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Scotched earth: Hiram Walker & Sons of Scotland

Hiram Walker was a large Canadian whisky distiller. This article traces the history of its British subsidiary, a major distiller of Scotch whisky in its own right.

The Canadian businessman Harry Clifford Hatch (1884 – 1946) acquired Hiram Walker & Sons of Ontario in 1926 and merged it with Gooderham & Worts of Toronto to form Hiram Walker Gooderham & Worts Ltd, one of the largest whisky distillers in the world.

Hiram Walker acquired a 60 percent stake in James & George Stodart Ltd of Glasgow in 1930. The purchase included the Stirling Bonding Company (with the Old Smuggler brand) and George Ballantine & Son Ltd.

The Glenburgie and Miltonduff-Glenlivet malt whisky distilleries were acquired in 1936.

Hiram Walker & Sons (Scotland) Ltd was registered in 1937 with a capital of £1 million. It was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hiram Walker Gooderham & Worts Ltd. Capital was increased to £1.5 million the following year.

Due to a growing export trade, Hiram Walker encountered difficulties procuring sufficient grain whisky for blending purposes. As a result, the company opened the largest distillery in Europe at Dumbarton in 1938. The £450,000 investment on a nine acre site produced three million imperial gallons of whisky each year, mostly grain whisky.

Harry C Hatch hoped that increased Canadian investment in Britain would help to strengthen the British Empire.

Thomas Scott was general manager and a director of Hiram Walker & Sons (Scotland) Ltd by 1949. In 1950 he introduced a resident flock of geese to act as security guards at the Dumbarton distillery.

Workers at the Dumbarton distillery, taken in the 1950s

Bloch Brothers (Distillers) Ltd of Glasgow was acquired in 1954. The acquisition included two distilleries (Scapa, Orkney and Glen Scotia, Campbeltown) and very large reserves of whisky, including some of the oldest in Britain. At that point it was the second largest acquisition in the Scotch whisky industry since the end of the Second World War. Bloch sales were strongest in North and South America.

Ballantine’s was a favourite Scotch whisky of John F Kennedy, and during his presidency it was the highest selling Scotch whisky in the United States.

1,100 people were employed at the Dumbarton plant in 1969.

Stephen McCann replaced Scott to become managing director of Hiram Walker of Scotland in 1969. In 1971 McCann became chairman and Alistair Cunningham (1926 – 2010) became managing director.

A new complex for Scotch whisky production was opened at Kilmalid, outside Dumbarton, in 1977. It was the most advanced whisky blending plant in Europe.

Hiram Walker attempted to buy Highland Distilleries in 1979. Highland Distilleries owned the Famous Grouse brand, which would have given the company a foothold in the British market. The Monopolies Commission ruled that the bid was against the public interest.

A new bottling plant was opened at Kilmalid in 1982. Soon, it was handling more than 100 million bottles a year.

Hiram Walker was the third largest Scotch whisky producer in the world by 1984, with nine malt distilleries and one large grain distillery. Ballantine was its large international brand, and although sales had slipped in the United States, it was the market leader in Continental Europe, with particularly strong sales in Italy.

During the 1980s Hiram Walker received criticism for selling bulk malt whisky to Japanese distillers, who used it as the basis for their own blends.

Hiram Walker was acquired by Allied Lyons, a British food and beverages copany, in 1987.

Alistair Cunningham retired in 1992.

The Dumbarton distillery was closed in 2002, and demolished in 2008.

The geese were removed from Dumbarton in 2012.

As of 2014, Ballantine’s is the second highest-selling Scotch whisky in the world after Johnnie Walker.