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Whisky Rebranding And Brand Evolution Part 6 - Blends

Updated: Mar 5

All brands undergo a brand evolution to meet changing trends and demands to stay relevant. In this edition of our rebranding series, we take a look back at how ten blends have developed over the decades and are still available for purchase.


While sales of single malts have been increasing in recent years, it is unlikely that they will take over the market. Blends account for over 90% of Scottish whisky sold worldwide and have been around much longer than single malts. It's important to remember that blended whiskies are a crucial component of the vast range of whisky selections we have today. In fact, many single malt distilleries have survived only because their whiskies are used in blends.


Grain whiskies are another essential part of blends, as they are mainly made from grains other than malted barley and are distilled using a column still. By combining single malts and grain whiskies, we get blended whiskies, although some blends are only blended malts or blended grains, which is less common. Many blends were created in small family grocery shops around Scotland by combining different whiskies that were available.


Let's explore how these ten well-known blends have evolved over time without further ado.



 

1. Johnnie Walker


Diageo-owned Johnnie Walker has consistently been the top-selling blend of whisky year after year. Its range of variants, such as Red Label, Black Label, Green Label, and Blue Label, has been expanding annually with the introduction of special editions and limited releases. Since its establishment in 1820 by John Walker, the brand has managed to stay relevant. John Walker started managing the spirit sales of his family's grocery business at the age of 15 in 1805. At the time, the law did not allow the blending of single malts and grains. To overcome this, he customized malt or grain blends to order. He named his whisky Walker's Kilmarnock Whisky. John Walker passed away before the Spirits Act of 1860, which legalized the blending of grain whiskies with malt whiskies. However, his son Alexander Walker and grandson Alexander Walker II continued to honour his legacy by establishing the Old Highland brand of blended whiskies.


In 1860, Alexander Walker introduced a square bottle design which was known for its durability. He tilted the label to a 24-degree angle to make it stand out. In 1909, the Old Highland was rebranded as Johnnie Walker and the Striding Man figure was introduced. For the purpose of this article, we will only focus on the development of the Red Label for simplicity.


The Red Label has been a part of the Johnnie Walker range since the 1909 rebranding. While the design has undergone minor tweaks to modernize it for changing printing methods and trends, it has remained largely unchanged. The squareness of the bottle has become more pointed with more defined angles over time.


From 2019 to 2020, Johnnie Walker's sales dropped by 23.3% from £18.4m to £14.1m. However, it still held the number one spot in the market.


The brand development rebranding Johnnie Walker blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


 

2. Chivas Regal


Chivas Regal is currently the fifth best-selling blend worldwide. The company's history dates back to 1801 when John Forest opened his grocery store in Aberdeen. William Edwards took over the store after Forest's death in 1828, and in 1836, he was joined by brothers John and James Chivas. James Chivas became a part-owner of the shop in 1838. After Edwards passed away in 1841, Charles Stewart took over the business, and he and James were granted the Royal Warrant in 1843. The company introduced its first branded blend in 1854, known as The Royal Glen Dee. After Stewart left the company in 1857, it was renamed Chivas Brothers. The company then created Royal Strathythan in 1863. The last member of the Chivas family passed away in 1893, leaving the company to a board of trustees.


In 1909, the first Chivas Regal was released, and it was the oldest blend sold by the company at that time. It was a 25-year-old blend. However, in 1936, new owners discontinued it and launched the Chivas Regal 12-year-old in 1939. Pernod Ricard bought the brand from Seagram in 2001.


The bottle design has not changed much over the years, until recently, in 2021, when Pernod Ricard decided to rebrand the best-selling Chivas 12-year-old with a slimmer bottle. Perhaps the rebranding was due to the 28.5% decline in sales of Chivas between 2019 and 2020, from £4.4 million to £3.2 million, which was partly due to restrictions in Japan. As a result, Chivas went from being the third best-selling blend to the fifth.


The brand development rebranding Chivas Regal blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

3. Ballantine's


Ballantine's is a well-known brand owned by Pernod Ricard and is the second-best-selling blend worldwide. The company was founded in 1827 by George Ballantine in Edinburgh. In 1865, George left for Glasgow to expand the business, leaving his son Archibald in charge. Later, George Jr. joined the company, and it was renamed George Ballantine & Sons Ltd. The whisky is a blend of 50 single malts and 4-grain whiskies. In 1895, Ballantine's received the Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria. The Ballantine's Finest was established in 1910.


The company was sold to Barclay & McKinlay in 1919 and they managed to make a profit from it. The new owners made the Ballantine's blend well-known and famous and introduced the classic 17-year-old blend in the 1930s in a round bottle. Since its inception, Ballantine's Finest has been presented in a rectangular bottle, which made shipping and durability easier.


Pernod Ricard, the latest owner, acquired the brand in 2005, and carried out modernization and rebranding in 2012, revealing a more refined design. However, from 2019 to 2020, the sales of Ballantine's declined by 9.6%, from £7.7m to £7.0m.


The brand development rebranding Ballantine's blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

4. Dewar's


Dewar's is one of the best-selling whisky blends in the US, although globally it is ranked 9th. The blend was established by John Dewar Sr. in 1846, in his small spirits merchant shop in Perth. His sons, John A. Dewar Jr. and Thomas "Tommy" Dewar were instrumental in making the brand a success. In fact, they founded the Aberfeldy distillery in 1896, which is still "the home" of Dewar's to this day.


Tommy Dewar was responsible for marketing the blend and travelled the world to promote it. During his absence, the brand was awarded the Royal Warrant in 1893 by Queen Victoria. The backbone expression of the brand, White Label, was first introduced in 1899 and designed by A.J. Cameron from Aberfeldy distillery.


The brand has changed ownership several times throughout its existence. It was first sold to Distillers Company in 1925, then acquired by Guinness in 1986, followed by Diageo in 1997. Finally, in 1998, Bacardi purchased the brand and remains its current owner.


Dewar's is credited as the first brand to practice 'marrying' whiskies, which involves a secondary cask maturing. After the whiskies are aged separately, they are combined and put into casks for several months so that they have time to blend and complement each other. This process results in a more well-rounded and flavourful whisky.


Between 2010 and 2014, Dewar's underwent a notable rebranding of its blend. In 2010, the company introduced a new design featuring a memorable wave on the label. However, the design only lasted for four years. One major factor that may have contributed to this change was an advertisement called 'Meet the Baron,' featuring Olivia Wilde. The ad was criticized for its sexist message that overweight women were undesirable. Dewar's launched its new label and bottle design only four months after the ad ran in December 2013 and quickly removed the evidence. Stranger & Stranger, a company known for collaborating with another blending company, Compass Box, designed the new label and bottle.


Moreover, the sales of Dewar's whisky dropped from £3m to £2.6m between 2019 and 2020, resulting in a 12.4% decrease. This drop in sales caused Dewar's to lose its previous position as the world's sixth-best-selling blend.


The brand development rebranding Dewar's white label blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

5. White Horse


The White Horse blend label claims it dates back to 1742, but the brand was established in 1883. The history of White Horse, also known as White Horse Cellar Blended, is closely linked to Lagavulin Distillery, which was founded in 1816. Although the first distilling on the site took place in 1742, Peter Mackie used this fact to justify his brand in 1883 because he had previously worked with his uncle, James Logan Mackie, who had been involved with the distillery since 1801. However, this claim is far-fetched.


The White Horse Blend was first introduced by Peter Mackie in 1890 for export sales and it hit the domestic UK market in 1901. After Peter died in 1924, the company was sold as White Horse Distillers to DLC in 1927. From DLC, the brand was transferred to Diageo, who liquidated the company name in 2010. Although the blend is still being produced, Diageo does not provide any information about it on its website, despite the fact that it currently accounts for almost 2% of all blended whisky sales worldwide. It seems that White Horse has become 'the whisky that shall not be named' for some reason.


The brand development rebranding White Horse blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

6. Bell's


We wanted to delve into another blend owned by Diageo, Bell's. Although it hasn't made it to the top 10 best-selling blends in the world, we believe its history is worth exploring. The name itself rings a bell. *giggles*


Arthur Bell started blending his whiskies in 1851. In 1895, his two sons, Arthur Kinmond Bell and Robert Bell, joined the company and launched their trademark Extra Special, which was a huge success. This led to the establishment of Arthur Bell & Sons Ltd. Unfortunately, Arthur Bell passed away only five years later. In 1922, Arthur Kinmond took over the entire company and expanded his portfolio by acquiring three distilleries: Blair Athol and Dufftown in 1933 and Inchgower in 1936.


In 1985, Guinness bought the company that owned the distilleries. Later, Guinness was absorbed into Diageo. Blair Athol is still the main component in the Bell's blend, and the distillery is considered the Home of Bell's. In 2008, the 8-year-old expression that was introduced in 1994 was replaced by Original. In 2021, Bell's rebranded its banner from burgundy to purple.


The brand development rebranding Bell's blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

7. The Famous Grouse


The Famous Grouse is a blend that traces its origins way back to the establishment of John Brown's grocery store in 1800. His daughter Margaret got the first license to sell wine and spirits in 1831 and later married Matthew Gloag who joined the business in 1835. Despite the brand's claim of being established in 1800, it was actually launched almost a hundred years later. Interestingly, history only remembers the Gloags and not the Browns.


Matthew Gloag founded a wine importing business in 1860, which was later joined by his son William. However, the business had to shift its focus to whisky after Phylloxera devastated the wine industry in France in 1875. In 1896, Matthew Gloag's nephew, also named Matthew, took over the business and launched the first branded blend, which was called The Grouse. The company was renamed Matthew Gloag & Son in 1905, and The Grouse was renamed The Famous Grouse. The iconic Red Grouse label was designed by Matthew's daughter, Philippa. The company was sold to Highland Distillers in 1970 and was granted the Royal Warrant in 1984. The brand was later acquired by Edrington Group in 1999.


The Famous Grouse is still one of the top 20 best-selling whisky blends in the world, although it reached its peak in popularity during the 1980s. Some people believe that a significant change in recipe has contributed to its decline in success. However, many still prefer this blend as their choice of whisky during the holidays.


The blend is famous for using whiskies from Macallan and Highland Park, the single malt distilleries owned by its current owner, Edrington Group.


The design of the bottle has remained largely unchanged over the years, until Edrington's acquisition in 1999 when a more contemporary label and bottle were introduced. In 2015, the label underwent an experimental period where it was given a purple tint, in an attempt to increase the brand's premium appeal. A notable detail is the addition of the Royal Warrant to the label in 1984, which is proudly displayed.


The brand development rebranding The Famous Grouse blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

8. Grant's


Grant's blend is currently the third best-selling blended whisky in the world, owned by William Grant & Sons. William Grant established it in 1887 with the help of his seven sons and two daughters. The success of Grant's blend enabled the family to expand their whisky empire, including establishing the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries.


Since 1957, Grant's has been sold in a rectangular bottle designed by Hans Schleger. A year before, Glenfiddich single malt pre-tested the bottle with great success. Grant's has undergone two rebrandings, one in 2002 and the other in 2018. For years, "Standfast" has been Grant's motto since it was the war cry of Clan Grant.


However, from 2019 to 2020, Grant's sales dropped by 14.1% from £4.2m to £3.6m.


The brand development rebranding Grant's blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

9. Black Bottle


Black Bottle is renowned for its distinctive flat black bottle, but did you know that it was sold in a green-tinted glass bottle for a long time? The initial blend was created in 1879 by Charles, Gordon, and David Graham, who were originally tea merchants from Aberdeen. They ventured into whisky blending and produced a blend that was sold in a black bottle, hence the name. However, since the glass was imported from Germany, during the First World War in 1914, it was changed to a green bottle.


The Black Bottle blend had a slow start in gaining a reputation. In 1959, Schenley Industries Inc. of the USA bought Gordon Graham & Co Ltd. After the takeover, it is believed that the quality of the whisky dropped dramatically from its original flavour profile, which had a bold character and used many whiskies from different distilleries around Aberdeenshire.


In 1990, Allied Distillers Ltd. took over the branding and worked hard to bring back its glory days. However, they sold it to Highland Distillers Ltd. in 1996. The new owners decided to change Black Bottle to an Islay-dominated blend using whiskies from all the working distilleries in Islay, with Bunnahabhain in its core. The slogan of the reincarnation was ‘Finest Scotch Whisky with a Heart of Islay.’


Black Bottle has undergone several ownerships throughout its history. The brand was owned by the Edrington Group from 1999 to 2003 but was soon passed on to new owners. Burn Stewart Distillers decided to return the brand to its roots by losing the Islay theme, changing the blend to a more north-eastern style, and reverting to the original 1906 design of the black bottle. It's important to note that during the 90s, the blend was sold in a bottle coated with black plastic, even though the bottle itself was still green.


Despite its tumultuous past, Black Bottle has maintained a loyal following. However, it is not considered to be one of the best-selling blends, possibly due to its history.


The brand development rebranding Black Bottle blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

10. Black & White


Black & White is a blend that has increased in popularity while others have lost sales. In 2016, it was the 12th best-selling blend in the world but climbed to 6th place in 2020 with a 2.1% increase in sales. The reason behind its growing popularity is its popularity in India, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and the Caribbean. However, it's not widely available in the UK.


The brand, now owned by Diageo, originated in 1884 under the leadership of James Buchanan. The original blend, known as Buchanan's House of Commons, gained popularity in the British parliament. However, due to its black and white label, it became better known by its nickname. The name was officially changed to Black & White in 1902. Legend has it that James got the idea for the two terriers motif in the 1890s on his way back from a dog show. Though the two dogs had been appearing in advertising for the brand since the 1920s, the motif wasn't embedded in the label until the 1970s.


It's interesting to note that in 1898, Queen Victoria awarded James Buchanan & Co Ltd the Royal Warrant. The Coat of Arms first appeared on the Black & White whisky label in the late 50s, but it had been shown earlier in Buchanan's Blend. This brand's popularity is partly due to its appearance in popular culture, including movies like James Bond and early adaptations of Tarzan, as well as TV shows such as Cheers and Frazer. Currently, the brand is part of Diageo's whisky portfolio.


The brand development rebranding Black & White blended whisky

Image by The Whisky Ardvark

 

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