Bottle #43: Bell’s Extra Special

Bottle #43 is another lovely old bottle of blended Scotch whisky, Bell’s Extra Special, packaged in a cute little bell-shaped bottle. Even though it’s made of glass, it is sadly half-empty, maybe thanks to its odd little plastic screw cap.

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Bell’s is a storied Scotch brand, and for a time was the UK’s bestselling blended Scotch whisky. As you might expect, the brand was created by a man named Bell – Arthur Bell, to be specific. Arthur started blending and selling Scotch in 1851. But he was a shy guy, and it wasn’t until his sons took over the business after his death in 1904 that the Bell name appeared on a bottle. And thus Bell’s Extra Special became a brand.

The company grew slowly and steadily throughout the early 20th century, and purchased the Blair Atholl distillery in the 1930s. Its whisky is still the base malt of the blend, along with other famed malts Caol Ila and Glenkinchie, and two I hadn’t heard of: Inchgower and Dufftown. But like the famous tortoise, slow and steady paid off, and by 1970 Bell’s was Scotland’s best-selling blended whisky.

What followed from there was nothing short of an extraordinary climb, with the brand’s sales increasing 800% from 1970 to 1979, by which time it was not just Scotland’s but the UK’s bestselling blend, and controlled a whopping 35% of the market in Britain.

So how did they do this? Credit goes to then-chairman and CEO Raymond Miguel. One of Miguel’s key strategies in the 70s was to ditch the stuffy idea that you had to drink Scotch straight, and instead market Bell’s as a product for mixing. And while I don’t know if this was the goal or just a happy accident, one effect of that approach was that it made the product more appealing to women. By the end of the 1970s women made up 40% of the Scotch market. And since many of them preferred Scotch with mixers, they went for the brand advertised as made for mixing.

In the 1980s Bell’s sought to break into the US market and relied on this trusted strategy, with a great series of magazine ads featuring attractive mixed gender groups and the very clever tagline “Perfectly Proper in Mixed Company.” I don’t know how successful the campaign was for them, but they were doing well enough that by 1985 Guinness launched a successful hostile takeover bid and spent $518M to grab the company. This was the beginning of Guinness’s Scotch acquisition strategy, as the following year would see them buy our old friend Distiller’s Corporation Limited, the largest whisky company in the world at the time (see bottles #31: VAT 69 and #32: Seagram’s Amandine for more on DCL). That purchase would also land several company executives in jail… but that’s a story for another time.

As for my bottle, my best guess is that it comes from the 1970s, when Bell’s star was ascendant. I thought I might be able to date it from the bell-shaped bottle, but they’ve been doing that for a while, starting with ceramic bell-shaped decanters in the 1920s. That said, I haven’t found any glass bells claiming to be from before the 1970s, so that supports my guess. It must have been purchased in the UK, because the proof is listed at 70, which is equivalent to 40% ABV, and the UK moved to ABV in labeling in 1980. It doesn’t list any volume, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint when the UK started requiring volume measures, at least for minis. My bottle of Black Bottle Scotch is from 1976-1979, and that does have volume listed, so maybe this bottle is pre-1976? But that’s totally a guess.

I’m sad this one is half-empty, because I don’t think there’s enough there to taste on its own AND mix with ginger ale as it was meant to be!

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Bottle #43: Bell’s Extra Special

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Bottle #43 is another lovely old bottle of blended Scotch whisky, Bell’s Extra Special, packaged in a cute little bell-shaped bottle. Even though it’s made of glass, it is sadly half-empty, maybe thanks to its odd little plastic screw cap.

Bell’s is a storied Scotch brand, and for a time was the UK’s bestselling blended Scotch whisky. As you might expect, the brand was created by a man named Bell – Arthur Bell, to be specific. Arthur started blending and selling Scotch in 1851. But he was a shy guy, and it wasn’t until his sons took over the business after his death in 1904 that the Bell name appeared on a bottle. And thus Bell’s Extra Special became a brand.

The company grew slowly and steadily throughout the early 20th century, and purchased the Blair Atholl distillery in the 1930s. Its whisky is still the base malt of the blend, along with other famed malts Caol Ila and Glenkinchie, and two I hadn’t heard of: Inchgower and Dufftown. But like the famous tortoise, slow and steady paid off, and by 1970 Bell’s was Scotland’s best-selling blended whisky.

What followed from there was nothing short of an extraordinary climb, with the brand’s sales increasing 800% from 1970 to 1979, by which time it was not just Scotland’s but the UK’s bestselling blend, and controlled a whopping 35% of the market in Britain.

So how did they do this? Credit goes to then-chairman and CEO Raymond Miguel. One of Miguel’s key strategies in the 70s was to ditch the stuffy idea that you had to drink Scotch straight, and instead market Bell’s as a product for mixing. And while I don’t know if this was the goal or just a happy accident, one effect of that approach was that it made the product more appealing to women. By the end of the 1970s women made up 40% of the Scotch market. And since many of them preferred Scotch with mixers, they went for the brand advertised as made for mixing.

In the 1980s Bell’s sought to break into the US market and relied on this trusted strategy, with a great series of magazine ads featuring attractive mixed gender groups and the very clever tagline “Perfectly Proper in Mixed Company.” I don’t know how successful the campaign was for them, but they were doing well enough that by 1985 Guinness launched a successful hostile takeover bid and spent $518M to grab the company. This was the beginning of Guinness’s Scotch acquisition strategy, as the following year would see them buy our old friend Distiller’s Corporation Limited, the largest whisky company in the world at the time (see bottles #31: VAT 69 and #32: Seagram’s Amandine for more on DCL). That purchase would also land several company executives in jail… but that’s a story for another time.

As for my bottle, my best guess is that it comes from the 1970s, when Bell’s star was ascendant. I thought I might be able to date it from the bell-shaped bottle, but they’ve been doing that for a while, starting with ceramic bell-shaped decanters in the 1920s. That said, I haven’t found any glass bells claiming to be from before the 1970s, so that supports my guess. It must have been purchased in the UK, because the proof is listed at 70, which is equivalent to 40% ABV, and the UK moved to ABV in labeling in 1980. It doesn’t list any volume, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint when the UK started requiring volume measures, at least for minis. My bottle of Black Bottle Scotch is from 1976-1979, and that does have volume listed, so maybe this bottle is pre-1976? But that’s totally a guess.

I’m sad this one is half-empty, because I don’t think there’s enough there to taste on its own AND mix with ginger ale as it was meant to be!

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