20 Pioneers of Whiskey-Making
It has been said that the Irish claim to be the inventors of whisky, but the Scots pride themselves with inventing the marketing of whisky. In this article, we summarize 20 early pioneers of whiskey-making to learn more of the spirit's storied history.
John Cor was a monk based in Lindores Abbey in Fife during the reign of James IV, a Scottish king who ordered him to make whisky. His name can be found in the first written reference to Scotch whisky in the 1494 register of the Exchequer: “to Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bols of malt.” In accepting the order, John Cor officially became the first whisky distiller in Scotland.
Reverend and businessman Elijah Craig (1738–1808) is often credited as the inventor of bourbon. He was allegedly the first person to char the inside of the barrels, and by doing so he improved the taste of bourbon. However, documents exist showing that whiskey was made and matured in Virginia and Kentucky before Craig’s time.
Jack Daniel was just a boy when he ran away from his home in Tennessee to escape his stepmother. He was hired by Dan Call, a storekeeper and lay preacher who also made whiskey in a barn at his farm. Call planned to teach young Jack all about making whiskey, reportedly saying: “You will become the best whiskey maker in the world.” When Call’s wife and the parish forced him to choose between spirit and the Spirit, he chose the latter and left the stills to Jack. That was around 1863, and in 1866 Jack registered his distillery. Today, Jack Daniel’s is the bestselling American whiskey worldwide, with an annual production of approximately 140 million liters, about half of which is exported to Europe. Not a bad outcome for a company whose founder was a runaway.
In 1833, the Old Oscar Pepper Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, hired the Scottish-born chemist and physicist Dr. James Crow. In the subsequent twenty-two years, James Crow dedicated his career to the improvement of the distilling process and developed a series of measuring instruments that immediately earned recognition with many other distillers. Crow left his mark on process hygiene too. He experimented with various levels of barrel-charring to influence the maturation process, creating a standard still in use today. He is also credited with the introduction of the sour mash method.
John Jameson was born in Scotland in 1749. At the age of twenty-one he moved to Dublin, where he mingled with other whiskey distillers, eventually starting Bow Street Distillery in 1780. Thus, Ireland’s bestselling whiskey brand was born. For more than two centuries, a descendant of the Jameson family stood at the helm of the company, until 1988, when the French company Pernod Ricard took over. The production of Jameson had already been moved away from Dublin to Midleton in County Cork. This new distillery produces a whole range of brands, among which are Paddy and the single pot still whiskeys Redbreast and Green Spot. The original Jameson distillery buildings in Dublin were abandoned and neglected until 2007, when the whole complex was restored for €5 million (about $5.6 million). The result is the Old Jameson Distillery—a beautiful museum with a fine restaurant.
James Power founded the John’s Lane Distillery in Dublin in 1791. He would become one of Jameson’s fiercest competitors. The rivalry went on until 1966, when the Power and Jameson families merged their businesses into the Irish Distillers Group. Pernod Ricard acquired that group some twenty years later. Powers whiskey is a tipple of choice in Ireland but is gaining recognition outside its borders. As with Jameson, production was moved to Midleton, County Cork, in the 1970s. Remnants of this huge distillery can still be seen at the National College of Art and Design.
Robert Stein is credited as the inventor of the column still, created in 1827. His compatriot Aeneas Coffey later took credit for improving the invention and patented it under his own name.
Charles C. Doig (1855–1918) was the most famous Scottish distillery architect of the late Victorian Age. He is known for having designed more than fifty-five distilleries. His name lives on in the Doig Ventilator, a device he created to improve the airflow in the kiln’s chimney. The roof of his ventilator is distinctly pagoda-shaped and was designed using the “golden ratio,” thus pleasing to the eye. Dailuaine Distillery is said to have received the first pagoda roof, in 1889. Within a couple of years, most distilleries followed suit.
Robert “Rabbie” Burns (1759–1796) is Scotland’s most famous poet. His name is inextricably linked to whisky and food. His birthday, January 25, is commemorated all over the world with a festive celebration called “Burns Supper.” The highlight of the supper is the reciting of “Address to a Haggis,” his ode to the traditional Scottish dish, followed by a toast to the haggis made with a fine glass of whisky. Pouring some of the golden liquid over the haggis is common practice too.
The founding father of the Japanese whisky industry was born in Osaka in 1879. In 1899 he started studying the art of blending, at first with wines. This led in 1907 to his first “Western” product, a sweet fortified wine called Akadama Port Wine—a beverage that became the pillar of his company. At that time, whisky was imported from Scotland, so in 1923 Torii invested in the creation of his own whisky distillery and named it Yamazaki. It was the forerunner of the current Suntory, a company with serious interests in the Scottish whisky industry (Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Laphroaig, and Glen Garioch) as well as the Irish (Cooley, Locke’s, and Kilbeggan), which also owns Beam Global (Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, and Canadian Club). The name Suntory is derived from the Japanese flag, with its rising sun, and the last name of the original founder.
In 1918, twenty-four-year-old Masataka Taketsuru left his home country for Scotland—he would learn how the Scots made their whisky. He returned to Japan two years later, not only with a wealth of notes and knowledge about distilling, but also with a Scottish spouse, Jessie Roberta Cowan—Rita for short. He joined Shinjiro Torii and in 1923 helped build the Yamazaki distillery, where he would work for the next decade. In 1934 he decided to build his own distillery and moved to Yoichi, on the island of Hokkaidō in northern Japan. He followed the traditional Scottish distilling methods, kept in touch with his mentors, and finally produced his own whisky, Nikka. Taketsuru passed away in 1979 at the ripe old age of eighty-five. In 1989, Nikka purchased the Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William, Scotland.
Tatsuya Minagawa is probably the most well-known contemporary ambassador of Japanese whisky. In the 1990s, he came to Scotland and applied for a job as bartender at the famous Craigellachie Hotel in the village of the same name. Some years later, he switched allegiances and went to work in the Highlander Inn, opposite the hotel. A few years ago, Suntory offered him a position as whisky ambassador for Western Europe, a title he gladly accepted and held for some time. Becoming a renowned whisky connoisseur, he was eventually offered a position as co-owner of the Highlander Inn, which brought him back to Craigellachie, the place where he began his career in the whisky industry. Tatsuya Minagawa is a sought-after guest at many whisky festivals, beloved for his master classes and deep knowledge of whisky in general, and Japanese whisky in particular.
Hiram Walker (1816–99), an American businessman, was the founder of Hiram Walker and Sons Ltd., a company that would grow into one of the main companies in the Canadian whisky industry. Canadian Club, originally labeled Hiram Walker’s Club Whisky, remains one of the bestselling brands of Canadian whisky. The company is currently owned by Beam Suntory, part of the Japanese Suntory Holdings Ltd. Hiram Walker is considered one of the five founding fathers of the Canadian whisky industry, along with James Gooderham Worts, Henry Corby, Joseph Seagram, and J. P. Wiser.
Sam Bronfman (1889–1971) emigrated with his parents from Russia to Canada at an early age. When his father purchased a hotel in 1903, young Sam soon noticed that the real money was in liquor. His first paid job in the industry was with a distributor, but in 1924 he founded his own company, the Distillers Corporation Limited. This was during Prohibition in the United States, and Bronfman is said to have earned many millions by smuggling, or at least aiding the smuggling, of Canadian whisky south of the border. The story rings all the more true when one considers the fact that Bronfman managed to acquire Canadian distiller Seagram’s in 1928.
He further invested in whisky worldwide, purchasing, among other brands, Chivas Regal in Scotland. Bronfman was a man of extremes, respected and feared at the same time—cold and hard as stone in business, but also a great philanthropist. After his demise, his two sons built Seagram’s into a major international company. Bronfman’s grandson sold the beverage division to Pernod Ricard at the turn of the twenty-first century, after which he invested his money in Vivendi, an internationally-operating entertainment-industry conglomerate. That marked the end of the Bronfmans in the whisky industry. The family name lives on in the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization in Canada.
This Scottish wine and liquor merchant is considered the father of blended whisky. He was one of the first whisky producers who took advantage of a change in British law around 1860 that allowed blending distillates made from different grains. According to legend, Usher’s mother taught him how to create whisky blends at her kitchen table.
John Walker owned a grocery shop in Kilmarnock, Scotland, in the 1820s. When the shop was severely damaged by a flood, John’s son Alexander turned a disaster into a fortune by turning the company into a whisky wholesale business. To create a name for the brand in other parts of the world, Alexander Walker made deals with ship captains in Glasgow Harbour. They would transport his whisky to the far corners of the world and receive part of the profit in exchange. One century later, Johnnie Walker Red Label had become one of the best-known blended whiskies in the world. Peter Brown designed the famous logo of the striding man in 1908. Sometimes he marches from left to right, other times from right to left.
Archibald Ballantine was a farmer from Peebles in the Scottish Borders region. When his son George turned thirteen, he brought him to Edinburgh, where the boy was to apprentice with grocery and wine merchant Andrew Hunter. Six years later, in 1887, George opened his own grocery store in Cowgate, near Edinburgh Castle. From there he built an empire that was eventually acquired by Pernod Ricard, a French beverage company.
George was good friends with whisky distiller Andrew Usher and learned a lot about blending whisky from him. George put Ballantine’s on the Scottish market, while his sons Archibald and George Junior developed the brand further in Edinburgh and Glasgow, respectively. When Queen Victoria honored the company with a Royal Warrant at the turn of the nineteenth century, the brand was propelled to international fame.
Brothers John and James Chivas left their parents’ farm in 1836 to try their luck near Aberdeen, Scotland. It took two years before James was hired as an assistant in Edward’s Grocery Store on King Street. The shop was popular among the town’s elite because of its wide range of products. After James became a partner in the company, he hired his brother, and they became passionate about providing the highest-quality products.
The brothers expanded the business with catering facilities, and soon they were purchasing whisky by the cask. Both brothers had excellent noses, and their premium blend Chivas Regal took off worldwide. They were bought out by Canadian company Seagram around 1950, which brought Chivas Regal to an even larger stage. The shop in Aberdeen doesn’t exist anymore, but the name lives on, as a whisky and as a company, since current owner Pernod Ricard consolidated all its whisky distilleries, including the beautiful old Strathisla in Keith, under the name Chivas Brothers Ltd.
The Dewar’s brand was built by John Alexander and Tommy, sons of founder John Dewar. While John held down the fort in Scotland, younger brother Tommy embarked on a world tour. With his flamboyant appearance, Tommy managed to make Dewar’s known worldwide within twenty years. During his travels, he wrote a book called A Ramble Round the Globe. He also dabbled in politics and was appointed sheriff of London more than once. The term Dewarism was coined in honor of his witty one-liners.
James Buchanan was Tommy Dewar’s biggest rival—not only as a whisky maker but also as a fan of horse racing. Both men owned a considerable stable of thoroughbreds. When Buchanan introduced a new blend featuring a white label with his name printed in black letters, it did not take long for customers to ask for the “Black and White.” A Scottie and a Westie, the canine mascots of the brand, were added to the label many years later. Buchanan was one of the first whisky barons to deliver whisky exclusively to the House of Lords, the upper house of British Parliament.
Excerpted from Offringa, Hans. A Field Guide to Whisky: An Expert Compendium to Take Your Passion and Knowledge to the Next Level. Artisan.