Produced in Scotland, the life span of the “Long John” brand of scotch whisky extends from the late 1820’s right up through today. Originally produced as a single malt, sometime around 1910 it transitioned to a blend.
As shown in the above photograph the subject bottle does not exhibit either a company name or product name. However it’s raised shield and rectangle exactly match a labeled Long John Scotch bottle recently offered for sale on the internet.
In addition the back of both bottles are embossed with the English patent registration number 702081.
As far as I can tell, the patent relates to the design of the bottle and, in fact, another example, also found on the internet, exhibits some rather ornate decoration.
According to the United Kingdom’s National Archives website, the patent number dates the design between 1922 (No. 694297) and 1926 (No. 719813). Interpolation between the two results in a 702081 patent date sometime in 1923.
That being said, the “Long John” name itself dates back almost 100 years earlier to the town of Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. Located at the base of Scotland’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, the town was described like this in a publication entitled “Glasgow and its Environs,” published in 1891.
Fort William takes its name from the fort erected during the reign of William III, by General Monk, in order to overawe Cameron of Lochiel and his supporters. Within easy distance Ben Nevis towers above all its brother Bens, and attracts numerous ambitious visitors. It commands the waterway to Inverness and sits among the sublimest scenery.
This late 1800’s photograph of Fort William with Ben Nevis clearly visible in the background accompanied the description.
It was about one mile outside Fort William, at the Ben Nevis Distillery, where, what would become the “Long John” brand was first produced. Accounts written in the late 1800’s credit the scotch brand’s namesake, John MacDonald, as the distillery’s founder. This version found in “Glasgow and it’s Environs,” is typical.
The origin of the Ben Nevis Distillery was due to Mr. John MacDonald, who in 1825, founded the first enterprise of the kind in the Lochabar district.
To be fair, some later internet accounts, namely elitewineandwhisky.com, credit a man named Angus McDonnell with its founding, and go on to suggest that John MacDonald didn’t get involved with the distillery until sometime around 1830. There’s no dispute however, that by the early 183o’s John MacDonald was the proprietor.
An imposing figure, MacDonald stood 6′-4″ tall in his stocking feet earning him his “Long John” nickname. He also possessed a “bigger than life” reputation that is bolstered by an actual story that appeared in the October 4, 1838 edition of Edinburgh Scotland’s “Caledonian Mercury.” While a little lengthy, its certainly worth a read!
PERILOUS SITUATION OF THE DUCHESS OF BUCCLEUCH. – The young and beautiful Duchess of Buccleuch made a narrow escape last week, on the mountain of Ben Nevis. The Duke has been deer stalking in Badenoch; and the Duchess, on Monday last, undertook to ascend Ben Nevis, on foot, from Corpech Inn, at the western end of the Caledonian Canal. She was accompanied on the expedition by a young gentleman, a near relation of the Duke; and they took with them a guide, who proved subsequently imperfectly acquainted with the road. When on the summit of the mountain, the day, which had previously been fine, became hazy, and night was, at the same time, drawing on. The little party were soon enveloped in a dark mist, and the guide became perfectly bewildered. The Duchess, with a degree of moral courage, scarcely to have been anticipated in a young lady of delicate nurture and constitution, exerted herself to keep up the spirits of her companions, and to nerve them to preserve exertion. Her efforts would have been unavailing amid the wilderness of precipices and morasses – for who can say what would have been the effect of exposure to the inclement night air on so delicate a frame – but for the sagacious exertions of Mr. John M’Donald, proprietor of the Ben Nevis Distillery. The long delay of the Duchess had excited alarm, and the inhabitants of Fort William were mustering to the rescue, when Mr. M’Donald mounted his horse, and taking with him a large bell, cantered out into the night. The sound of the bell caught the ear of the wanderers, and the Duchess and her noble relative were, by this ingenious device, rescued from their dangerous situation. Mr. M’D’s plaid being converted into a temporary pack saddle, the noble lady was conveyed, in an almost exhausted state, to Fort William where “tired nature’s best restorer” effaced all traces of her toil…
“Long John”MacDonald served as proprietor of the distillery up through 1856 during which time, according to a story in the 1888 edition of “Wyman’s Commercial Directory,” he never produced more than 200 gallons per week. Though not a large operation, by the early 1840’s MacDonald’s whiskey was available in England as well as Scotland. The earliest English advertisement I can find appeared in the April 24, 1841 edition of “The Newcastle Journal.”
WINE AND SPIRIT MERCHANT,
HIGH BRIDGE NEWCASTLE,
BEGS most respectfully to inform the Nobility, Gentry, and Inhabitants of Newcastle, Northumberland, Durham, and the adjoining Counties, that he has on Hand a large Stock of the justly famed BEN NEVIS WHISKEY, which is well known to be the best made in the Highlands. The Quality of the Water that this fine Whiskey is made with – the skillful Management of Mr. M’Donald, the Distiller, is too well known to require any further Remarks. Families will be convinced by a single Trial, that Ben Nevis Dew is truly a Medicine.
J.M’ACINTYRE flatters himself that he is the only Agent in England that has this fine Article for Sale: Families wishing a large quantity, if preferred, can be supplied direct from the Distillery, by making early Application.
These early newspaper advertisements typically referred to MacDonald’s scotch as “Ben Nevis Whiskey,” a name that according to “Wyman’s Commercial Directory,” he alone could rightfully claim.
…there is no other whisky manufactory within a radius of 50 miles to contest Mr. MacDonald’s sole right to the use of the name Ben Nevis.
By the late 1840’s some advertisements began to attach the name “Long John” to his Ben Nevis product. One of the earliest I could find was this April 28, 1848 item that called it “Long John’s celebrated Ben Nevis Whiskey.” It appeared in the “The Newcastle Weekly Courant.”
By the 1850’s, more and more advertisements were also referring to it as the “Dew Off Ben Nevis,” as evidenced by this ad that appeared in the December, 1850 editions of several English newspapers.
The above advertisement promoted the “Dew Off Ben Nevis” as a favorite of the Royal Family, in this case Prince Albert. Whether this was actually true or not I can’t say, but, true or not, MacDonald wasn’t shy about stressing the point. In fact, according to a story published in the April 29, 1848 edition of the “Hampshire Telegraph and Naval Chronicle,” MacDonald, in what was probably a brilliant marketing stunt, presented a cask of his scotch to Queen Victoria, intending it as a 21st birthday gift for her son William, the Prince of Wales. At the time, the future King of England was only seven years old.
We understand that Mr. Macdonald, of the Ben Nevis distillery, has presented a cask of whisky to her Majesty, and an order has been sent from the Treasury to permit the spirits to be removed, free of duty, and deposited in the cellars of Buckingham Palace. We have heard that the great “John” has requested that the cask shall not be opened until his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales attains his majority, which will give it a rest of 14 years!
In 1856 John MacDonald passed away leaving the distillery in the hands of his son, Donald Peter MacDonald. Long John’s death was reported in the October 27th edition of the “Glasgow Herald.”
Death of “Long John.” – Mr. John MacDonald of the Ben Nevis Distillery, familiarly known by the name of “Long John,” died on Sunday last. Mr. MacDonald was an active, hospitable man, well known over all the north, and to tourists and sportsmen frequenting Lochaber. He was above sixty years of age.
While “Long John” may have been active, hospitable and well known, one thing he apparently wasn’t was a good business man. According to an item published in the July 1, 1856 “Courier and Argus,” four months before his death John MacDonald had been declared bankrupt.
So when Donald, typically referred to as “D.P.,” assumed control of the distillery the operation was small and certainly not in a healthy state. By all accounts, it was “D.P” who turned things around and grew the business. According to a book called “The Whisky Distillers of the United Kingdom,” by Alfred Barnard:
At the death of his father in the year 1856, the present proprietor succeeded to the business, which at the time was the only distillery in the district. Ben Nevis was turning out about 200 gallons per week. In 1864 the trade had so much increased that the distillery was enlarged from time to time, until its capacity reached 3,000 gallons per week.
The growth continued and by 1877 MacDonald was constructing a second distillery nearby called “The Nevis.” The announcement was published under the heading “Fort William” in the February 19, 1877 edition of the “Glasgow Herald.”
A new distillery is to be immediately erected near Fort William by Mr. D. P, MacDonald of the Ben Nevis Distillery. The new distillery, which is to be built just below the Belford Hospital, will be situated on the river Nevis.
Both distilleries, circa 1890, were described in “Glasgow and its Environs.”
The older establishment, “Ben Nevis,” stands at the mountain foot some two miles from Fort William, and covers a space of about four acres. The premises are of substantial construction, and contain every facility for distilling on a large scale. The granary and malt barn are each 120 feet long, and the other departments are in proportion. The tun-room contains six wash backs of 7,000 gallons each, and nearby is a mash tun of 2,000 gallons, an under back of 1,500 gallons, and a cooler of the same capacity. The stills, of which there are five, are of old “pot” type, the two largest being used for the distillation of the “wash” and the others for the “feints.” Their total capacity is almost 4,000 gallons…
This photograph of the Ben Nevis Distillery accompanied the description.
The story went on to describe the recently constructed “Nevis” distillery like this.
“The Nevis,” which is situated about a mile nearer Fort William, is a collosal establishment… The buildings cover an area of eight acres, and consist of an aggregation of large separate blocks, connected by gang ways, and built of concrete made by Mr. MacDonald’s own workmen…The malt barns and grain lofts have no equals that we know of. Seventy thousand feet of malting floors, steeps with a capacity of four hundred quarters, a tun-room with nine wash backs holding a trifling hundred thousand gallons or so, and bonded stores with a total of four miles of guantrees – such are the proportion of this splendid distillery.
A photograph of “the Nevis” was also provided.
According to a story in the December 21, 1880 edition of “The Brewer’s Guardian” with both distilleries now up and running and their export business increasing, MacDonald had recently incorporated a steamer into their operations.
A steamer has recently been launched for the sole purpose of importing coals and grains etc., and exporting the manufactured material to suitable markets. The home trade of Mr. MacDonald is very large, and his foreign and colonial connections are becoming increasingly valuable.
Less than a decade later that single steamer had grown into an entire fleet. According to the 1888 “Wyman’s Commercial Encyclopedia:”
One of the first objects one notes as the steamer glides towards the landing stage at Fort William, is the new pier built by Donald P. M’Donald, proprietor of the Ben Nevis distilleries, for the accommodation of his own fleet of steamers – a couple of which were moored there as we passed. Constructed entirely by his own workmen, and of concrete by his own making, this spacious quay, surrounded by houses also of concrete, occupied by his employees, is the latest of the extensive building operations necessitated by the growth of Mr. M’Donald’s business…
According to “Wyman’s,” by the late 1880’s the two distilleries were putting out between 8,000 and 10,000 gallons per week and their warehouses were more than well stocked.
The immense bonded warehouses held, at the time of our visit, upwards of 15,000 casks, or more than a million and a half of gallons, and every gallon of the present season’s distilling was sold before they commenced to work.
It was also under D. P. MacDonald, that a subtle change in the whiskey’s name occurred. “Long John” newspaper advertisements published between the early 1860’s and early 1880’s indicate that somewhere along the line a letter “f,” was lost, morphing the phrase “Dew Off Ben Nevis,”…
…to “Dew Of Ben Nevis.” The subtle change was reflected in a series of 1884 advertisements found in the The “Airdrie Coatbridge Advertiser,” and was pretty much the norm by then.
As far as I can tell D. P. MacDonald passed away in the early 1890’s at which time management of the distillery passed to a third generation of MacDonald’s. As early as 1893, advertisements in the “Birmingham Post” were naming the proprietor as D. P. MacDonald & Sons.
The Ben Nevis Distillery survived a major fire in 1895 and both distilleries continued under the management of D. P.’s son, John MacDonald, who, in 1911, dropped the “a” in the family name and incorporated the business as D. P. McDonald & Sons. Ltd. Around the same time McDonald sold the “Long John” brand name to W. H. Chaplin & Co., Ltd.
Established in 1867, W. H. Chaplin & Co. were wine and spirit merchants located in London at 48 Mark Lane. According to their listing in the 1920 edition of “Harper’s Manual, The Standard Work of Reference for the Wine & Spirit Trade,” D. P. McDonald & Sons was one of a long list of companies whose brands were owned by the Chaplin company (bottom of the list).
D. P. McDonald & Sons, Ltd.’s listing in the same publication continued to associate them with the “Long John” brand as well.
This indicates that the whisky was still being produced for Chaplin by D. B. McDonald & Sons, Ltd. at the Ben Nevis Distilleries in Fort William. A fact confirmed by the labeled bottle pictured in this advertisement also published in the 1920 “Harper’s Manual.”
Now advertising two brands, “Black Label and Red Label,” they were apparently producing a blend at this point.
It was also the Chaplin company that began using the bottle design featured at the beginning of this post. The first advertised image of the bottle that I can find was run by a local Scottish grocer and wine merchant named J & A Miller. It’s depicted on the left side of this ad published in the December 11, 1926 edition of the “Strathearn Herald.”
Ten years later the same bottle design was still appearing in Miller’s annual holiday advertisement.
In 1936 Seager, Evans & Co. acquired the “Long John” brand in an acquisition process that was essentially complete by October, as evidenced by a speech given by Seager, Evans chairman, Sir Allan Horne, at the company’s annual general meeting. The speech was published in part in the October 22nd edition of a Gloucester, England newspaper called “Citizen.”
That brings me to your company’s acquisition of Messrs. W. H. Chaplin and Co., Limited, who have always held a pre-eminent position in the wine and spirit trade. We believe, as our Chaplin colleagues believe, that this coordination of interests will enable the respective companies to be in a particularly favored position to obtain the highest quality of wines etc., at exceptionally favorable terms.
As far as I can tell, at this point, the “Long John” blends were being produced by a subsidiary of Seager & Evans called “Long John Distilleries.” At the time Seager and Evans owned distilleries in Strathclyde and Glenugie so it’s likely that they made up all or at least a part of Long John Distilleries.
Shortly after the acquisition, the bottle design was changed again as evidenced by Miller’s 1937 holiday advertisement that depicted a “Long John” bottle that exhibited a more elongated shape (left side).
In 1957, Schenley Industries acquired Seager Evans. The acquisition was referenced in the May 30th edition of London’s “Daily Telegraph.”
Schenley Industries, a large American distilling concern, which recently acquired the British Seager Evans group and several Scottish whiskey distilleries aims to “go out after leadership of the world’s liquor market.” said the chairman, Mr. Lewis Rosenstiel, today.
Scotch whisky sales in the United States were growing constantly. Within three years they might increase by as much as 150 percent. He added:
Schenley was embarking on a large expansion program. This included a new whisky distillery in Strathclyde…
The company’s new activities include the production and distribution of Seager Evans Long John Scotch Whisky and the marketing of Scottish Majesty Whisky in the United States.
Schenley continued to operate both Seager, Evans & Co. and Long John Distilleries as subsidiaries and according to a 1960 “Long John” advertisement the scotch was still being produced at Glenugie.
Shortly afterwards Schenley opened a new Scottish distillery at Tormore-on-Speyside. The October 8, 1960 edition of New York’s “Daily News” announced the opening.
Tormore-on-Speyside, Scotland – The first whisky distillery ever built here with U.S. capital was opened today. It can produce 40,000 gallons of whisky a year, and belongs to Long John Distillers, Ltd., a subsidiary of Schenley Industries, Inc., of New York. The enterprise includes 40 acres of modern housing for distillery workers.
Over the next 40 plus years the brand changed hands several more times, including a stint with Whitbread in the 1980’s. Today the “Long John” brand is owned by Pernod Ricard and primarily marketed in France. Their website indicates that the distillery at Tormore continues to “form the heart of the blend.”
One of the best selling whiskies in France, Long John is a classic blended scotch with sweet and smoky notes. Crafted from a selection of 30 Scottish Highland and Island malt and grain whiskies, spirits from the Tormore distillery form the heart of the blend and lend it its distinctive toasted almond sweetness. Long John has been part of the Pernod group since 2005.
It’s not exactly clear, at least to me, how popular “Long John” was in the United States, however, based on an unscientific review of their U. S. newspaper references I suspect that the brand never made a big splash on this side of the Atlantic.
Under the MacDonald family, despite a fleet of steamers it doesn’t appear that much of their whisky made its way to America. This is supported by the fact that newspaper references to their scotch in these early years were few and far between. Of the few references I did find, and the earliest, dates back to 1874 in a newspaper called “The Madisonian,” published in Virginia City, Montana. Touted as a tonic, it read:
Another, in 1880, advised that a shipment of “Long John” had just arrived in Ogden, Utah.
The absence of any mention in large metropolitan areas, suggests that the MacDonald’s lacked an American agent/distributor. This likely resulted in a cumbersome process that required the distillery to deal directly with individual retailers located in the U.S..
Under W. H Chaplin “Long John” pre-prohibition newspaper advertisements continued to be almost non-existent, with the only newspaper ad I can find appearing in 1913. It ran on a limited basis in New Jersey, Arkansas and Salt Lake City newspapers.
As prohibition was coming to an end W. H. Chaplin turned their U. S. efforts up a notch, appointing Austin Nichols & Co., Inc. as their American distributor. According to the December 28, 1933 edition of the Buffalo (N. Y.) News:
The company (Austin Nichols) recently announced its appointment as general distributor of Long John Scotch whisky…
Connections with the transportation, hotel and restaurant trades should provide favorable outlets for liquors and it is not improbable that a worthwhile earning power will be developed from this source
Throughout much of the 1930’s the brand’s exposure was limited to the northeast states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut where it was primarily included in the price lists of liquor store advertisements. Several, including this June 29, 1934, advertisement in the New York Daily News, pictured the subject bottle.
A little over a year after W. H. Chaplin was acquired by the Seager, Evans group the bottle design made its last public appearance in a January 28, 1938 advertisement published in the Yonkers, New York “Herald Statesman.” .
During the 1940’s, U.S. newspaper advertisements, including listings in liquor store ads, were almost non-existent, likely the result of World War II.
Later, primarily in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, there was some resurgence under Schenley’s ownership. Along with their inclusion in liquor store advertisements, there were some promotions as well. One, in June, 1965, was a father’s day contest advertised in the “Chicago Tribune.” First prize was a trip to Scotland.
Another, in the March 28, 1963 edition of the Fort Lauderdale News, suggested you visit “Colonial Liquors and Lounge” where you could meet “The Long John Scotch Girls” (upper right in the ad).
All things considered, the company itself may have unknowingly summed up the success of their American marketing efforts in one of their last U.S. advertisements. Found in several 1971 Texas newspapers the ad read in part:
Nine reasons you should spend more for a scotch you’ve probably never heard of.
The bottle I found is machine made and almost certainly dates between the 1923 patent date and 1938 when it’s design disappeared from pictured advertisements. The bottle does not include the phrase “Federal Law Forbids the Sale or Re-Use Of This Bottle,” required on all liquor bottles sold in the U.S. between 1935 and 1964. This suggests that the bottle illegally arrived in the United States during prohibition, or within the first year or so after its repeal, likely further limiting the end date to 1934.
On a final note: In 1885 a drink called the “The Ben Nevis Punch” was included in a London publication entitled “New Guide for the Hotel, Bar, Restaurant, Butler, and Chef.” In case you’re interested, here’s the recipe: