When you trace the origins of a drink back over time, you learn an amazing amount about social, economic and political history, while getting a good dose of geography, meteorology and agronomy. In A Double Scotch: How Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet Became Global Icons, author F. Paul Pacult provides such a comprehensive lesson on the birth of Scotch and two of the world’s great whisky brands.
Pacult, a noted drinks journalist, traces the lives of several key figures to outline the intrigue of the early decades of Highland distillers, the commercialization of Scotch through the introduction of blending, and the internationalization of the drink as it followed the British Empire across the globe.
The early chapters of A Double Scotch introduce us to the discovery of distilling and why the harsh conditions of Scotland created the perfect incubator for whisky. By drawing us into the earliest recorded history of Scotland, culled from the writings of officers in the Roman legions, Pacult develops a true sense of the highly independent nature of the Scottish people.
The Glenlivet story is told through the early adventures of its founder, George Smith, who was born in 1792. At this time, most whisky production was done by farmers who were converting excess barley into a saleable product. Whisky became one of the few available means they had to generate income and trade. That is why a series of taxes levied on whisky and malt launched an era of illicit stills and whisky smuggling. George Smith became recognized as a talented whisky distiller and an even more talented smuggler in his 20s.
In 1781 unlicensed distilling was banned in the United Kingdom. Tax collectors were given bounties to destroy illegal stills, seize whisky, and confiscate tools being used by unlicensed distillers. Then a visit by King George IV to Scotland in 1822 changed things. According to Pacult, “…word got out that the King had become smitten with whisky, in particular, the highly respected illicit variety produced in or around Glenlivet.” Smith made the decision that it was better for business to become a licensed distiller in 1824. Packing a pair of pistols as he made deliveries around the countryside, Smith would fend off smugglers who harbored ill will over his breaking with the ranks. In doing so, he fathered one of the world’s great single malt brands.
Not long after Smith licensed The Glenlivet Distillery, James Chivas started working in a grocery shop in Aberdeen, later partnering with Charles Stewart. Chivas began to concentrate on the wine and spirits part of the shop, enhancing its reputation by mixing various whiskies to reduce the rough edges and enhance the flavors. Again, British royalty would appear on the scene to launch a great brand, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Scotland in 1842 and contracted with Stewart & Chivas to supply the royal household with food and drink.
Pacult weaves in more recent keepers of the Scotch flame, such as Samuel Bronfman, who acquired the Chivas brand and revolutionized its marketing; or Bill Smith Grant, who oversaw the expansion of The Glenlivet distillery and growth of export sales of the single malt. Later, after Bronfman’s death, son Edgar Bronfman paid $88 million in 1978 for a controlling stake in The Glenlivet, bringing the two brands together. While the final chapters of Pacult’s salute to the two brands do a good job of tracing these business developments, it is the early history that is the more engaging.
In his preface, Pacult talks about his times in the Highlands in search of Scotch lore for magazine articles. He paints the picture that a dram of Scotch is a slice of Scotland. With his book, Pacult has given us a fascinating look into two brands that grace the back bars of taverns around the world—allowing each of us to visit Scotland when we feel the need.