Whisky is an act of deceit.
It starts when distillers deceive the malt by soaking it so it thinks it’s time to germinate, releasing the sugars that the grain would normally use to grow into plants – sugars that will create the whisky’s alcohol.
There’s deceit in the economics. Governments wanted farmers to sell their grain at harvest time when the market was glutted and prices were low. But if you could hold off, you could make more money. Except the government would tax you if you did. And anyway, grain goes bad if it’s stored too long. But whisky? Whisky just gets better with age. So deceive the taxman by turning your grain into whisky – and put that extra money into your pocket, not his.
And there’s deceit in the history – when pious Britons deemed whisky-drinking a northern deviancy that must be ruthlessly stamped out. And if by eliminating it, you also quashed the culture of the Scots themselves, well, so much the better.
And hell, there’s even deceit when a whisky-drinker introduces it to a novice – telling them it’s a lovely thing with hints of honey and chocolate, never revealing that it’s going to burn their souls right down to the ground.
So whisky is – thoroughly, intentionally, and culturally – an act of deceit.
Which the eminent whisky writer F. Paul Pacult clearly understands (though he never says it directly) and illustrates in this biography of two of Scotland’s most famous brands, Chivas and The Glenlivet. Why two whiskies and these two in particular? The answer is interesting not just to drinkers but to marketers, advertisers, and anyone who has to manage a brand.
Pacult starts his tale before humans arrived in Scotland, to discuss the soil that would yield the grains that would create the whiskies. Then he weaves in the arrival of the Romans, who threw up their hands at the Scots and built a wall to keep them out of more civilized Britain. And then the arrival of monks who understood distilling. Then, after cataloguing the wars with those more civilized Britons, he lands on the thorny unification of the two kingdoms – resulting in the whisky laws that clearly didn’t understand the economy and culture of the land they were made for. Throughout, Pacult does a fine job pulling together the different strands to show how central Scotch has always been to the culture of Scotland– despite the jokes that inspires in comedians and pundits.
The individual stories of The Glenlivet and Chivas begin around 1820 when distilling and whisky are legalized. And that’s when Pacult begins alternating chapters in A Double Scotch to tell the diverging stories of the two brands – one, a family distillery in the wilds of Scotland that sets a standard for taste and quality; the other, a pair of brothers who open a grocery store in Aberdeen and end up developing an extremely valuable relationship with Queen Victoria when she falls in love with nearby Balmoral.
All of which balances nicely until the Canadian entrepreneur Samuel Bronfman (who may or may not have gotten his start during American prohibition supplying stateside bootleggers with product) bursts onto the scene, disrupting A Double Scotch in much the same way he disrupted the spirits business. For Bronfman brought a decidedly new world, post-war perspective to Scotch and the way it was marketed.
One of Bronfman’s most important contributions was choosing DDB as Chivas’ ad agency. You can clearly see the hand of Helmut Krone’s dictum that a brand’s advertising should be so distinctive that you can tell who it’s for from across the room, in every layout. And the strategy – as it often did at DDB – cut to the heart of the real game being played. For while other brands mistook symbols for meaning, filling their ads with men in kilts, DDB knew Chivas was about success, achievement, legitimacy. You might buy a VW because you want people to know that you zig where others zag. But you would buy Chivas Regal because you want people to know you’d arrived – and because you wanted people to know you know you’ve arrived.
Now if all of this seems like a lot more than just a story of two companies who make an alcohol, you’re right. And that’s sort of the point.
Because the story of The Glenlivet and Chivas – the story of scotch – is really the story of the evolution of a brand over centuries. From all the way back when the product was the brand – when what you drank locally was “scotch”, and that was pretty much all you knew because you stayed put. To the development of different types of scotch as people began to move to other regions and compare. To the explosion of the British Empire which increased demand and required a way to create a lot of a flavor that would taste the same in Mumbai as it did in Manchester – transforming “scotch”, which to this point had been single malts (like The Glenlivet) into blends (like Chivas). And then scotch becoming a sort of emblem of success in post-war America – no longer the purview of grubby highlanders bootlegging illegal stills and keeping a step ahead of the hangman’s noose. Now it was exactly the badge self-conscious post-war Americans needed to reassure themselves. Which would have been unfathomable to the Chivas Brothers in their Aberdeen store or the rural distillers of The Glenlivet.
In other words, for centuries scotch has adapted itself to the needs and perceptions of its customers, even as those customers fundamentally changed. Doing it while adapting to the needs and demands of the marketplace. And the culture. And the world. Which is why it has been so deeply intertwined with the economies, the governments, the culture, and the science of Scotland, England, and the world.
And that is why the histories of The Glenlivet and Chivas that F. Paul Pacult chronicles in A Double Scotch is fascinating. And that’s no lie.