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A Drink Before Dying

It was a good plan for as long as it was working. You’d managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain the madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target while still maintaining the beat on your tabla. But then his right hand man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you find yourself tied down in front of the villain in his egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain his entire nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be a blended scotch whisky.

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Some time ago, we looked at the history and definition of whisky as filtered through the eyes and words of Ian Fleming and his most famous literary creation, James Bond. I’d like to pick up where we left off (more or less), and take a look into the tumbler in the hands of the villain. In particular, the villains of old Eurospy, crime, and Bollywood thrillers where no secret lair or fortified chateau was complete without a hidden panel that would slide open to reveal a silver serving tray, two glasses, and a bottle of whisky (and we’re going whisky without an “e” this time around, since it’s almost always whisky from Scotland, where they don’t use the “e”). They drink it to celebrate, they offer it to the captured hero to gloat, and they drink it again when their nefarious schemes begin to crumble around them. And it’s near universal. Italy, Germany, India, Turkey, the United States — it doesn’t seem to matter where you are. If you are a megalomaniacal madman bent on world destruction or just a common thug who is sick and tired of Maurizio Merli, chances are your drink of choice is scotch. You’re not going to catch Blofeld toasting the demise of James Bond with a Kahlua Mudslide, just as you’d never catch Bond wooing a sultry woman by ordering an apple-tini. Hell, my tastes in life are suspect enough that I don’t begrudge anyone what they like, and those drinks each have their place. That place just happens not to be the control room of a secret lair inside a hollowed-out volcano.

So let’s take a quick journey through some of the favorite brands of some of our favorite movie villains, and along the way, maybe learn a thing or two about the history of the spirit we call blended scotch whisky, the ups and downs of its reputation over the years, and the role drinking it plays in various cultures. This will be a multi-post ongoing series, so this first time out, we’re going to concentrate on history and a single brand. Others will follow.

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Medicine of Kings

Trying to pinpoint the “first” whisky is a sometimes fun but largely pointless endeavor, like naming the first “punk” band or the first “slasher film.” So for the sake of verifiable facts, let’s begin in 1494, which is the first officially recorded appearance of a distilled whisky in Scotland — which means it had been around for longer, but this is the first time the tax man got to it, and nothing exists in this world until it is taxed. “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” With that entry in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls, whisky — known then as aqua vitae, aka “water of life” — verified its existence to future historians, drunks, and guys with handlebar mustaches lifting up trapezoidal weights. According to whisky lore, the distillation process itself came to Scotland by way of Ireland. St. Patrick, it is said, introduced distilling to Ireland in the fifth century, and the Dalriadic Scots took the process with them when they migrated to Scotland. St. Patty himself apparently learned the process from people in France and Spain, where distillation was used to create perfume and later used on wine to create brandy. In areas where there were no grapes, and thus no wine making, distillation of “mashes” made with an assortment of grain was adopted.

The official use for this concoction, of course, was medicinal. Things that make you tipsy have a long history of being medicinal in nature, at least some of which is actually earned. For example, scientists have figured out that the presence of certain types of antibiotics in Egyptians mummies — antibiotics that would not be discovered by medicine for thousands of years — was because they occurred naturally in the beer ancient Egyptians consumed. Makes me wonder if centuries from now, future gadabouts will be reclining in a swinging lounge on Mars, nosing and writing tasting notes for their preferred space spirit Nyquil which the ancients used to consume “for medicinal purposes.”

This medieval version of aqua vitae — usquebaugh in the Gaelic language, sometimes shortened to usky and later…well, I think you can figure it out from there — was raw, potent stuff that had more in common with backwoods moonshine that it would modern scotch. Distillation was still rough, the recipe and process for making the spirit varied from one maker to the next, and the notion of aging it in a barrel was basically non-existent. It was a local drink, made locally, but with a growing popularity across Scotland. A small modicum of organization was introduced in 1505 when King James IV — himself quite a fan of this intoxicating medicine — granted the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh sole rights to make and sell usquebaugh in the capital. Because there’s no trait you want more in your surgeon or your barber than drunkeness. Whisky continued to grow in popularity during the 1500s, and advances in still design and distillation began producing spirits that were considerably less harsh and less “occasionally deadly” than the early whiskies.

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Whisky and War

This is when things start to get ugly, and I promise you eventually we will get to blended scotch. But before that, you have to understand why people would ever think to blend whisky in the first place. So we have established the potent birth of whisky in Scotland and established that James IV was quite fond of a wee nip when he got the chance. The quality of spirit being made in Scotland began to improve steadily during the 1500s, and this happened largely because of war.

At the end of the 1400s, Europe and Britain were in a hopeless tangle of treaties that, the same as they would in World War I, seemed designed to eventually drag the entire continent into war. For our purposes here, the first to go at each other were Italy and France in what would become known as The Italian Wars. England allied itself with Italy, because if there’s one thing England loved, it was going to war with France. James IV of Scotland, unfortunately, had a binding treaty with France. Way back in 1295, John Balliol and Philip IV of France agreed that one country would always help the other if attacked by England. This agreement, known as The Auld Alliance, was renewed from time to time with little consequence, until eventually French monarch Louis XII called in the favor. As England came into the war on the side of Italy, Scotland was obliged by The Auld Alliance to invade England in support of France.

Italy — which is to say, The Pope — was most displeased with Scotland attacking the English. Pope Leo X threatened the Scottish monarch with censure from the church, and England’s King Henry VIII decided if the Pope was mad at James IV, Henry (himself not exactly a fan of popes, but whatever) might as well rub salt into the wound by declaring himself overlord of Scotland. He felt justified in doing this since, in 1502, England and Scotland had signed a non-aggression pact. By fulfilling Scotland’s old treaty with France, James IV was violating the newer one with England. James IV defied both king and pope, carrying out the raids into England and sending Scottish sailors to reinforce the French navy. The war between the two neighbors came to a head in 1513, when James IV led a host of some 30,000 Scots into battle against the English. The Battle of Flodden, sometimes known as The Battle of Branxton since that’s actually where it took place, is generally pegged as the last true medieval battle. It went poorly for the Scots. James IV himself led the army and paid the ultimate price, falling in battle and effectively ending Scotland’s involvement on France’s behalf in what was now being called War of the League of Cambrai.

Things settled down a bit, but not for long. Henry VIII’s support of Italy in the wars had less to do with England’s love of the Pope and more to do with their hatred of France. The Protestant Reformation, which among other things sought to address the vast wealth of the church and the terrible poverty of its followers, was gaining steam throughout Europe, and Rome was scrambling to curtail the damage. In distant England, Henry was pushing through a series of reforms to the Church of England that better reflected the mood of the population — and also happen to make it much easier for the crown to confiscate wealth from the church. In 1534, Henry VIII issued the first Act of Supremacy, naming the crown rather than the Pope as the supreme head of the Church of England. Among the things he did as the Church of England continued to extract itself from The Roman Catholic Church was begin the dissolution of monasteries.

And this is where war and politics intersects once again with whisky.

Into the Mix

Monks were the original distillers. What else are a bunch of dudes living together in a frat house going to do with their time? And suddenly, a lot of them were out of a job so to speak. Forced now to make it in the outside world, many former monks fell back on their distilling skills. There was a sudden influx of knowledgable experts into the world of whisky making, resulting in substantial advancement in the art and science of distilling. Whisky making continued to thrive and evolve in a loose and wild style, with the occasional violent conflict over taxation, until 1823 when the Excise Act essentially laid the foundations for the modern whisky industry. At that time, whisky was still a pretty rough spirit. The knowledge of the monks advanced the process substantially, but that’s “advanced” by the standards of the 16th century. It remained largely a provincial indulgence sold locally by grocers — grocers who just happened to have surnames like Walker, Dewar, Ballantine, and Chivas.

In 1831, an inventor by the name of Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey — or Patent — Still, sometimes also called a continuous or column still because why let something have one name when it can have like half a dozen? Traditionally, whisky was made in a pot still which consists of a rotund “pot” with a neck where condensation takes place. In a pot still, you could only make one batch of whisky at a time. Then you had to drain it, clean it, and pour in the next batch for distillation. By contrast, the Coffey still ran liquid through a long column that enabled distillers to ply their craft in a continuous flow. No batches. The only time you had to stop distilling was when you needed to clean the still or your workers went on holiday. The invention of the column still also led to the production of “grain whisky.”

Wait. Isn’t all whisky “grain” whisky, what with the legal definition of whisky being that it has to be made from grains? Well yes, but the designation of something as “grain” whisky at the time means that it is made with, well, pretty much any grain other than barley. It is more accurate for our purposes here to speak of tem as “neutral” grain spirits, as the goal eventually became to produce a mostly flavorless spirit, which generally occurs because they are distilled at a higher proof. Not everything that comes off a column still is a neutral grain spirit. Many bourbons, for example, are produced in using column stills, and many grain spirits — such as Compass Box Hedonism or Nikka Coffey Malt — are rich in flavor because they are distilled at a lower proof. Single malt whiskies are, as you might guess, made with only barley. Anyway, grain whisky off a column still had an altogether different taste than rustic pot still whisky. So someone — that someone being a man named Andrew Usher — wondered what might happen if you took that big, beastly pot still whisky and blended it with the more refined and delicate column still grain whisky. What might happen, it turns out, is you might create the biggest whisky market in the world.

Since then, blended scotch has dominated the market. Up until very recently, it was pretty much all any whisky drinker consumed. Single malts — pot still whiskies made entirely from malted barley and distilled at a single distillery — were an almost statistically non-existant sliver of the market. As far as most people were concerned, single malts were nothing more than the raw ingredients that went into making true scotch — blended scotch. In the past decade or two, many hardcore whisky aficionados have changed their tune, trumpeting single malts as the true expression of a whisky while blends are diluted and dumbed down for the masses. Go to any reputable whisky shop these days and you will almost certainly see the bulk of the shelves taken up with an array of single malt scotches — Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and so forth — while the blends are relegated to the bottom shelf, where spirits in specialty shops go to collect dust and die.

This arrangement fails reality on a number of levels. First of all, anyone who thinks a single malt is superior to a blend purely by virtue of being a single malt is a person whose opinion should not be trusted in any matter of import. They’re probably the same people who insist that the older or more expensive a scotch is, the better it is. There are fantastic, complex, challenging single malts. There are also dumb, simple, one-note single malts. There’s everything in between as well. And hey, guess what! Exactly the same is true of blends. There are blended scotches that can easily go toe-to-toe with the best the world of single malts has to offer. There are also blends that are terrible. And the whole range in between. Blends are not dumbed down versions of single malts. In fact, the process of making a modern day blended scotch is incredibly complex, with master blenders sometimes combining upwards of forty, fifty, even sixty different single malts to achieve a specific flavor.

The heavy weighting of a specialty shop’s whisky selection toward single malts also doesn’t reflect the simple economics of the industry. Over 90% of the single malt produced is used to make blends. There would be no single malt market if not for the demands of blended scotch. The world over, blends are still overwhelmingly what people drink. Chances are if you were ordering your first whisky without guidance from a whisky-literate friend or bartender, you probably ordered a blend, because those are the brands everyone knows. If your father or grandfather drank scotch, he almost certainly drank a blend.

And recently, that first wave of single malt snobs has come back around to the blends they once dismissed. Boutique whisky makers like Compass Box started making blends glamorous again. The tumultuous economic situation in the United States also meant that people with less money to spend than previously but still possessed of a taste for scotch started eying blends, which are traditionally less costly than their single malt compatriots owing to the fact that the grain whisky that makes up much of a blend is considerably cheaper to produce. And what they discovered was that a lot of these blends are good. Very, very good. And suddenly, though whisky enthusiasts still love single malts, the blends are back in fashion.

And when you talk blends — especially blends favored by movie villains — there is no more obvious a place to start than Johnnie Walker.

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The Walking Man

Johnnie Walker as the drink of choice for conniving screen villains — and heroes — boasts an almost incomprehensible pedigree, thanks primarily to its popularity in the prolific film industry of India. I think it’s safe to say that Johnnie Walker has appeared in more Bollywood films than any other actor. So prolific is its career in Indian cinema that one of Bollywood’s most famous comedic actors took his name from the whisky. To count the number of villains who have sipped Johnnie Walker while relaxing in their lair, plotting the overthrow of some government or other, is an impossible task. Everyone from Dev Anand to Amitabh Bachchan has celebrated victory or tried to drown defeat by hitting the Red or Black Label, and pretty much every Bollywood action hero has had it offered to them by a sneering villain or seductive femme fatale. The seductive “dancing while displaying a bottle of whisky” routine that appears in so many Bollywood movies has resulted in a bottle of Johnnie Walker likely being popular dancer Helen’s most frequent on-screen partner.

Johnnie Walker started out as an experiment conducted by Kilmarnock farmer turned grocer John Walker, whose specialty was blending tea leaves. He eventually decided that, although tea leaves are nothing like whisky, the experience could apply to making the harsh spirits commonly thought of as whisky into something more drinkable. And so he began mixing single malts together, then further blended them with cheaper, less abrasive grain whisky to create his store brand. It was a modest success but hardly a global juggernaut — at least until 1857, when Walker’s son took over the business after the passing of his father. Alexander Walker was substantially more ambitious with the whisky brand. He was the man who established the brand’s identity with the slightly askew black and gold label. He was also the one who came up with the square bottle, a design decision that not only reduced breakage but also allowed a retailer to fit more bottles onto a shelf. Alexander Walker’s three sons took over the business from him in 1889, and then the push began in earnest as the era of marketing was upon us.

In 1909, George Walker hired a cartoonist named Tom Browne to create a logo for the brand. Browne used a likeness of John Walker sporting a top hat, waistcoat and high boots — the now iconic Walking Man. Around the same time, Alexander Walker Jr. was greatly expanding and improving the product portfolio. By 1906, the John Walker & Sons whisky company offered three blends: the basic blend with a white label; Extra Special Old Highland with a red label; and Walkers Old Highland Whisky, 12 years old with a black label (in a blended whisky, age statements reflect not the average age of the single malts put into it, but rather must be the age of the youngest whisky in the blend). In 1909, the three brand names were simplified: White Label, Red Label, and Black Label.

Through a combination of canny, aggressive advertising and quality product, Johnnie Walker became one of the pre-eminent global brands. In 1925, when a lot of consolidation was happening and businesses were reeling from American Prohibition, the company merged with Distillers Co. Ltd, an arrangement that stayed in place until they became part of Guinness in 1986. In 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo — the whisky world’s number one Blofeld-esque supervillain. Diageo’s stewardship of Johnnie Walker has been fraught with controversy, as are most things involving Diageo. The global beverage mega-corporation shuttered the facility in Kilmarnock, causing substantial economic strife in a small town who’s number one industry was Johnnie Walker. Accusations of a substantial drop in quality plagued the brand as well, though whether these are true or simply a symptom of the intense dislike engendered in so many people by Diageo and its business practices is a matter that will never be settled. Suffice it to say that there’s a pretty good chance the entire town of Kilmarnock found itself dangling over a crocodile pit while Diageo offered it a tumbler of Johnnie Walker and explained its dastardly plan to close the plant (citation needed).

Bollywood’s relationship with whisky in general and Johnnie Walker in particular, is also contentious and often contradictory. India consumes more Johnnie Walker than anywhere else in the world, and their fondness for it is what makes it the most popular whisky in the world. In fact, Johnnie is so popular in India that there are years when Indian consumers purchase more Johnnie Walker than is actually made. Counterfeiting Johnnie Walker is a booming business that India is only just now beginning to get under control, a fact that has led to a seemingly endless economic and legal battle between India and the Scotch Whisky Association — the body tasked with enforcing a variety of trade agreements and copyright issues.

In the movies, Johnnie Walker represents the schizophrenia often inherent in judging the perceived vices of others. Out of one side of the mouth, Indian cinema frames alcohol as a demon stalking virtue and traditional Indian goodness — Johnnie Walker, more times than not, is the drink of the evil or a crutch for the weak. Out of the other side of its mouth, of course, the whisky and whisky consumption is heralded as a symbol that you (and India) made it, that you have attained a better standard in life. Of course, that message of Johnnie Walker equating to a more sophisticated status is often undercut by the need to pander both to the urbane city dweller and the more suspicious traditionalists who see such advancement as horrifying and immoral. Ultimately, the morality expressed by most Indian cinema is the same as the one espoused by the cinema of most other countries: buy a ticket. So Johnnie Walker remains both hero and villain, success and failure. Whatever the case, you’re going to be seeing a lot of it.

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Teleport City’s recommendation

Red is the starter, Black is the standard, and Blue is what douchebaggy businessmen and loudmouths buy to show off their status (which isn’t to say that it’s not good). If you want to mix things up a bit, go Green. The soon-to-be-retired Johnnie Walker Green is harder to find but remains my personal favorite of the line. Thick, smoky, and sweet with a hint of peat — maybe I like it because it’s the closest Walker to bourbon. When the villain swivels around to offer you a pour from his bottle of Johnnie Black, sneer at him and say, “Actually, I prefer Green Label. But then, it’s less common so perhaps you’ve never heard of it.” You may still get strapped to the nose of a nuclear missile targeting Moscow so as to spark a world war, but at least you’ll die with the satisfaction of knowing you got a minor whisky-related leg up on the megalomaniacal supervillain who tied you to the rocket in the first place. Johnnie is hardly the sole domain of the Bollywood action film, though. Turkish cinema’s most prolific and iconic villain, Huseyin Peyda, is seen drinking the stuff constantly, though I’m pretty sure I caught him branching out into Teacher’s Highland Cream a time or two.

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Also, here’s a gratuitous shot of Christina Hendricks standing in front of a Johnnie Walker sign.

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