Johnnie Walker, "The Man Who Walked Around the World”


Hey, piper! Shut it! Here’s a true story about a young lad named John. Just a local farm boy, but there was something special about the lad, a glint in his eye, a fire in his belly, a spring in his step. And one day he went for a walk. Now, this walk began when his father died. The year was 1819 and he was just 14 years old. Bereavement counseling? Well, these were the days when young boys sent into the fields, the mills, the mines, tough times. But young John was smart enough to be lucky. His father’s farm, where he was born and raised, was sold and the proceeds used to open a grocer’s. Big responsibility for the wee lad. His own shop in Kilmarnock, with his name on the door: John Walker. Or Johnnie, as the world now knows him. Back then, all grocers stocked a range of local single malts, but they could be a wee bit inconsistent. For John, that wasn’t good enough. He began blending different malts together as a way of offering his customers a consistent, unique product. Now, this back-room art quickly developed into a commercial proposition and a very profitable one. And because there’s nothing like a commercial proposition to stir Scottish heart, it grew quickly into an industry filled with ambitious entrepreneur distillers. John thrived in this environment, and so too soon would his sons, Robert and Alexander, who joined him on his journey. The Walkers became the biggest name in a rapidly growing industry. They were unstoppable. In one bolt bit of 19th-century corporate raiding, they bought the famed distillery at Cardhu, lock, stock and… ensuring their supply of this silky single malt, and guaranteeing, more importantly, that none of the other big blenders could get their hands on it. But young Alexander wasn’t content with being Scotland’s biggest blender. Not ambitious enough for him. No, no. He convinced the ships’ captains of Glasgow to act as agents for him, and drove the whisky bearing his father’s name across the globe. By 1860, he had developed the square bottle, now with a label at an angle of precisely 24 degrees. No big deal, you might think, but you’d be wrong. The square bottle meant less breakages and more bottles per shipment. The diagonal label meant larger type and together that meant Johnnie Walker had unmistakable presence on any shelf in the world. The bottle became an icon, and the rich liquid it contained sought after and consumed across the globe. Quite a character, Alexander Walker. Master of the blender’s art, ambitious, uncompromising, Mr. Walker. It was John’s grandsons, George and Alexander II’s turn to join him on his journey. They led the brand into the 20th century. By 1909, they had developed the iconic Red Label and Black Label, and persuaded Tom Browne, the best young illustrator of the day, to sketch a striding man on a napkin during a business lunch. In the stroke of a pen, the Victorian grocer was transformed into an Edwardian dandy. By 1920, Johnnie’s walk had taken him through 120 countries, and he continued walking through the brand’s advertising over the next 50 years, into the fabric of global culture, deep into the dark hearts of several wars, to the pleasure palaces of the aristocracy, immortalized by screen legends, celebrated by filmmakers, singers, songwriters, novelists, shoulder-to-shoulder with the great sportsmen of the age, winning countless international awards for quality and even being awarded the Royal Warrant by King George V. No going back after that. No that going back would even have occurred to Johnnie or any of his family. By the end of the 20th century, the familiar Red Label and Black Label were joined by the Green Label, the Gold Label and, the grandest of them all, Johnnie Walker Blue Label. By the beginning of the 21st century, Johnnie Walker wasn’t just the world’s biggest whisky brand, but an international symbol of progress, the brand’s ‘Keep Walking’ mantra adopted by pro-democracy protestors and parliamentary speech writers. What would the farm-born Victorian grocer have thought of all of this? He’d have loved it. A Victorian farm-born grocer he might have been, but he, and the family that followed him, were possessed by a fiery ambition, with the skill and intelligence to match. Two hundred years later and Johnnie Walker’s still walking. And he’s not showing any signs of stopping.