Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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Whisky Writing as Chinese Whispers

 

I started this whole, lengthy, exercise by accident. I was using the Malt Whisky Yearbook¹ to look at the timelines of various distilleries when I saw this: “1940 Jay (George) Pomeroy acquires majority shares in William Longmore & Co. Pomeroy is jailed as a result of dubious business transactions and the distillery goes bankrupt”. “How interesting – I must find out more!”, I thought, “Quick Google search- job done”. Little did I know that most of the information in this one sentence was wrong and how much effort it would take to find it out.

Oh how unthinkingly we can enter into something!

The more I looked, the more I found that most of the whisky literature was either wrong or half right. “How do we know what we know, how do we know what to trust and how do we validate what we read?” These questions have haunted me. Whisky writing seems to be a series of Chinese whispers where sources are rarely given but each writer has the need to gussy up what they find, to give it their own personal twist. In the process doubts or ambiguities are ironed out and things are stated as fact when they are no such thing.

Let me give you some examples:

scotchwhisky.com doesn’t say very much it just tells us he was jailed in 1949.

” Acting on behalf of Sam Bronfman’s Seagram, the legendary whisky broker Jimmy Barclay bought it for £71,000 at auction in 1950, the year after its previous owner had been jailed for tax evasion.”

Master of Malt seems to agree, whilst adding that he was jailed for unsavoury business deals , which rather sounds like fraud or some other dishonest trading practice.

“Jay Pomeroy became a majority shareholder in Milton’s parent company, William Longmore and Co. He was eventually jailed for some unsavoury business deals and, as such, the company went bankrupt in 1949.”

The Whisky Exchange is more forthright in its character assessment. Is a dodgy crooked  owner better or worse than being a dirty rotten scoundrel?

“a dodgy crooked owner going to prison (Jay Pomeroy in the 1940s). This latter resulted in the distillery (which had reverted to its Milton sobriquet in 1890) being declared bankrupt in 1949, after which it was sold at auction to Chivas Brothers, who restored the Strathisla moniker in 1951.”

The Malt Review elaborates a little more and gets marks for non specific about his past and being explaining that he was not really interested in whisky. Unfortunately there are still some familiar errors.

“These name changes in part can be traced to changes in ownership over the years including an investor with let’s say a colourful history and approach to business. George Pomeroy acquired the distillery and existing inventory in 1940. It was clear he had no passion or understanding of whisky; simply that this was an investment vehicle. So when an approach was made on behalf of Chivas later that decade, the price quoted put an end their interest. However it was for only a short time as in 1949 Pomeroy was jailed for tax evasion. The distillery subsequently went bankrupt and was purchased by Chivas at auction in 1950 for £71,000. In today’s monetary terms accounting for inflation that’s just over £2.2 million for the purchase of an iconic distillery; a very good deal.”

From all of these sites we can agree he went to jail. Can’t we? It must be a stone cold fact – we’ve got a date, 1949, so it must be true. Except it isn’t. He didn’t go to jail. There were no criminal proceedings, what happened in that year was that he and his companies were declared bankrupt.

Then there is the question of when he took over the distillery. The consensus is 1940.

Here is Malt Madness where he is not only George again the references to his business parties is an undefined mess.

 

“The majority of the stock in Strathisla distillery (still known as Milton distillery at the time) was bought  in 1940 by the fraudulent investor George Pomeroy from London. He was involved with some shady business involving operatic productions before he entered the whisky world. Due to one case of the aforementioned ‘shady business’ the distillery changed hands again a little later. James Barclay from Chivas was interested in buying the Milton distillery and had already approached George Pomeroy about a possible sale in 1948. However, George demanded an insane amount of money in exchange for the distillery, so James had ceased negotiations. Fate intervened on behalf of Chivas though; in 1949 George Pomeroy was convicted of tax evasion and the Milton distillery went bankrupt the same year. In April 1950 the distillery was auctioned off in Aberdeen and Chivas was able to obtain it for 71,000 GBP.”

But if we are looking for a generous character reference let’s go to the book by Paul Pacult²

“Jim Barclay approached the proprietor of Milton/Strathisla in 1948 but retreated when the erratic owner demanded an exorbitant price. The owner at the time was George (Jay) Pomeroy, a London based financier known for dubious dealings in operatic productions. An infamous scoundrel who had a weakness for gambling and losing copious amounts of cash.”

I could go on but I think it best if I just list some of the claims I have found and try to assess them. Remember all the entries about Jay Pomeroy are vey brief, so to have a list of 10 items is quite an achievement.

  1. He was convicted (or found guilty) of tax fraud – This one of the most frequently used phrases and it is, half right half right but let’s be clear he was not sued for tax evasion. He operated a tax avoidance scheme, which retrospective legislation made invalid, and the court case were to test the validity of the subsequent tax assessment.  An analogy would be the European Court which has just found Amazon liable for more tax because it ruled against one of its avoidance schemes. Do you describe Amazon a fraudulent company? The language of guilt and conviction suggests a criminal case and has portal led to people over interpreting and saying he went to jail.
  2. He went to jail – No he didn’t as it was not a criminal case. (Only in the whisky literature has this been stated as a fact. In his other world of opera and performance there is not a whisper (and they are also more accurate in describing his tax problems). I have not been able to find an original source for this claim and so don’t know where it comes from but it is widespread.  Perhaps some of the people who have repeated it can tell me where they found it.
  3. He took over Longmore and Company in 1940 – It was 1942. This probably comes from Charles Maclean (see next post).
  4. He was a ‘fraudulent financier’ – He was not a financier as I understand the word, he was more of a trader. I have no evidence he was fraudulent apart from the tax scheme (which you may or may not describe as fraud).
  5. He was fined £111,038 for tax evasion – That is simply a misunderstanding (see next post)
  6. He was a gambler – This is interesting. I don’t know whether this is true or not. We know he went dog racing once but that doesn’t give us much of a clue. However his business outlook seemed to be akin to the attitude of a gambler and you can only be an impresario if you are willing to embrace risk. The only mentions I have found about this are in books about Sam Bronfman²⁺³. I tend to think he lost all his money on the opera – he didn’t need cards or the roulette table but I may be wrong.
  7. He made some shady operatic deals – there is no evidence for that. In fact his productions were well received and none of his associates or music commentators have suggested anything dodgy.
  8. His name was George. – You will sometimes see him called George (Jay) Pomeroy. This is just wrong. He changed his name to Jay Pomeroy by deed poll in 1930. Moss & Hume⁴ are probably the source of this. In one section of their book they use the right name the but in the distillery information section they use George (an easy slip and even easier to let pass). Unfortunately he incorrect name was used in the index and has been picked up by others.
  9. James Barclay offered to buy but was rebuffed by an inflated price – I would not discount this but have found other corroboration for this story, which originally appear in Pacult. It is however interesting because James Barclay was involved in the tax case (even though he was discharged of having any liability). He would have known that Pomeroy was on the verge of bankruptcy and that all he had to do was wait. As James Barclay and Jay had had a business relationship for a number of years I wonder if there is not more to the story than meets the eye – I just don’t know what it is.
  10. He was crooked – I think that depends on your attitude to tax avoidance. There is no other evidence of outright dishonesty. Perhaps he was a little bit a little bit flexible in his attitudes, perhaps he didn’t ind what he bought and sold but I don’t think he was a crook (but that is a guess).

N.B. Nobody mentions the Excess Profits Tax and that the tax avoidance scheme involved other people and other companies. The ‘George’ error shows that Moss & Hume have been used as a source but people must only have looked-up Strathisla in the index and used that paragraph. The other entry is:

“During the war several more malt distilleries had changed hands… Some were bought by speculators keen to acquire valuable stock: notably Jay Pomeroy, a London financier, bought his way into a number of small malt distilleries, winning control of William Longmore & Co, proprietors of the Milton distillery, Keith”

Although it is not explicit, there is a clue.

¹ Ronde, Ingvar.  Malt whisky yearbook: the facts, the people, the news, the stories. Shrewsbury: MagDig Media Ltd, 2016.

² Pacult, F. Paul. A double scotch: how Chivas Regal and the Glenlivet became global icons. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons, 2005. I approached Paul Pacult, via his website to ask where he had found the information about gambling. The reply was that is was unknown because all the notes for the book were in storage but it probably came from research in the Strathisla archive. My guess is that it initially came from Marrus, but the exaggeration is all his own.

³ Marrus, Michael Robert. Samuel Bronfman: The Life and Times of Seagram’s Mr Sam. Penguin Books Canada, 1991.

⁴Michael S Moss & John R Hume. The Making of Scotch Whisky: a history of the scotch whisky distilling industry. James & James, Edinburgh.

P.S. I rather like the entry of the SMWS site:

“This company was bought by a London financier, who was later sued for tax evasion: he sold the malt on the black market under a variety of different names!”

Obviously this proves he was up to no good. Who knows he could have called it something like 58:101 – The Revenge of the Revenue (tasting notes: yielding at first with a slightly luxurious feel but it soon gives way to a mineral flintiness. The finish is relentless).

P.P.S. If SMWS do produce a whisky with those sort of characteristics I would be keen to taste it.

P.P.P.S. The image at the head of this post was found at http://wonderstreet.com/sally-dunham/sculptures/chinese-whispers

 

The Pomeroy Posts:

  1. An Introduction
  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?

2 thoughts on “Whisky Writing as Chinese Whispers

  • Philip Storry

    Yep, I’ve found this too.

    When doing research for my own projects, I’m shocked at how often things are simple repeated as though they’re true – even when it’s clear that it can’t be.

    I’ve found claims that were impossible because the person was plainly in a different country – working in a different job. I’ve found facts that I’ve had to question because the technology being installed hadn’t actually yet been invented. I’ve seen statements that authoritatively referred to something without ever giving essential details that would allow verification – like which distillery it happened in.

    Just about the only thing that’s consistently correct is the geography. But people, technologies and dates are often a confusing, contradictory mess.

    Thanks very much for writing this short series on Strathisla and Jay Pomeroy. I enjoyed it a lot – and I particularly appreciate the research you’ve done. I clearly owe you a dram.

    Reply
    • Thanks Philip. I’ve already emailed John to say that we need SMWS to make a bottle of Revenue Revenge

      Reply

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