The House of Black & White
From Jim Beam to Hiram Walker, we have all heard the lore – countless Scottish and Irish immigrants reaching the shores of the Americas, bringing with them the blender’s secrets from the Old World, and going on to bottle brands that have stood the test of time and other uncertainties. But have you ever heard of an immigrant travelling the other way, returning home to rediscover a brand that has almost synonymous with superior yet affordable blended scotch whisky? This is the story of Black & White. It is also a little about why there are two dogs on the label.
Sometime in the mid-1800s, across the river from New York, James Buchanan was born to Scottish immigrants Alexander and Catherine. Shortly after James was born, the couple left their home in the New World and returned to London. At Larne, where his father took up work as a quarry manager, the young boy was brought up sheltered circumstances – ill health having forced him to quit school and continue studying privately.
The years rolled by quickly and in a possible act of rebellion against the cloistered upbringing, young James joined William Sloan & Co, a Glasgow shipping company, as a simple office boy making as little as £10 a year. Starting at the age of only 14 or 15, he worked hard and became a clerk – only to strike out on his own and join his brother’s grain business. The years that he spent working here would later become instrumental and give him the skills necessary for moving to London as an agent for the blender Charles Mackinlay & Co. After a decade working with the company, he came to realize that there was an untapped market in England for good, blended, bottled scotch.
The Halls of Power
In 1884, James Buchanan went into business for himself and started selling the Buchanan Blend. As an intrepid entrepreneur, he did not produce his own blend and sourced the whiskey from Glasgow blenders W. P. Lowrie & Co. Sold in a distinct black bottle with a contrasting plain white label, the whiskey found considerable success owing to its light, smooth, and unpeated expression that appealed to the distinctive English palate.
Buchanan worked closely with his friend W.P. Lowrie to craft the blend, drawing inspiration from Dalwhinnie, Clynelish, and Glendullan malts. As his product’s success soared, it made its way into the Members Bar at the House of Commons in London. Shortly after incorporating his company, James began supplying the lower house of the British parliament from 1885.
In honor of his blend being picked up by the political elite of the era, he renamed it as House of Commons Finest Old Highland whisky. However, the public didn’t seem to make much of it and kept referring to it as that “black and white whisky”. One of the great PR strategists at the turn of the century, Buchanan quickly capitalized on its burgeoning popularity, officially renaming it again in 1902 as Black & White. At around the same time, he also introduced the brand’s motif – a black Scottish terrier and a white West Highland terrier. Some years later by 1907, Black & White and Buchanan’s other blends were being exported across the world, finding favor with the Emperor of Japan among other prestigious brand loyalists. Two years later, Buchanan’s blends would become the most popular blend in all of England, ultimately proving James’ suspicion that Britain was the right place to sell his blend.
Recognized as one of the great whiskey barons, Buchanan’s deft leadership was instrumental to the brand’s success. In just two short decades it went from being just a one-man business to becoming an international distributor of blended scotch through its Buchanan’s and Black & White labels which continue to be two of the most recognizable brands available today.
James Buchanan & Co. was one of the ‘Big Four’ producers and after one unsuccessful attempt to form a conglomerate, it went through a series of mergers and acquisitions with Dewar's, Distillers Company, and Guinness, finally coming under the umbrella of Diageo in 1997.
Dean Martin and Walt Disney’s tipple of choice, Black & White also found honorable mentions in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and the James Bond novel Moonraker. Black & White was selling around 1.4 million cases globally as of 2015 and continues to be one of the most sought after brands in France, Venezuela, and Brazil.