Kilmarnock - a bustling hamlet of East Ayrshire, Scotland– stood as a testimony to the 200 year old legacy of the Scotch whiskey giant, Johnnie Walker until 2012. Soon after, world’s largest distiller Diageo, hell-bent on shutting down Johnnie Walker’s Kilmarnock bottling plant, forced the town to loose its most prized possession. There was no chance of a reprieve – the plant was shifted to a new bottling hall at one of Diageo's distilling unit at Leven in Fife. Kilmarnock was shattered!
Today, the town – bereft of its own legacy, is happy to nurture what it’s left with – the memories of a man who gave the world perhaps its biggest and most iconic Scotch whisky ever!
The Humble Beginnings
The story of Johnnie Walker starts with the man who gave the brand its name, its identity and most importantly, its value.
The year was 1819 and John Walker had just lost his father. The fourteen year lad’s troubles were further aggravated when his family’s farm was sold off. The world must have ended for him, you might think. However, fate had something else planned for John. Or maybe, there was something special in him that made him shape his very own destiny.
Those were the times of hardship. There was no time to waste in grieving, and John knew very well that he had a task in hand – he had to make a living!
He bought a grocery store in the prospering local town of Kilmarnock with proceeds from the sale of the Todriggs farm. Quite evidently, this turned out to be a game changer for him, owing to the fact that he had a natural flair for business.
Those days, a majority of grocers stocked a range of single malts which were characteristically inconsistent. John noticed and leveraged it for his own big break into the market. He started blending different malts to ensure that his whisky had a distinct flavor. Smart move!
No wonder, John’s whisky went on to become a popular add-on to his inventory.
A Brand in the Making
After having led a prosperous life, John passed away in 1857, leaving behind his son Alexander with a business that was already flourishing.
Times were changing fast, and Britain was at the brink of an industrial revolution that would go on to change almost everything. In the meantime, Kilmarnock got its own railway station that docked trains carrying goods to the biggest ships travelling to the farthest corners of the world.
Alexander saw this as a golden opportunity. He introduced the first commercial blend of Johnnie Walker – the ‘Old Highland Whisky’ in 1867 and soon began to think of ways to take a global leap. In a move that eventually proved to be highly incisive, Alexander started to engage ship captains as business agents to sell his whisky wherever the ships would sail. Soon enough, Johnnie Walker was available all over the world.
Later on, Alexander started using the iconic square bottle for packaging, which curbed the risks of breakage and made sure that the bottles stayed intact during the journey through the sea. He further appended the classic brand label, precisely slanted at 24 degrees to differentiate the brand from the rest.
Time to Roll
In 1889, it was time for Alexander to pass on the torch to his sons, Alexander II and George. While the former grew up to be a master blender, the latter was a proficient businessman by practice.
A couple of decades into their stint, in 1909 – George and Alexander launched an entirely new range of whiskey that were named after the shade of their respective labels. This marked the arrival of Johnnie Walker Red Label and Johnnie Walker Black Label.
It was around this period that Tom Browne, a renowned illustrator of that time designed the quintessential “Striding Man’ logo. Tom supposedly etched the Striding Man on a menu card. Alexander and George, did not think twice about embracing the illustration almost immediately. At a single brush stroke, John Walker the humble grocer evolved into Johnnie Walker- a sensation.
By the start of the First World War, Johnnie Walker announced its presence in 120 countries. On 1st of January 1934, King George V granted a Royal Warrant to John Walker & Sons, providing the brand with a the honor to serve as whisky supplier for the royal household. Johnnie Walker still holds the warrant to this very day.
'Born 1820 Still Going Strong’
Today, Johnnie Walker continues to reign as the most revered whisky brand in the world. The founder’s predicament and an eventual rise to glory, still serves as an epitome of optimism and progress – motivating generations after generations to ‘Keep Walking’.