This is the story of one of Scotland's most famous products. Johnnie Walker is recognised in nearly every corner of the world as the leading brand name for Scotch Whisky, and for over a hundred years a major international business. It is the main reason why the name Kilmarnock is more widely known than many towns ten times its size. The spread of whisky blending southwards in the 18th Century was due to the Government placing heavy taxes on imported wines and spirits. Whisky was a cheaper and indigenous substitute for brandy. The rise of smuggling in southern Scotland and the subsequent career of Robert Burns as an exciseman was a result of the same situation.

In tracing the rise of the economic giant that is  Johnnie Walker & Sons, several facts stand out; the firm was originally not involved in whisky production, and whisky has never so far as is known, been distilled in  Kilmarnock at all. Nor was John Walker & Sons the first firm in the town to be involved in the Whiskey trade. 

William Wallace & Co.
William Wallace & Company, founded in 1760, dealt in Whiskey from the mid 18th Century, and opened the first purpose built bonded warehouse in Kilmarnock in 1859. From 1878 this firm was controlled by the Mackay family, and produced the famous 'Real Mackay' whiskey. During the same period Andrew Thomson also blended and bottled whiskey under the brand name 'Auld Killie Blend'. Both these firms were later taken over by John Walker & Sons. 

Johnnie Walker & Sons 

The Walker family had lived and worked on Todriggs farm, which stood on the Gatehead-Kilmarnock road, since the 15th Century. In 1820 when the recently orphaned  Johnnie Walker was aged 14, the farm was sold by his father's trustees and a grocery business was set up for him in Kilmarnock with the proceeds. Gradually the business concentrated more and more on the sale of spirits but was still a grocers when Johnnie Walker died in 1857. It was his son Alexander Walker that set the business up as 'John Walker & Sons' in 1865 and turned it over to the blending and bottling of Whisky. The business expanded rapidly with branches opening in London, Australia, Canada and South Africa amongst other countries. Johnnie Walker & Sons became a limited company in 1886. 

Although Whisky was not distilled in Kilmarnock, the company began to buy distilleries all over Scotland, the most famous being Cardow (now Cardhu) on Speyside. The international fame of Johnnie Walker really dates from 1909 with the introduction of Johnnie Walker Red Label and Black Label and the two famous trade marks - the figure of the 'Striding Man' originally designed by the cartoonist Tom Browne, and the slogan "Born 1820, still going strong", reputed to have been coined by James Stevenson (later Lord Stevenson), a Kilmarnock employee who rose to become a director of the company. His outstanding abilities were recognised by his appointment to key government positions during the  First World War, relating to the production of munitions and later to reconstruction and to civil aviation. Also involved in the Ministry of Munitions was another key Walker personality -Alexander Walker, who was made Sir Alexander in 1920. Sir Alexander piloted the business into new status as a public company in 1923, and in 1925 into a merger with Distillers and Buchanan-Dewars to form a new giant spirits company - Distillers Company Limited or DCL. He encouraged the already existing diversification into production of industrial alcohol and a range of other chemicals. The continued expansion of the business was marked by the construction of new main buildings in Kilmarnock. 

Sir Alexander lived at Piersland House in Troon, and was closely involved in the local community both in Troon and Kilmarnock, giving great assistance to many charities, and serving on Ayr County Council. He was very interested in the arts, and encouraged many young artists like  Robert Colquhoun. He was particularly generous to the  Dick Institute in Kilmarnock, donating many of the most important paintings now in the collections there. This continued a tradition of support from leaders of the whisky industry, since the establishment of the Burns Monument and Library in Kilmarnock had been supported by Alexander Walker Senior, while the Dick Institute Library collection had been largely due to the influence of Provost David Mackay (1844-1909) of William Wallace & Co. Sir Alexander retired in 1940, and died in 1950, the last of the family to be involved in the firm. The company continues to play a major role in the local economy. As already explained, whisky production in Kilmarnock has never depended on local distilling. The business in Ayrshire has involved the skilled blending of a variety of malt whiskies with grain whisky to produce blends with consistent quality, which are then bottled. The maturing of the Whisky involves storage in wooden casks for a minimum of three years, and for Walker whiskies much longer. At one time this supported a large local cooperage industry. Casks are still used, but coopering is no longer done in Kilmarnock. Although bottling and labelling are still done in the town, mechanisation has meant that these operations are now carried out by a fraction of the workers once employed. Now under the ownership of Guinness PLC, Johnnie Walker continues to play a large part in the life of Kilmarnock, and its products continue to dominate the international whisky market living up to one of it's old advertising slogans "The supremacy of Johnnie Walker in all waters, like a British Dreadnought, is still unchallenged".

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