From the editors

The importance of whisky archives

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  • Hands up who went to visit Diageo’s mysterious snake in a bottle the other week? It’s a rarity for the Johnnie Walker owner to open its Menstrie archive to the public (in celebration of International Scotch Day on 10 February), but exceptional to discover a 19th-century bottle of whisky containing a pickled snake.

    Yet Diageo’s archive is full of curiosities, 500,000 of them, from historic bottlings (complete with resident spirits, sans snake) to ledgers, paintings, photographs, vintage adverts, life-size horse sculptures and even a replica hot air balloon. Some day David Beckham’s distant ancestors may visit Menstrie for an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? to dig out the memorabilia associated with his launch of Haig Club.

    It’s one of the most comprehensive catalogues of a whisky company’s history in existence, and takes a team of six archivists to maintain and grow. Sadly such a thorough and tenderly curated archive is extremely rare in Scotch, which is shocking when you consider the wealth of heritage in the category dating back hundreds of years.

    Whisky log: Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla contains details of the company’s past bottlings and whisky recipes

    Scotland’s largest whisky companies all began collating serious archives during the 1980s and ’90s. Chivas Brothers’ archive at Strathisla is in the hands of senior archivist Chris Brousseau, Dewar’s is in the hands of Jacqui Seargeant in Glasgow, The Glenmorangie Company’s history is in the hands of Iain Russell in Livingston, while Glasgow University Archives has records from Laphroaig, deposited when Whitbread’s spirits division was sold to Allied Lyons in 1989.

    Despite the applaudable efforts of some parties, frustratingly too many whisky producers keep no record of their brands’ histories at all. Not even for those produced as recently as the 1970s or 1980s. No details of when they were first produced, no visual reminders of packaging designs, and no log of blending recipes. Their bottlings are produced, sent out the door and forgotten about.

    Would you raise a family without logging your children’s first words, their first steps, or without taking photographs of ridiculous hairstyles for their future offspring to ridicule? We compile photographs of family celebrations, diaries and birth and death certificates to remind us of our own faded memories, but also to show our future generations who we were. What we did.

    The credit for the Diageo archive’s meticulousness goes firstly to the group’s predecessors at the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), which had the foresight to hold onto material relating to many of today’s oldest brands, such as Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and White Horse. It helped that the brands were the products of some of the most prolific and successful marketers in the industry, people like James Buchanan and Peter Mackie, who nurtured their creations like children.

    Following the takeover of DCL by Guinness in 1986, the resulting company, United Distillers, enlisted the assistance of archivist and historian Dr Nick Morgan to establish an archive for the company’s history. Afraid of losing some of its history as a result of the merger, Morgan was entrusted to compile as many artefacts relating to the companies’ history as he could find. In two years he filled three floors of an old warehouse with memorabilia.

    Alexander Walker’s blending book: records of past blends can help inspire the whiskies of the future​Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed our Whiskypedia section expanding lately. Very soon this section will include details of almost every Scotch whisky distillery, brand and company over the last 200 years or so. It will become the largest information resource for Scotch whisky online. It’s not an easy job compiling thousands of pages of company and brand histories, but it’s made that much harder, often venturing into the realms of the impossible, when producers keep no records of their own.

    Keeping an archive not only helps journalists like us build something as in-depth and historically accurate as Whiskypedia, but it also enables companies to draw on their rich past, resurrect brands or production techniques, or bring vintage marketing material or labels back to life. It helps create lineage for brands, and a sense of heritage which, apparently, is what millennials seek in their purchases these days.

    My globetrotting colleague Dave Broom returned from the inaugural World Whisky Forum in Sweden last week with reports of the whisky fraternity – large and small producers alike – sharing experiences and advice.

    I was thrilled to hear that among the discussions of innovation and traditional production techniques, Ludo Ducrocq, head of ambassador advocacy at Glenfiddich owner William Grant & Sons, had stressed the importance of new distillers establishing their own archive from the off. ‘It will save money in the long term,’ he said. ‘An archive protects your legacy, it tells the story, it adds value and allows you to learn from mistakes.’

    Not all brands have been lucky enough to have meticulous owners like the DCL or United Distillers. Many were passed from owner to owner with any collection of past marketing material or notes lost along the way, if they ever existed at all. One company may have started an archive, only for it to be considered superfluous by its next owner.

    Archives should be considered as important as the distilleries brands are produced in, and in this digital age there is really no excuse. My hope is that all whisky producers, not just this new wave of distillers, start documenting material right now. Understanding our past is what helps us to move forward.

    After all, curating an archive is like setting a footprint in stone. Without it, the past is simply washed away with the sands of time.

    Archives to visit:

    While the Chivas Brothers archive is not open to visitors, and Diageo’s Menstrie archive invites history buffs in just once day a year, there are several attractions across Scotland that welcome history buffs to immerse themselves in their whisky heritage.

    The largest public collection of whisky, with bottles dating back to 1897, is at the Scotch Whisky Experience on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It’s a fascinating, somewhat magical experience to be surrounded by so much whisky history.

    Meanwhile, some distillery visitor centres do do their brands justice, such as the Dewar’s experience at Aberfeldy in Perthshire, The Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret distillery in Crieff and The Glenlivet distillery in Moray, each of which have interactive tours designed to bring the brand’s past to life.

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