Johnnie Walker: The Scotch Gift That Comes with A Great Story

It’s hard to improve on scotch as a present, but when it comes to Johnnie Walker, here’s a way to level-up your already killer gift: Match it with the following decanter full of stories about the legendary whisky’s founder, John Walker, and his son Alexander.

Each story signifies an intangible gift anyone would be happy to receive this season—a life lesson that will inspire them to do even greater things than pour you a glass of the present you just gave them. (Pssst: If your loved ones don’t appreciate intangibles, the scotch covers the tangible-gift part just fine.)

Johnnie Walker Striding Man Logo, 1908 Sketch-Supercall
Courtesy of Johnnie Walker

The gift of grasping the basics

First things first: John Walker is not that “Striding Man” guy on the bottle; he was a real person who lived an amazing life. It started on Todriggs Farm, near Kilmarnock, in the Western Lowland county of Ayrshire—which only sounds like the birthplace of Hagrid. It’s actually where Walker made the scene on July 25, 1805. Little did his parents know that before the end of the next decade, their boy would launch what would become the most widely distributed brand of blended scotch on earth. Seriously, six bottles of Johnnie Walker are sold every second, and 36 were rung up in the time it took you to read this paragraph.

The gift of being tougher than leather

In 1819, John’s father, Alexander, died, and the family farm was sold, with the proceeds used to buy a grocery store on High Street in Kilmarnock. John—who was 14 years old at the time—was tasked with running the shop and learning the grocer’s trade. Forget grieving, the boy had an early start in the morning.

Kilmarnock, Scotland – Home of John "Johnnie" Walker – Super Call
Courtesy of Johnnie Walker

The gift of everlasting fame

John Walker is definitely the most famous person to come out of Kilmarnock, and he’s the second-biggest legend from County Ayrshire. The first? That would be Scottish national hero Robert the Bruce, who grew up in Ayrshire’s Turnberry Castle. You might remember him from Braveheart, where he was inaccurately portrayed as a traitor. In truth, Bruce was a legendary warrior who—get this—is the real source of the nickname “Brave Heart” (as opposed to William Wallace from the flick). After his death, Scottish warriors carried Bruce’s actual heart into battle. Hey, it’s hard to compete with that, even if your company does sell more than 130 million bottles of whisky a year.

The gift of solid business sense

The Todriggs dairy farm sold for the less-than-grand total of £417. While this does translate to about $33,000 in today’s currency, it’s hardly the seed money for an international business juggernaut. John’s commercial know-how, and that of his sons and grandsons, did the rest.

The gift of right-place, right-time

Around the time Walker launched his grocery store on High Street, the British East India Company started competing with China in the global tea market. It became patriotic to drink tea, and Johnnie was on the spot to meet the growing demand. He taught himself how to blend teas for optimum flavor, and he also sold vinegar, raisins, wine, rum, gin, brandy, and Islay whisky. Before long, Walker was a big fish in the Kilmarnock pond, joining the Freemasons and pounding the gavel during meetings of the local trades association.

The gift of innovation

Somewhere along the line, single malt scotch got a reputation for being better than blended scotch. Like the benefits of kale in your diet, this reputation is way overblown. And back in John Walker’s day, it didn’t even exist. Single malts from the farm-based distilleries of Scotland were rough as hell, and they were inconsistent. Walker was among the first group of merchants to improve them through blending. Combining a few grain whiskies with a range of malt whiskies, they created the magic we know today as blended scotch. It contains an “orchestra” of flavors compared to single malt’s “jazz soloist,” as whisky experts often describe the difference.

The gift of staying power

As Archibald M’Kay put it in his History of Kilmarnock, one July morning in 1852, “thunder of unusual loudness was heard rolling over the town,” followed by lightning that flashed “so vividly as to appall the stoutest hearts.” The equally appalling rain that came next completely flooded the center of Kilmarnock. Walker’s shop was almost ruined, and all of his stock was destroyed. But it would take more than the worst disaster in the town’s history to knock John Walker out of business; he had the grocery back on its feet and busier than ever within two years of the flood.

Archibald M’Kay’s History of Kilmarnock – Home of Johnnie Walker – Super Call
Courtesy of Johnnie Walker

The gift of selflessness

John Walker did not name his company after himself. No, he left the business to his son, Alexander, and Alexander renamed it ‘John Walker and Sons.’ The year before John’s death, Alexander had persuaded his pop to enter the wholesale whisky market—an early sign that the son had skills to pay the bills. More on those in a sec.

The gift of flexibility

John Walker started making his own whisky in 1850, naming it Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky. Alexander developed his first blend in 1865, titling it Old Highland Whisky. Next came Special Old Highland and… Extra Special Old Highland. Maybe not the snappiest names in the world, right? Sure enough, customers started skipping them altogether and just asking for “the red one,” or “the one with the black label.” Rather than stubbornly cling to the old titles, the Walkers went with the flow. And that’s how we got the Johnnie Walker names we know today. Other key marketing moves in Johnnie Walker history include the slanted label—which Alexander placed at exactly 24 degrees to make it noticeable on the shelves—and the square bottles. Alexander came up with these so they wouldn’t break during shipping. Side benefit: It made them stand out from the competition’s bottles.

Original John Walker Extra Special Old Highland Bottle, circa 1905, before being renamed Johnnie Walker Black Label in 1909 – Super Call
Courtesy of Johnnie Walker

The gift of foresight

After apprenticing with a tea merchant in Glasgow, Alexander joined his father’s company in 1856. Turned out he wasn’t only bringing advanced blending skills to the table but also a Shark Tank–worthy business sense: In addition to the above-mentioned innovations, Alexander registered his dad’s “trademark” as soon as that became legally possible (in 1876), and came up with the idea of using ships’ captains to transport Johnnie Walker around the world, giving them a commission on foreign sales. By 1920, the brand was available in 120 countries. Did we mention that Alexander’s business game was on-point?

John Walker, founder of Johnnie Walker Whisky – Super Call
Courtesy of Johnnie Walker

The gift of restraint

Believe it or not, the grocer from Kilmarnock who kicked off one of the most famous whisky brands of all time hardly touched the stuff himself. That’s right, John Walker: straight edge. But that hasn’t stopped the company from creating some ultra-rare spirits in his honor: In 2005, to mark the bicentennial of John’s birth, Johnnie Walker introduced Blue Label 200th Anniversary, a special-edition, cask-strength version of Blue Label, and Blue Label 1805, a limited release blend of whiskies ranging from 45 to 70 years old. There’s also The John Walker, aka the Founder’s Blend, a rarefied combination of whiskies from distilleries that are no longer active, blended in a 100-year-old cask.

Imported by Diageo, Norwalk, CT. Please Drink responsibly.