From Scotland to the world

The ‘swinging 60s’ are often cited as the decade when the export of Scotch single malts started. Gavin D Smith begs to differ

According to Philip Larkin in his poem Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began, In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban, and the Beatles first LP

It wasn’t only sexual intercourse that ‘began in 1963’, if you believe the narrative that has developed to the effect that single malt whisky exports began the very same year, courtesy of William Grant & Sons and Glenfiddich. The truth, however, is that while by no means ubiquitous, a reasonable variety of single malts could be found in export markets including England and overseas long before that erotically-charged date.

Back in 1872, Glenmorangie had established a London warehouse to supply English wine and spirits merchants, and during the following decade, Lagavulin, Dew of Ben Nevis, Talisker, Glen Grant, Cardhu and Glenlivet were quite widely available. Overseas, Ardbeg and Glenlivet were on sale in New York as early as the 1840s, and during 1870 Dalmore became the first single malt to be exported to Australia.

ABOVE: Glenlivet’s Pullman collection

Having already enjoyed some export success, as noted above, Glenlivet was more vigorously promoted after Captain Bill Smith Grant took charge of the distillery in 1921. Smith Grant decided to grow the brand as a single malt in order to give the distillery some protection from the sometimes financially unfavourable demands of blenders.

In London, he persuaded the prestigious International Sportsmen’s Club and White’s Club, as well as a number of other high-profile establishments, to stock Glenlivet, but the repeal of US prohibition in 1933 offered Smith Grant far greater opportunities.

In that same year, the Wine & Spirit Import Corp. of New York City was granted sole agency for Glenlivet in the United States and Smith Grant signed a deal with the Pullman Company of Detroit. This entailed offering two-ounce miniatures of whisky to rail passengers in its luxurious sleeping and dining cars.

Many of the Pullman customers were affluent business professionals, and having Glenlivet listed on the dining car beverages menus alongside blended Scotches was a real coup. Sales of Glenlivet grew across the US, partly as a result of this exposure, and went on to rise even further during the years after the Second World War.

(The) Glenlivet remains the best-selling single malt in the US, but since the early 1960s it has had a serious rival for domination of the global single malt market in the shape of the aforementioned Glenfiddich.

While the Stand Fast Scotch blend accounted for the vast majority of William Grant & Sons’ sales around 1960, Glenfiddich Pure Malt was also available, selling modestly in a number of countries. Indeed, company records show sales to Canada in 1904, just two years after Glenfiddich was first bottled.

In 1960 Grants made the decision to market a version of Glenfiddich, under the name Glenfiddich Straight Malt, throughout the UK, with the first case being bottled on 3rd April 1961. Export sales began two years later, during the annus mirabilis of 1963, and the use of existing distribution networks for Grants’ Standfast blend meant that the new expression was almost immediately available in 110 different countries.

Pictured: Bill Smith Grant in 1921

Across a wide range of markets, Glenfiddich soon became the bestselling single malt, a position it has retained in many instances to this day.

In the US, Glenfiddich went head-to-head with Glenlivet from 1963, and its launch was accompanied by an advertising campaign with the headline: ‘Sit when you drink Glenfiddich, you may never stand for a blended Scotch again.’

Another single malt of real significance in relation to the 1960s is Glen Grant, which was first sold in Italy during 1961, courtesy of Italian businessman Armando Giovinetti, who was so impressed by the whisky during a visit to Speyside that he began to import it, commencing with a 100-case order.

Italian drinkers already had a fondness for Scotch, with an agent for Johnnie Walker having been appointed in Genoa back in 1906, but Giovinetti was keen to introduce them to the joys of single malts, and at five years of age, Glen Grant suited Italian palates very well. Giovinetti grew sales of Glen Grant by way of television commercials, and Italy was soon the leading export market for the brand.

Indeed, by the 1970s Italy was the third-largest importer of Scotch whisky globally, and the leading export market for single malts. The Italians liked Glen Grant so much that via the Campari Group, they eventually bought the distillery.

1963 may have been rather too late for Philip Larkin to enjoy sexual intercourse, though evidence would suggest otherwise, but perhaps it was the perfect time for him to start developing a fondness for single malt whisky, now that it was becoming more widely available.

Then again, perhaps not. Larkin was known to enjoy his beer, and in the later years of his life apparently breakfasted on half a bottle of sherry each morning. And when it came to whisky, consider this by AN Wilson in his 2003 book Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her:

“Larkin and I got in a car and drove to about five different off-licenses for Claymore [whisky] at a price he found acceptable. We had thereby wasted several pounds of petrol. In the end, there no such bottle to be found, and he settled for some gut-wrenching, instant-hangover-producing blend of cheap Scotch.”