Bottle #31: VAT 69 Scotch

Oct 11, 2023

Bottle #31 is a classic blended Scotch whisky, with an iconic look that was borne of its origin story. It was the creation of a whisky blender named William Sanderson from Leith, in Scotland. The story goes that in 1882 he created 100 different blends, each in its own vat, and invited his friends to come and taste them. VAT 69 was the unanimous favorite and that’s what he began bottling, the same stencil design on the label that he had used on the vat. The unusual squat bottle shape reportedly comes from it initially being bottled in port wine bottles.

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If this bottle looks familiar to you, it may be because VAT 69 has historically been a bit of a media darling. From the 60s to the 90s it was the staple drink of villains in Bollywood movies, and has appeared in a variety of books, magazines, and TV shows, like the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, based on the book of the same name. But how did it get to be so popular and well known?

The 1880s were a challenging time to create a blended Scotch. Blended Scotch combines both malt whisky and grain whisky, and the grain whisky market was dominated by Distiller’s Company Limited (DCL). This was an amalgamation of several distilleries that, at its peak, controlled over 80% of the domestic and 75% of the worldwide Scotch market. Sanderson ensured his malt whiskey supply by buying into the Glen Garioch distillery in Aberdeenshire. But in order to avoid DCL’s near monopoly on the grain whisky market, he banded together with a few other blenders to establish their own grain whisky distiller: the Northern British Distillery in Edinburgh.

His supply lines ensured, Vat 69 became a very popular whisky. In 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton brought cases of Vat 69 along on his Trans-Antarctic Expedition, earmarked for “medicinal and celebratory” purposes. In 1933 Sanderson merged his company with Booth’s Distilleries of London, and following US Prohibition VAT 69 was one of the most popular Scotch whiskies in the US market. But even this combined company was not big enough to escape DCL. That behemoth had continued to grow, expanding beyond just producing grain whisky. In the 1920s famous Scotch producers like Dewer’s, Buchanans and Johnny Walker all realized that it was better to join them than try to beat them. And in 1937 VAT 69 and Booth’s also gave up the fight.

But DCL was the strong silent type. They may have controlled most of the Scotch whisky market, but they never printed their name on any bottle, and let their brands continue to grow their own followings. By 1969 VAT 69 had become so successful that they moved their distillery from Leith to a bigger one in South Queensbury.

Which brings us back to my tiny bottle, which is labeled very clearly as being made in Leith. What I’ve always been told about Grandma’s collection is that she started collecting in the early to mid-1970s. But here and there I’ve come across some bottles that seem like they might have been from the late 60s, and this is one of those. Neat!

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Bottle #31: VAT 69 Scotch

Oct 11, 2023 |

Bottle #31 is a classic blended Scotch whisky, with an iconic look that was borne of its origin story. It was the creation of a whisky blender named William Sanderson from Leith, in Scotland. The story goes that in 1882 he created 100 different blends, each in its own vat, and invited his friends to come and taste them. VAT 69 was the unanimous favorite and that’s what he began bottling, the same stencil design on the label that he had used on the vat. The unusual squat bottle shape reportedly comes from it initially being bottled in port wine bottles.

If this bottle looks familiar to you, it may be because VAT 69 has historically been a bit of a media darling. From the 60s to the 90s it was the staple drink of villains in Bollywood movies, and has appeared in a variety of books, magazines, and TV shows, like the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, based on the book of the same name. But how did it get to be so popular and well known?

The 1880s were a challenging time to create a blended Scotch. Blended Scotch combines both malt whisky and grain whisky, and the grain whisky market was dominated by Distiller’s Company Limited (DCL). This was an amalgamation of several distilleries that, at its peak, controlled over 80% of the domestic and 75% of the worldwide Scotch market. Sanderson ensured his malt whiskey supply by buying into the Glen Garioch distillery in Aberdeenshire. But in order to avoid DCL’s near monopoly on the grain whisky market, he banded together with a few other blenders to establish their own grain whisky distiller: the Northern British Distillery in Edinburgh.

His supply lines ensured, Vat 69 became a very popular whisky. In 1914, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton brought cases of Vat 69 along on his Trans-Antarctic Expedition, earmarked for “medicinal and celebratory” purposes. In 1933 Sanderson merged his company with Booth’s Distilleries of London, and following US Prohibition VAT 69 was one of the most popular Scotch whiskies in the US market. But even this combined company was not big enough to escape DCL. That behemoth had continued to grow, expanding beyond just producing grain whisky. In the 1920s famous Scotch producers like Dewer’s, Buchanans and Johnny Walker all realized that it was better to join them than try to beat them. And in 1937 VAT 69 and Booth’s also gave up the fight.

But DCL was the strong silent type. They may have controlled most of the Scotch whisky market, but they never printed their name on any bottle, and let their brands continue to grow their own followings. By 1969 VAT 69 had become so successful that they moved their distillery from Leith to a bigger one in South Queensbury.

Which brings us back to my tiny bottle, which is labeled very clearly as being made in Leith. What I’ve always been told about Grandma’s collection is that she started collecting in the early to mid-1970s. But here and there I’ve come across some bottles that seem like they might have been from the late 60s, and this is one of those. Neat!

Watch me taste this bottle with Neill Murphy and Mark Meenan.

 

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