15 Pounds Worth Scotch Whisky Blend Archaeology
Last Friday eve my wife and I were invited to a dinner party with friends, well more like “adopting” family, at their house. This is not something uncommon and we visit them quite often, usually I visit them on my own as the husband (a young fellow of 75 years) and I share passion for cigars and fine spirits. Actually share passion for cigars is quite an understatement; before I met him I used to smoke a cigar every few months and now it’s about 1-2 cigars per week, many of them given to me by him. Anyway back to the story at hand.
After we enjoyed a very nice meal, with good company, very nice wine brought by yours truly (I recommend you also try Israeli Dalton winery’s Alma 2008 blend) and an amazing home-made passion fruit ice-cream accompanied with a glass of nice port (well for me anyway), it was time for the after dinner cigar and spirit. “Go look at the small table in the lounge” I was told. “I’ve found a bottle of scotch blend whisky I forgot about and was sitting in the kitchen cupboard for the past twenty years”. Mind you, I later found several others, more familiar, scotch blend whisky bottles that were forgotten in that cupboard for that time period such as J&B, Black and White and others.
I did as was told and on the table stood a square shaped bottle, covered with dust and metallic cap with lock ring still unbroken. To proof that it had been waiting for over two decades, the bottle had a paper seal that was used in Israel until the end of the 1980s to indicate that duty was paid. On the label in big letters was written STEWARTS DUNDEE just under a portrait of the Jacobite hero “Bonnie Dundee” (John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee, of whom many Jacobite songs were written). The label also indicated that this was a “De Luxe” blended scotch whisky, 75 proof in strength and that it is the “Cream of the Barley”, a statement with little significant to me, but as I found out later, actually identifies this blend. Something that was more of significant was that it was produced by “Stewart & Son of Dundee LTD.”. To the neck of the bottle was attached a label indicating “Smoothed with whiskies 20 years old”. An obvious marketing trick as there was no age statement anywhere.
The Stewarts Cream of the Barley mystery bottle
(sticking from the neck is the Israeli old duty paid paper seal)
I stood there looking at the bottle, now in my hand with a stupid grin on my face. This obviously was not a very luxurious or sophisticated whisky, to my understanding, and from knowing its owner I knew it was probably bought at the supermarket back in its day. But still there was something different about it that got the little wheels in my head to turn (with cracking noise as they’ve been out of use for some time). I informed my friend that I think this might be a collector’s item and that we are not to open it and after a futile opposition attempt by him, I took a picture of it to send around and put it on a shelf. Instead we went on to have a Black & White with the cigars.
The following day I started to search the internet after this mysterious whisky. I also asked Gal Granov of WhiskyIsrael.co.il and Mark Gillespie of WhiskyCast.com if they knew it but sadly they did not. The web didn’t have a lot to offer about this old blend bottle and I went into many dead ends in trying to search information about it.
To be honest, when I first searched for the blend I got several suggestions all with a picture of a contemporary shaped square bottle that bore the name “Stewarts Cream of the Barley”. At first I dismissed these, as this was not the bottle I was looking for, but after a while I gave one of them a bit more attention reading that “It is produced at the Glencadam distillery, pride of Stewarts of Dundee using a specially selected range of 50 Highland and Islay single malt whiskies including sparing quantities of the Glencadam malt.”
“Finally a thread” I thought to myself and quickly googled for the Glencadam distillery. I was in luck, it seemed the distillery is still operational and they even have a nice simple website where I found a contact email. Immediately I sent my pictures accompanied query of the blend to Glancadam and waited impatiently (well not exactly, I was at work and had a quite a bit to do).
To my surprise I received an answer not one and a half hours later from Douglas Fitchett, Brewer/Manager and from this mail I learnt few things –
1. As I thought the “Stewart & Son of Dundee LTD” company that was established at 1831 doesn’t really exist anymore as it was purchased by Allied Distillers at some point in time.
2. Allied Distillers are today owned by Chivas Brothers.
3. Glencadam Distillery was only associated with Stewarts Cream of The Barley as a promotional exercise as Glencadam was the closest distillery in the Allied Distillers group, who owned both companies as Stewarts was bottled in Dundee. (By the way Glencadam distillery is part of Angus Dundee Distillers PLC these days).
Douglas suggested that I approach the Chivas Brothers with my query as they might assist. And so I did; or at least tried to do. As with many other companies, Chivas Brothers (which are part of Pernod Richard group) have a very elegant flash based website, but it has no email contact on it, only regular snail mail addresses and phone numbers. As a computer industry person I was shocked, puzzled and quite frustrated to discover this, after all how am I to continue my quest?
I do not recall how and via where, but somehow I found that Malt Whisky Distilleries website is owned and operated by Chivas Brothers. In this website there is a nice “Contact Us” form and contacted them I did, explaining my query once again. Two days later and Melanie Cruickshank, Deputy Visitor Centre Supervisor of Chivas Brothers” Strathisla Distillery answered me by email which was evolved into a longer correspondence between us, but also involved another person, soon to be explained.
In our conversation, Melanie, who was very patient and extremely helpful, provided me with all the information she had about “Stewarts Cream of the Barely” blend and its heritage, which unfortunately is summed up short -
“Stewarts Cream of the Barley boasts a long and proud history. Since 1831 the finest malted barley, purest Scottish spring water and years of blending expertise have come together to create a truly distinctive blended Scotch Whisky. A specially selected range of Highland and Island single malt whiskies are carefully balanced with choice grain whiskies to create Cream of the Barley, a whisky blend worthy of the name, Stewarts.
Stewarts Cream of the Barley was the inspiration of Alexander Stewart, the proprietor of a long established east coast wine and spirit merchant dating back to 1831. Alexander Stewart, following in the footsteps of his father, started work as a clerk at a well established wine and spirit merchants in Dundee.
Alexander rose through the ranks to become the principle
assistant and finally, in 1875, at the age of 34 he purchased the business.
The “Cream of the Barley” was so called because the Stewarts, not owning any distilleries themselves, were free to select the “cream of the crop” of the single malt whiskies on the brokering market each year. “
I was surprised though by the fact that Melanie managed to direct my query to the blender who was actually in charge of production of this blend at one point in time, the former Master Blender of Allied Distilleries – Sandy Hyslop (when I googled his name I found that he is the present Ballantine’s blended scotch whisky Master Blender).
Sandy managed to recognize the bottle at question as being “definitely standard Cream of the Barley blend from the late 60’s / early 70’s… It would have originally come with a carton”. Sandy continued and mentioned that he “was the blender for Stewarts when it was bottled in Dundee and what a superb blend it was and is!!” (bold by S.G.). As did Melanie, he also wrote that this blend is still being produced at present day in Dumbarton, and is worth about £10. Well, searching for the updated current version of this blend at online shops proved it to be sold at the range of £15-£16 as can be seen at shopwiki.co.uk and The Whisky Exchange.
Stewarts Cream of the Barley present look
I tried to search online for the name Alexander Stewart, but came up short. Tried to find more history and information about the “Stewart & Son of Dundee LTD” company, but couldn’t find anything either. Maybe on my next trip to Scotland, I’ll stop at Dundee and Dumbarton and try to dig out the past, if I will remember to…
So it seems my blend archaeology trip came to an end, with two open questions left. One – how much my friend’s bottle is actually worth? And, Two – what does this blend taste like?
Trying to answer the first question, I ran across two sites that sell similar looking bottles of “Stewarts Cream of the Barley” at around £90 each. There are no details about the blend in those sites as well, and the labels on those bottles seem a bit fancier (see RareWhiskySite.com and Whisky-Online.com). I asked Melanie about this and the answer was a simple logical truth – “As with anything, these bottles are only worth what someone is willing to pay”.
Regarding the latter question, well, I plan to order a present bottle of this blend and try it. I hope I’ll manage to do this soon and also maybe to persuade Gal and Mark to sample it and tell me what they think, with the wishful thinking of both publishing their notes on their sites.
I don’t know what to expect with this blend, whenever I’ll manage to taste it, but I think I will enjoy it if not only because I enjoyed this “archaeological” trip it took me on.
Thanks for reading.