Food & Drink

The man who made Johnnie Walker huge

Alexander Walker

John Walker was an impressive man, opening up his Kilmarnock general store at 14, as soon as he was tall enough to reach the register without whatever passed for phone books in the early 1800s. But it was his son, Alexander, who shaped his family’s future, and in doing so the future of the whisky business.

John Walker's Kilmarnock store

He’s the main reason you know what whisky is
After a disastrous flood in 1852 that obliterated John’s grocery stock, it was Alexander who suggested transitioning into the whisky trade fulltime. Without his foresight, you might be enjoying Johnnie Walker Potted Meat Product.

A Johnnie Walker shipping crate

He pioneered global distribution
With the local market saturated with distilleries, and Brandy being the preferred drink of classy Scots, Alexander launched his “Merchant Venture” system, loading up ship’s captains with the good stuff and cutting them a commission when they sold it abroad. If you can’t beat ‘em, circumnavigate ‘em, then beat ‘em.

Phylloxera, cartoonified

He seized opportunity
When the sap-sucking louse phylloxera ravaged French cognac vineyards, Alexander was one of the first to say, “You know, cognac lovers, Scotch is also pretty good.”

Kilmarnock Cross, circa 1890

He had a profound understanding of the English psyche
Alexander spread his whisky closer to home by inviting London traders to Kilmarnock and showing them around the town’s excellent lace-curtain, carpet, and knitted ware production centers. Then, when they had reached the heights of frilly home décor ecstasy, he would introduce them to something men are actually supposed to enjoy.

A Phaeton

He understood the power of a flashy ride
While most London businessmen rolled around town in single horse hansom cabs, Alexander commissioned a custom Phaeton pulled by two perfectly paired ponies -- the difference between showing up to a red carpet premiere in a nice sedan and a Lamborghini Aventador.

He was the first to realize that it’s hip to be square
That signature square bottle? Alexander invented it as a measure to prevent breakage -- the tighter the bottles could be packed, the less they’d jostle, and the more people who didn’t live in Kilmarnock (most people) could enjoy.

He was first to marketing
Alexander’s slanted label meant a bigger, distinctive logo that could be recognized at a distance. He trademarked it in 1876, which might sound pretty standard, but the law had only been around a few months at that point, and almost no one else even knew what a trademark was.

Barrels of Johnnie Walker

He moved on up
By the time of his death in 1889, Alexander had taken the sixty feet of cellar his father had devoted to casks, and built a company that produced over 100,000 gallons annually to be shipped all over the world. But he wasn’t done yet because…

A bottle of Johnnie Walker Swing

… he had great genes
Alexander Jr., his son, was an integral part of the 1909 commission that determined Scotch whisky could only come from Scotland, as opposed to Ireland, or Scottsdale. He also invented the “Swing” bottle, whose rounded bottom was designed specifically for transatlantic liners -- there can be no future if you spill all the present.


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