predominantly made up of single malts) accounted for approximately 98 percent of all Scotch whisky sales. These hybrid spirits furnished innovative Scottish grocers, such as the distinguished John Dewar, with the opportunity to brand the bottles they sold in their stores by adorning them with attractive white paper labels that bore their names: Dewar’s White Label originated with this practice, which provided consumers with a spirit consistent in taste, quality, and price. Dewar’s blended Scotch whisky became hugely fashionable throughout London and extremely popular elsewhere in the world. Other brands—such as Johnnie Walker, Chivas Brothers, and Usher’s—continued in this tradition, further boosting the popularity of Scotch whisky.
The earliest historic reference I have uncovered relating to the importation of single-malt Scotch whisky to America should by no means be interpreted as definitive; yet records from the Glenlivet Distillery—possibly the first licensed Highland distillery—indicate that shipments of malt whisky from that distillery to North America date to the 1870s. Other distilleries also may have exported to the United States during this time, including Glenfiddich, Strathisla, Glenfarclas, and Glen Grant. Regardless of which of these brands (or possibly others) actually crossed the Atlantic first, however, the Glenlivet stands as the most prominent single malt among those imported into America, and it served as a catalyst for the growing American thirst for single malts today.
The success of single-malt Scotch whisky in the United States began in earnest in the early 1950s, when its sales totaled somewhere between 750 and 1,000 cases annually. A handful of the most popular U.S. entertainers—Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner, and Robert Taylor—embraced the virtues of the Glenlivet, and their drinking habits sparked a trend that awakened the taste buds of their fellow Americans to the charms of single-malt whisky. It is my understanding that, in 1952, Americans drank less than 300 cases of the Glenlivet; however, in 1963, that number had more than doubled to 735 cases, only to redouble to almost 1,600 cases one year later. By 1964, the combined U.S. sales of their largest competitors—Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Glen Grant, and Laphroaig—failed to equal that of the Glenlivet alone.
The Glenlivet Distillery produced almost 775,000 gallons of its prized single malt in 1970. Of these, only 11,000 cases were sold worldwide as the Glenlivet, the balance being purchased by blenders for the production of blended whisky. Shortly thereafter, the Joseph E. Seagram Co.—a large and enormously successful producer and marketer of U.S. and Canadian whiskeys and owner and importer of the Chivas Regal brand—became the U.S. importer of the Glenlivet. The then chairman of that firm, Sam Bronfman (known as “Mr. Sam”), recognizing the high quality of the Glenlivet, astutely adopted it as a prime component of the deluxe Chivas blend. In 1978, some years after Mr. Sam’s demise, his son Edgar—concerned that the increasing status of the single malt in America might hinder the supply—purchased a 24.5 percent share in the Glenlivet Distillers Ltd., thereby ensuring a steady flow of excellent malt stocks for the ever-growing Chivas Regal brand.
By the 1980s, affluent American consumers accustomed to the appreciation of fine wine began to explore the unusual qualities of single-malt Scotch whisky. During that decade, I was employed by a prominent Scotch whisky firm, Arthur Bell & Sons, whose brand, Bell’s, was the number-one-selling Scotch whisky in Great Britain. The company’s three single-malt whiskies—Blair Athol, Dufftown-Glenlivet, and Inchgower—did not interest me as much as the tasteful Bell’s 20 Years Old blend did. My affinity for single malts remained tepid at best, until I encountered the Glenlivet, which immediately warmed me to the concept and, in fact, became my then-whisky-of-choice.
I had the pleasure of being introduced in 1993 to Pip Hills, founder of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, an organization devoted to promoting a renaissance of appreciation for all single-malt Scotch whiskies. This gentleman, learned in all liquors, asked me about my experience with malts, and I simply replied, “The Glenlivet.” This fine spirit, announced Mr. Hills, was one of Scotland’s best whiskies and a great single malt against which to compare all others. He then offered me Caol Ila, a heavily peated malt from Scotland’s Western Hebrides. To say that I was smitten is perhaps too light a phrase to accurately characterize the experience of tasting this brooding and complex draught. Later, I would learn that not only did each distillery produce a malt completely unique in flavor and taste, but that individual barrels of the same malt vary markedly from one another as well—even when they are produced and barreled for maturation on the same day.
The society adapted the winemaker’s concept of terroir—the influence of factors unique to a location on the flavor and quality of a wine—to highlight the distinctive and consistent regional variations of single-malt whiskies that arise from weather, exposure, water, and type of cask used for aging; we also borrowed much of the terminology employed by winemakers in describing their creations—a practice now common in the industry. Today, in most major cities throughout America, up to 200 different expressions of single-malt Scotch whisky can be found at specialty stores, along with exceptional single malts from such countries as Japan, New Zealand, and the United States. The liquid enthusiasm of Hollywood luminaries combined with Mr. Sam’s judicious palate, shrewd eye, and single-minded determination, not to mention the powerful distribution network that the Bronfmans continued to expand, paved the way for other great distilleries to grow their distribution networks in the United States as well. Thus do freedom and whisky still “gang thegither” in the New World as in the Old.
Alan Shayne is the president of the American chapter of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a private membership club dedicated to the appreciation of rare and unique single-malt, single-cask whiskies.