The rise of the single malt from Distillers Company Limited to Diageo

Distillers Company Limited: the grain cartel

Distillers Company Limited (DCL) was founded in 1877 by the owners of six Lowland grain distilleries with the aim of controlling production and prices. The 1898 Pattison crisis—driven by overproduction due to speculation and heavy debt—gave DCL the chance to bolster its hold on the market by buying a large number of distilleries at low prices. This consolidation continued until the early 20th century, until eventually in 1914 it could claim to be "the largest whisky distiller in the world". It was during this period that DCL founded the Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd subsidiary to manage the group’s malt distilleries.

Nonetheless, it was not yet clear that DCL would go on to become the heralds of single malt whisky—a status it would now be difficult to deny given the symbolic weight of some of the group’s distilleries and ranges. Indeed, it was not until the Whisky Loch overproduction crisis of the 1980s that the group began to take an interest in its single malts, until then relegated to second place behind its blends like Johnnie Walker, Haig and Dewar’s.

The Classic Malts range: a major turning point

The Ascot Malt Cellar range launched in 1982 was the first sign of a single malt range becoming a mainstay of Distillers Company Limited and featured distilleries such as Linkwood, Rosebank and Talisker. The aim was to compete against malts with proven success such as Macallan and Glenfiddich. The move was nonetheless undertaken with caution and it still featured two blends.

The real turning point came in 1988 with the launch of the Classic Malts range, a collection designed to represent a somewhat revised overview of Scotland’s major regions, through Glenkinchie (Lowlands), Dalwhinnie (Highlands), Oban (West Highlands), Cragganmore (Speyside), Lagavulin (Islay) and Talisker (Skye). In 1997, the range was further expanded with the Distiller’s Editions, which saw the same whiskies finished in sherry and port casks, and then the addition of Caol Ila and Clynelish in 2005. The Classic Malts were such a success that thirty years later they were still going strong.

Single malts gain even more ground

Encouraged by this success, United Distillers (Diageo’s predecessor) launched the Flora & Fauna range in 1991. The official name was coined by writer Michael Jackson in reference to the animals and landscapes depicted on the bottles’ labels. 22 distilleries were included in the original line-up, with four more added in 2001, all generally little known to everyday consumers. With the Classic Malts, United Distillers had chosen its champion malts; with Flora & Fauna, it showcased the breadth and wealth of its many distilleries. Whiskies in the range were aged between 10 and 16 years and, although a handful of cask strength and vintage bottlings were released in 1997, most were bottled at 43% ABV, making them particularly accessible to the general public.

The same, however, could not be said of the Rare Malts, the group’s other major range of the 1990s. Created in 1995 and discontinued in 2005, the Rare Malts collection was more elitist, "for the enjoyment of the true connoisseur", according to the label. These whiskies were aged between 18 and 30 years and bottled at cask strength, sometimes at almost 60% ABV. In contrast to the Flora & Fauna range, it also included closed distilleries such as Port Ellen, Brora, Rosebank, Glen Mhor and Glen Albyn. Vintages ranged from 1969 to 1982, a year before the grim 12 months of 1983 during which so many distilleries closed. It therefore offers a rare insight into Scotch whisky’s past.

Today, Diageo continues to promote its distilleries in several official ranges and the always hotly awaited yearly Special Releases. In just a few decades, the company’s malt distilleries emerged from the shadows and their purely functional status to be considered the key heritage behind the group’s prestige and renown.

 

Lagavulin in the early 20th century

Tasting notes

Talisker 10 Year Old

45.8%, 1L, 1990s

Talisker is the very embodiment of a coastal whisky and this batch of Talisker 10 Year Old is no exception, featuring the distillery’s typical notes of “salt and pepper” and a fresh, oily sensation on both the nose and the palate. Fruit is not absent, but it is above all the malt’s overall balance and fluidity that makes it stand out.

Lagavulin 16 Year Old White Horse Distillers

43%, 70cl, 1990s

In comparison, this Lagavulin is immediately more imposing with its austere smoke and salty, medicinal aspect. It also reveals beautiful notes of exotic fruits and a waxy patina. Harmony reigns throughout, culminating in a long finish where every element remains present and well-defined.

What really impressed me in this tasting was the perfect form of these whiskies. You would be hard-pressed to find a single fault. I think later batches have slightly lost that finesse—the balance and complexity found in bottlings from the 1990s. That said, the Classic Malts remain some of the safest bets on the market and every enthusiast should have at least a couple of releases in their collection. Like many others, it was Lagavulin 16 Year Old and Talisker 10 Year Old that made me fall in love with whisky, so it’s a real pleasure to come back to them today.

Clément Gaillard, Golden Promise Whisky Bar.

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