Jay Pomeroy: an introduction

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticising any one, “ he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a good deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victims of not a few veteran bores… reserving judgement is a matter of infinite hope.”

I want to tell you a story about a man who once owned a distillery but is now forgotten. The only references in whisky literature are brief, dismissive and, at best, only half right. Even the distillery he owned, Strathisla, disclaim any knowledge. I contacted the Chivas archive department to see if they could help with information – any information no matter how small would have been welcome, but the only answer I got was “NO!”. It is as if a rather embarrassing episode has been airbrushed out of their history just like the beginning of Milan Kundera’s  ‘The Book of laughter and Forgetting’:

“It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.” The photograph of the two men became famous, but a few years later, the Party executed Clementis and airbrushed him out of the photo. “Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”

I would have been happy with a hat.

It seems the industry, with a discreet cough, wants to move on to the Seagram era when there was investment and renewal. In some ways this is fair – Jay Pomeroy was not a whisky man and his motive was to exploit a loop hole in tax law to dispose of stock at a huge profit. But his story is much more interesting than that and deserves some attention. So let us take the luxury of reserving our judgement to look at an exile from Russia, an outsider, making a living buying and selling surplus stock before hitting it big with some whisky trades. With this money he, surprisingly,  became a promoter of opera and ballet and made a significant contribution to London’s cultural life. His initial motivation may have been love for a beautiful soprano but it obviously became a genuine passion. He enjoyed the role of impresario. However he made his big score during wartime when attitudes to excessive profit were very different and he was not allowed to get away with it. Retrospective legislation was introduced and all the money was claimed by the Inland Revenue and so he crashed into bankruptcy.

His dismissal by the whisky literature does him a disservice. Jay Pomeroy is well worth a second glance.

The quote at the head of the post is the opening of The Great Gatsby and is apt because when I was researching Jay Pomeroy, putting together those few tiny snippets of information I had, I could not help thinking of Gatsby himself. I just couldn’t help myself, even if there are profound differences of character and circumstance. So I will indulge this fancy in one post to make a comparisons between the two Jays. Skip it if you find the idea too whimsical, the rest of posts are a fairly straightforward telling of the tale.

The Pomeroy Posts:

  1. An Introduction – you’ve just read it.
  2. The Two Jays – how a novel can be used as a lens to compare characters.
  3. The Years of Obscurity – the first ¾ of his life.
  4. The Glory Years – His  years as an impresario.
  5. The Whisky Tax Case – the revenge of the Revenue
  6. Sam and Jay – There were some similarities between Sam Bronfman and Jay
  7. Chinese Whispers – how the whisky literature has misrepresented Jay Pomeroy
  8. McBain and Maclean – A source of some misunderstandings
  9. And Finally – at last
  10. Kritz not Pomeroy – Mistaken identity?