The Challenge

Miscellaneous Whiskies in the Hold

I may be a bit of a sad hat. When watching Whisky Galore I stopped the DVD just so I could check the whiskies being rescued from ship. This is obsessive behaviour and obviously I need to get a grip. I should be  appreciating the film not checking-out that more White Horse is salvaged than other brands.

But at least it means I can celebrate the attention to detail of the set designer. The cargo of the SS Politician (the real ship that went down) contained a mixture of different blends and some single malts. The background to the cargo was not only the need for currency from sales in America but also the vulnerability of bonded warehouses in Scotland’s industrial belt. Bombing raids had already set a couple of warehouses alight and it was felt that they were dangerous targets and so it was best to move the contents on. In all the high level strategic thinking no one seems to have thought of the idea of spreading the risk into people’s homes, like for example the Western Islands – so I guess foreign currency was really the main objective. Anyway the resulting shipment came from all the major producers and mixed the best and the most popular. If you look at the picture at the top of the post you can see there was a similar mix of cases.

The one that intrigues me is the one in the front – The Challenge, a blend by Anderson & Shaw. I had never heard of it before. Why was it given such prominence? Was it famous and another example of my ignorance? After a bit of Googling I wasn’t much the wiser. Anderson & Shaw seem to be a company that has disappeared and The Challenge brand has sunk with little trace. The most recent information I have is an answer about collecting in Whisky Magazine. Apparently Anderson & Shaw was bought by J. Deans & Company Limited in 1973 but I can find nothing about J. Deans  – what they did and or why they wanted a whisky brand. There was a J. Deans & Company Ltd which was dissolved in 2001 but that could have been a completely different company. So I have no knowledge of why an established brand, that obviously must have had some renown in 1949 (when the film was made) has faded so completely.

However the Nineteenth Century something of interest. There is an 1888 gazetteer of West Glasgow businesses. (The website  is http://www.glasgowwestaddress.co.uk/1888_Book/Index_of_firms_1888.htm) It is a strange website that says nothing about itself or the directory it reproduces –  it is bare content – but it is nevertheless fascinating. This blurb for Anderson & Shaw has obviously been supplied by the company and shows how they wanted to promote themselves. It tells us a lot about whisky marketing at the time and the arguments that were thought persuasive.

“Since Messrs. Anderson & Shaw began business twenty years ago their “Challenge” whisky has become famous all over Scotland, and in all the large centres of England, for, though beer may be said to be the national beverage of the latter country, yet, for several years past, there has been a growing popular taste in favour of really good Scotch whisky. One cause of this is the greater care that has latterly been bestowed on the blending of whiskies, and the fuller knowledge manifested by dealers and bottlers of the qualities of the different products of the several Scottish distilleries. The higher flavoured whisky of the Highlands is blended skilfully with the milder distillation of the Lowlands, this being done in such proportions of each as will make a more palatable beverage than either separately ; and as each distillery produces an almost distinct flavour of its own, there is required both judgment and knowledge to effect a good and palatable blend. Then, of course, all whisky to be thoroughly good and wholesome must have the maturity of age.”

Behind the bluster there is a historical truth: whisky did increase in popularity in England and the Empire from the middle of the Nineteenth Century because of the development of blends. The fact that there is a skill is undeniable. So much so simple but the prose os loquacious and the chest seems overly puffed out. The idea that catches my eye  is that “goodness and wholesomeness” comes with age. Wholesomeness is an important word as is shown by it being  used three times in the blurb to describe The Challenge. In an age where food contamination was common (some of today’s healthy eaters worry about E numbers but forget the noxious stuff that was put in food and drink in the first industrial age), emphasising that something is clean and pure is both a selling point and a reassurance. I’m not sure it comes through the process of ageing though! However in a time when whisky was mostly drunk young age is another factor that can be used to highlight quality (as it is today)

“The Challenge” is a blend of Highland malts from the best distilleries west and north, and kept maturing in Messrs. Anderson and Shaw’s bonded stores from five to ten years before being put into the blending vat. It is now generally conceded that a blend is more desirable in every way than self whiskies, being, for one thing, more palatable and pleasing to the majority. 

Say it once then say it again – ram the message home. But what I find interesting is the appeal to the majority. Almost all  advertising today, and certainly whisky brand building, emphasises the individual, i.e. the extra special discernment you personally show by being able to appreciate the particular product. It tickles the sense of your own virtue. It is the way things seems to have evolved over the past century – pushing everything down to the individual -but in the past there was more collectivism,  more of a sense of class or community, which regulated behaviour. (Look at my last post and  what Compton Mackenzie said about Sabbatarianism as an example). So in 1888 the appeal to the majority offers the reassurance of the crowd not the specialness of the individual.

But that is not enough you also need proof of virtue so who better than a scientist.

Of it Professor Stevenson McAdam says in his chemical report:‘ Analytical Laboratory, Surgeon’s Hall, Edinburgh. I have made a careful chemical analysis of a sample of“The Challenge” Old Highland Whisky, forwarded to me by Messrs. Anderson & Shaw, Glasgow, and find such to be well matured, practically free from fusel oil, or other noxious ingredients, and of fine quality.

Times change. Now the question is who are you more likely to believe a random scientist or David Beckham? Obviously there is no contest.