Extraordinary people lead extraordinary lives, and the changes they bring about become part of their indelible legacies for eternity. The world of whisky too, has been shaped, and nurtured by such extraordinary people who helped it become the spirit that entices millions of people all over the world today.
The magnitude of their contributions is noticed fully when one imagines a world where many crucial aspects of whisky would be absent; such as the creation of Blended Scotch Whiskies, the mechanization of whisky distilling, and even catalyzing the change in the legal status of whisky distilleries in the eyes of the law.
These are merely few of the acts undertaken by the people who made whisky what it is today, and recognizing their efforts is the least we could do to honor their legacy.
George Smith – Founder of The Glenlivet Distillery, the first licensed Speyside Distillery.
At a time when the Speyside was littered with illicit distilleries, George Smith too was brewing an illegal recipe for the single malt that started it all. Everything changed when the reputation his single malt earned, attracted the attention of the King George IV himself when he came visiting Scotland in August, 1822.
This Excise Act of 1823 allowed distilleries to apply for a license and operate legally, which was an opportunity George Smith immediately grabbed, making The Glenlivet Distillery to be the first to legally produce whisky in the region.
Other illicit distillery owners did not like this, and there were innumerable threats to the life of George Smith, and the well-being of his treasured distillery. To protect his interests, George Smith began to carry two flintlock pistols on him all the time, showing he would not be bogged down.
The courage displayed by George Smith set the tone for The Glenlivet brand, and ensured its survival to this day, prevailing against all odds, proudly bearing the title of being the creators of the definitive Speyside single malt.
Bessie Williamson – One of the first female Distillery Managers in Scotland, and pillar of the Islay Distillers community.
The journey of how Bessie Williamson fortuitously became the distillery manager at one of Islay’s most iconic distilleries is an inspiring one. What she did after she found herself holding the reins of the Laphroaig distillery are shining credentials of her hard work and strong character. Landing a summer job at the distillery that she would find under leadership in a few years, Bessie Williamson was working directly under Ian Hunter, the final descendant of the founders of the Laphroaig distillery.
Not only did Bessie Williamson preserve the traditions of the brand, she actively participated in community activities such as the annual peat cutting, organizing folk singing and dancing events to keep the community closely knit.
Bessie Williamson is also credit with promoting the Islay single malts in markets abroad, especially the United States of America, prompting the Scotch whisky association to name her as their spokesperson from 1961 to 1964.
James and John Chivas – The Chivas Brothers – Pioneers of Blended Scotch Whisky, and Creators of the World’s first luxury whisky, the Chivas Regal 25.
Often credited with laying the foundations of modern blended Scotch whiskies, the enterprising duo of the Chivas Brothers took their business from a grocery store to one of the most influential houses of blended Scotch whisky in the entire world.
Established on their penchant for resourcefulness and the knack for creating uniqueness, the Chivas Brothers began experimenting with whisky aging, and blending from their store in Aberdeen. Their expertise at making luxury goods available to the elite were recognized with a Royal Warrant in 1843 from none other than Queen Victoria herself.
Soon, the Brothers began to experiment and blend their first ever proprietary blend which they named the Royal Strathythan, which they soon followed by creating their oldest, and most vintage blend.
This blend would go on to become the Chivas Regal 25, the world’s first luxury whisky that took the United States by storm and conflated the words ‘whisky and luxury’ together, forever.
Nearest Green – Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s
While the Jack Daniel’s may be named after the brand owner, but it was Nearest Green who mentored and taught the distillation techniques he knew to Jack. He was also the first master distiller for the Jack Daniel’s distillery, and the first officially recorded African-American master distiller in the United States.
For a brand that is as historic as Jack Daniel’s, and an integral part of what it means to be American, Nearest Green helped create a legend that has only gotten stronger with time. One could make the argument that without Nearest Green, the coveted Jack Daniel’s brand would not have been the same at all.
Born into slavery, Nearest Green was well-known for his knowledge of whisky making, and mentored Jack Daniel from a young age, and he has been honored with a scholarship, museum and memorial park in his name by an organization founded to commemorate his contributions to the iconic brand.
Aeneas Coffey – Inventor of the Coffey Still
An excise officer by profession, Irishman Aeneas Coffey had the good fortune of exploring the inner workings of a number of distilleries in the country. He was known for his pragmatic outlook on simplifying and effortlessly legalizing the irregularities that plagued the whisky making business.
Although the contribution Coffey is most well-known for, was not adopted in his native country of Ireland altogether but was very well appreciated by their neighbors. Inventor and patent holder of the Coffey Still, Aeneas Coffey designed it as a cost-effective, low-maintenance and easier way of distilling the whisky.
The Coffey Still is used to make grain whisky, which is a key component of many blended Scotch whiskies that are popular in the market such as Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s and 100 Pipers. Irish distillers vehemently opposed the ideas and changes propose as they considered grain whisky to be an inferior.
Regardless of the determination of quality and preference, the contributions of Aeneas Coffey to the world of whisky making cannot be ignored, and he remains one of the people who changed the game forever.