Bottle #44: Long John Scotch Whisky

Bottle #44 is Long John Special Reserve, another blended Scotch whisky from the 1970s. I’m getting quite a collection of these!

The Long John name comes from Long John McDonald, described in his time as a “6’4” giant of a man” and “a happy Hercules.” His name and whisky have gone hand in hand for a long time, although the specifics of the whisky marketed by that name have changed a lot.

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The earliest whisky Long John was connected to was a single malt whisky from Ben Nevis distillery: located at the base of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Scotland, in the Highlands region. The distillery was established in 1826, but Long John bought into it in 1830 and was responsible, along with this son Donald, for making “Long John’s Ben Nevis Whisky” one of the most famous brands in the world. Long John had a flair for the dramatic and used it quite effectively for marketing. For example, he sent a cask of whisky to Buckingham Palace for the Prince of Wales’ 21st birthday.

Unfortunately, he’d gone into debt buying into the distillery and was never able to get out. By 1856 he was bankrupt, and died soon after. That’s when his son Donald stepped in and rejuvenated the business. He rebranded it as “Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis” and, by 1878, had built a new distillery next to the old one to keep up with demand. At a time when blended whiskies were becoming more popular, they proudly trumpeted their single malt status: “A fine Highland whisky in its pure natural state and not blended with grain spirit.” For a time, it was the best-known single malt in the world.

Donald shared his father’s flair for marketing. My favorite is an ad that was inspired by a British Medical Association report on alcohol-related diseases. In it, he warned of “deadly teetotalism,” compared the life spans of temperate and temperance men, came out on the side of moderate drinking, and recommended you buy bad whisky for Christmas for the people you didn’t like, and Ben Nevis for those that you did.

Donald died in 1911, and while he left his sons a thriving business, they were not excited about trying to sell a single malt in an increasingly blend-driven world. They sold the trademark to Chaplin & Co, whereupon it became just another on of those blends — and one that did not necessarily include any whisky from Ben Nevis.

Chaplin didn’t do much with it, but in 1936 it was picked up by Seager Evans, a gin distiller eager to launch a Scotch brand. Seager Evans was in turn acquired by US-based Schenley distilleries in 1956. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s another one of those Big Four companies that dominated the world liquor market along with our friends Seagram, Hiram Walker, and National Distillers. Schenley sold Seager Evans to a brewery company called Whitbread in 1975, and they ended up purchasing the old Ben Nevis distillery in 1981. So that’s a nice bit of bringing things full circle. There were a few more ownership changes after that, and today the Ben Nevis distillery is owned by Japanese whisky maker Nikka, and the Long John brand is owned by Pernod Ricard.

So what does all this mean for my bottle? It’s definitely pre-1980, given the old UK-style use of 70 proof to mean 40% ABV. It looks just like other Long John bottles labeled 1970s on whisky auction sites, so that’s where I’m dating it. But there were a lot of different versions of the bottle in the 1970s, perhaps having to do with the sale, or just different markets, and I haven’t been able to pin it down any further. As for what I can expect from the whisky in the bottle, we know that by 1961 the base malt of the whisky was from the Tormore distillery in the Speyside region, built by Schenley in 1958. Given that Tormore’s ownership has exactly followed Long John, I think we can safely say there will be some Tormore malt in the blend. Which – in the modern bottling – Pernod Ricard says will add “a distinctive toasted almond sweetness.” Hopefully it won’t be too long until I get to find out for myself!

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Bottle #44: Long John Scotch Whisky

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Bottle #44 is Long John Special Reserve, another blended Scotch whisky from the 1970s. I’m getting quite a collection of these!

The Long John name comes from Long John McDonald, described in his time as a “6’4” giant of a man” and “a happy Hercules.” His name and whisky have gone hand in hand for a long time, although the specifics of the whisky marketed by that name have changed a lot.

The earliest whisky Long John was connected to was a single malt whisky from Ben Nevis distillery: located at the base of Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Scotland, in the Highlands region. The distillery was established in 1826, but Long John bought into it in 1830 and was responsible, along with this son Donald, for making “Long John’s Ben Nevis Whisky” one of the most famous brands in the world. Long John had a flair for the dramatic and used it quite effectively for marketing. For example, he sent a cask of whisky to Buckingham Palace for the Prince of Wales’ 21st birthday.

Unfortunately, he’d gone into debt buying into the distillery and was never able to get out. By 1856 he was bankrupt, and died soon after. That’s when his son Donald stepped in and rejuvenated the business. He rebranded it as “Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis” and, by 1878, had built a new distillery next to the old one to keep up with demand. At a time when blended whiskies were becoming more popular, they proudly trumpeted their single malt status: “A fine Highland whisky in its pure natural state and not blended with grain spirit.” For a time, it was the best-known single malt in the world.

Donald shared his father’s flair for marketing. My favorite is an ad that was inspired by a British Medical Association report on alcohol-related diseases. In it, he warned of “deadly teetotalism,” compared the life spans of temperate and temperance men, came out on the side of moderate drinking, and recommended you buy bad whisky for Christmas for the people you didn’t like, and Ben Nevis for those that you did.

Donald died in 1911, and while he left his sons a thriving business, they were not excited about trying to sell a single malt in an increasingly blend-driven world. They sold the trademark to Chaplin & Co, whereupon it became just another on of those blends — and one that did not necessarily include any whisky from Ben Nevis.

Chaplin didn’t do much with it, but in 1936 it was picked up by Seager Evans, a gin distiller eager to launch a Scotch brand. Seager Evans was in turn acquired by US-based Schenley distilleries in 1956. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s another one of those Big Four companies that dominated the world liquor market along with our friends Seagram, Hiram Walker, and National Distillers. Schenley sold Seager Evans to a brewery company called Whitbread in 1975, and they ended up purchasing the old Ben Nevis distillery in 1981. So that’s a nice bit of bringing things full circle. There were a few more ownership changes after that, and today the Ben Nevis distillery is owned by Japanese whisky maker Nikka, and the Long John brand is owned by Pernod Ricard.

So what does all this mean for my bottle? It’s definitely pre-1980, given the old UK-style use of 70 proof to mean 40% ABV. It looks just like other Long John bottles labeled 1970s on whisky auction sites, so that’s where I’m dating it. But there were a lot of different versions of the bottle in the 1970s, perhaps having to do with the sale, or just different markets, and I haven’t been able to pin it down any further. As for what I can expect from the whisky in the bottle, we know that by 1961 the base malt of the whisky was from the Tormore distillery in the Speyside region, built by Schenley in 1958. Given that Tormore’s ownership has exactly followed Long John, I think we can safely say there will be some Tormore malt in the blend. Which – in the modern bottling – Pernod Ricard says will add “a distinctive toasted almond sweetness.” Hopefully it won’t be too long until I get to find out for myself!

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