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The whisky that walked around the world, Johnnie Walker has a history as rich and colourful as the products they create. Renown globally for their high quality blends, Johnnie Walker is found in collections and on back-bars across the planet. The blenders have achieved a rare feat: transcending the world of whisky to become an icon in popular culture, with their famous Black Label and celebrated premium whisky Blue Label!
What started first as a small operation out of an Ayrshire grocery shop has grown into an international whisky empire. John Walker- who would later give his name to the famous brand- began mixing his own whiskies, in an attempt to avoid the inconsistencies of 19th century single malts, and selling them from his little shop in 1857. Know then as Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky they proved to be very popular, but were limited by the small scale of production. Once his son, Alexander, took over, the Johnnie Walker brand was probably established, with whisky sales rising from 8% of the Walker company’s income to 90%.
The Walkers were soon rightly recognised as one of the fledging industry’s powerhouses. They would become known for matching their excellent products with clever, slick marketing and keen business acumen. Two prominent examples of this is the introduction of the now famous ‘colour-coded’ expressions, and the purchase of Cardhu distillery- to secure a consistent supply of the whisky, and to prevent their competitors from getting their hands on the sultry single malt.
The colour labelled blends are some of the most famous whiskies in the industry’s history- with the Red label a specialist blending spirit, the Black label a more complex, slightly smoky offering, and the Blue a luxurious ultra-premium drop. Johnnie Walker is a brand that has long defined the standards for high quality whisky blending.
The story starts with John Walker, the man who would give his name to the whisky giants. Born in 1805 to an Ayrshire farming family of some means.
John’s father, Alexander (a name that crops up a few times during the walker story), dies leaving John £417 in a trust. His trustees decided to invest the money in an Italian warehouse, and a grocery on Kilmarnock High Street.
It was from this grocery shop that John Walker was to start his business.
Records show he married Elizabeth Purves in this year, by which point he had become a respected business leader, head of the local trade organisation and a prominent free mason. He had introduced his own brand of whisky- Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky. Interestingly enough, Walker himself was a teetotaller and never drank his wares.
A flood wipes out the majority of Walker’s stock. However, the shop would be back on its feet within a few years.
During this time, John’s son Alexander (who was named after his father) completed an apprenticeship at a Glaswegian tea merchant. This gave him knowledge of tea blending that would later prove useful whilst creating whisky, along with a good business head and a refined palate.
Alexander convinces John to move into wholesale trading around this time.
John Walker dies, leaving the business to his sons Robert and Alexander. By this point the store offered a wide array of single malts, including peat monsters from Islay, supple "Glenlivat" whiskies from Speyside, and Campbeltown whiskies- with all their unique pungency.
Johnny Walker is bottled in square shaped bottles for the first time, a move made to prevent avoidable breakages, particularly on trains and boats, as the industrial revolution meant that Walker whisky was beginning to move internationally.
It was under the stewardship of the Walker brothers that the brand really established itself, with Alexander introducing ‘Walker’s Old Highland’, the first incarnation of what would become Johnnie Walker Black Label.
Also introduced was the practice of placing the labels at exactly 24 degrees, allowing text to be made more visible and larger. This has remained in place ever since.
The brand grew steadily throughout the late 19th century, and in the early 1900s the the line of products was expanded somewhat, with the coloured label line (Johnny Walker Red, Black and White) being introduced by John’s grandson’s Alexander II and George between 1906-08.
James Stevenson becomes the company’s Managing Director, and rebranded the products as "Johnny Walker Whisky", replacing "Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky". Around this time was the first usage of the slogan "Born 1820 – Still Going Strong!" which is still used in advertising to this day. Further illustrating the company’s well earned reputation for excellent marketing was the creation of the classic impressionist "striding man" logo- designed to reflect Johnnie Walkers name and character.
Johnny Walker White Label is dropped as World War I begins.
Johnny Walker is sold in over 120 countries.
Johnny Walker joins forces with Distillers Company.
Johnny Walker Swing is introduced with its interesting rocking bottle, particularly aimed at bars on ships. This was Alexander Walker’s last blend for the company.
King George V grants Johnny Walker a Royal Warrant to supply whisky to the king- something that was later commemorated with its own decanter style bottle.
Johnny Walker Red Label was said to have been enjoyed by Winston Churchill with soda water as he led the UK through World War II.
This is indicative of a greater popularity that the whisky was enjoying in the 20th century with some of the time’s most notable figures- both real and fictional, and demonstrates how Johnny Walker had become a fully fledged icon of popular culture.
Guiness purchase Distillers Company, and therefore, Johnnie Walker.
The most famous premium whisky in the world, Blue Label, is launched, soon followed by Johnnie Walker Double Black, Green Label and Gold Label in 1997.
Into the new millennium, Johnny Walker has scooped dozens of awards for various products, demonstrated that whilst the world has changed, the brand has kept pace and never lost its insistence upon the highest quality. Johnny Walker also continued to demonstrate its excellent marketing ability, with its slogan "Keep Walking" adopted by many in the face of hardship. In 2013, Johnnie Walker Platinum Label was released, followed a year later by the Explorer Club line of bottlings- a fitting tribute to a brand that has consistently demonstrated the values of enterprise, ambition and pioneering.