The Johnnie Walker Story: 1820-2020 and beyond
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- 11 February 2020
Dive into the past, present and future of the world-famous whisky brand
The Journey Begins in 1820
Following the death of his father, a 15-year-old boy, John Walker, opens a grocery store in Kilmarnock using the proceeds from the sale of the family farm. A big responsibility for a young lad, but John Walker wasn't like most people.
As it turns out, John had a knack for business. This became even more apparent when he began blending different whiskies from around Scotland to create a consistent, high-quality product – something that was severely lacking at the time, and which soon became extremely popular with his customers.
Like Father, Like Son
John's son, Alexander, inherited his father's love for business and whisky. And, when John passed away in 1857, he also inherited the grocery store.
Alexander knew there was something special about his father's unique approach to whisky blending and began working on growing that side of the business. By 1867, he had launched the company's first commercial blend – Old Highland Whisky.
He then brokered deals with ship captains and started establishing a network of sales agents around the world, taking his whisky global.
A Unique Slant
But Alexander's eye for innovation didn't stop there. He wanted his whisky to stand out visually as much as it did in taste. So, he decided to slant the bottle label at 20 degrees, optimising the type size and making the brand name stand out even more.
Next, he set his sights on the bottle. Like a lot of other whiskies at the time, the John Walker & Sons bottle was round. This meant that the bottle was not only blending in with the others on the shelf but it was also taking up more space than necessary when being transported. So, in a classic example of Scottish practicality and ingenuity, he changed the shape. And thus, the distinct square bottle that Johnnie Walker is now recognised for around the world was born.
Nothing in the Market Shall Come Before It
Despite the rapid growth of the business, Alexander never lost sight of what made John Walker & Sons whisky so special: quality. When asked by one his Australian sales agents to consider reducing his prices in order to better compete with the other Scotch whiskies emerging on the market, he offered this brilliant response:
'With regard to the different brands of whisky which you mention, they may for a time detract from the sale of J.W.&.S. but we are determined to make our whisky, so far as quality is concerned, of such a standard that nothing in the market shall come before it.'
This quote has since become a manifesto for quality that remains at the heart of Johnnie Walker to this day.
Buying Cardhu Distillery
In their pursuit of unrivalled quality, John Walker & Sons had begun acquiring stocks from as many Scottish distilleries as possible, but the time had come to take the next, big step. So, in 1893, they made their first foray into owning the means of production and bought a distillery by the name of Cardhu.
Located in Speyside, Cardhu had been garnering the attention of whisky makers around the country. It not only had a reputation for producing the finest single malt but it had also recently been expanded to produce up to three times more whisky.
Much like John Walker & Sons, Cardhu was a business borne out of passion, innovation and ingenuity. It was also unique in that it featured two generations of very strong, generous women, starting with Helen Cumming.
Helen and her husband, John, took over the lease of the farm in 1811. She played an active role in the farm's distilling operations and was known for helping her fellow distillers outwit the excise men by raising a red flag above her barn roof while they dined with her.
Her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, eventually took over the business and proved herself to be just as sound and astute of a businesswoman as Helen. The distillery flourished under her management and grew in reputation. So much so that the Walkers were willing to pay Elizabeth the very handsome sum of £20,500 when they acquired it from her.
And thus, John Walker & Sons, were now officially the owners of their own distillery.
A Third Generation Takes the Reins
By the late 19th century, Alexander's two sons – Alexander II and George – had taken over the family business, with Alexander II becoming chairman and managing director. Like their father and grandfather before them, the brothers were skilled, entrepreneurial and innovative businessmen who worked tirelessly to grow Johnnie Walker's global footprint.
The Striding Man in Born
With the business going from strength to strength, the brothers had a novel idea: what if they could create a symbolic representation of the brand they were building? Something that captured the energetic, progressive spirit of John Walker & Sons?
It was with this in mind that they recruited Paul E Derrick, a leading advertising agent in London. Paul soon learnt that customers had been calling the brand 'Johnnie Walker' for decades and he was quick to recognise that there was something powerful about the name.
Paul also introduced the Walkers to Tom Browne, a cartoonist for Punch Magazine, and they convinced him to sketch something for them – a striding man.
The now-famous Striding Man, the 'Johnnie Walker' brand name and the company's first slogan, 'Born 1820 – still going strong', were introduced to the world in 1908. To this day, the Striding Man is considered to be one of the worlds' first examples of a brand logo. Another example of great Scottish innovation leading the world and creating trends that others would later follow.
Showing True Colours
By this time, Johnnie Walker had three main brand variants: 'Old Highland', 'Special Old Highland' and 'Extra Special Old Highland'. Each had a different taste, price point and coloured label, namely white, red and black. It was soon noticed that consumers had begun calling these variants by the colour of their label rather than by their official names. So, not one to ever miss an opportunity to connect with their audience, Johnnie Walker decided to rebrand their bottles and, in 1906, Johnnie Walker White Label, Red Label and Black Label were introduced to the world.
A Royal Connection
In 1934, King George V granted the company's first Royal Warrant, an accolade that the brand has retained to this day. By this time, the brand had become a household name in over 120 countries worldwide.
The year 1999 marked the launch of Johnnie Walker's iconic 'Keep Walking' campaign, which took the brand to even greater heights as it was rolled out globally. 'Keep Walking' is still used by the brand to this day.
The World's Most Popular Scotch
The first 100 years were where the foundations of the Johnnie Walker brand were laid down. And, in the century that followed, Johnnie Walker continued to build on those foundations, walking in the inspirational footsteps of those who came before.
Now available in 180 countries, Johnnie Walker is the world's number one Scotch whisky (IWSR) and can proudly say that, to this day, every drop is made in Scotland.
The Future of Johnnie Walker
Taking 200 years of heritage and stepping into the future, an investment of £150m into Scotch whisky tourism marks the biggest investment of its kind ever seen in the industry.
From the creation of a world-leading visitor attraction to major investments in distilleries from the 'Four Corners' of Scotland, Scotland will be at the forefront of experiential travel and make Johnnie Walker not just a brand, but a destination as well.
One of Edinburgh's most iconic landmark buildings, 146 Princes Street will transform into a flagship global visitor centre for Johnnie Walker, providing visitors with a full sensory and emotionally engaging brand experience.
Johnnie Walker Princes Street will include world-class bars with incredible rooftop views of the city, a 250-capacity performance space for year-round cultural and community events, a bar academy and a street-level retail store.
With the potential to create up to 180 full-time jobs, promote tourism and drive economic opportunities for businesses both in Edinburgh and Scotland as a whole, this is a whisky journey well worth taking.
Find out more at johnniewalker.com