It’s the late 1980s and Roger Mallindine had spent 20 years working his way up the Trade. He’s now in United Distillers post the Guinness/DCL merger, looking after whiskies for luxury outlets.
How Johnnie Walker Blue Label Really Emerged In The UK Market
One morning in the 1980s I was due to pick up Graham Thompson, Managing Director of United Distillers UK at London Heathrow Airport. The purpose of a day in the Trade was to update him on the state of play in the international market of London’s West End.
The Walker range and Cardhu were priority brands and superseded any other of our whiskies at the time. On our way to the shop window of the world, the top man of the company asked to see my call plan for the day which I duly gave him. He looked at the day’s objectives and immediately said, ‘You have mentioned Johnnie Walker Blue Label in every outlet we are due to visit.’
‘Let me make it absolutely clear, Roger, that the company has no intention of introducing Johnnie Walker Blue Label to the UK market, now, or in the foreseeable future.’
Clearly there was a demand for Blue Label. The first bottle had already arrived at The Four Seasons Hotel from the States. There were always problems with global pricing, but I simply didn’t understand why we produced a great blend in Scotland, yet were denied the right to sell it in our own country.
The first call was at Harrod’s where Hugh Cochrane, buyer, was waiting to greet us. His first words were ‘Morning Roger, Mr Fayed is keen to place an order for fifteen cases of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. When can we expect delivery?’
I replied ‘I’m sorry, Hugh, I can’t talk about it, but my Managing Director can,’ and crossed my fingers that I would still be employed.
It was the same scenario everywhere we visited and by the end of the day I reminded the boss that we could have sold at least 30 cases.
I stuck my neck out and reminded him that it didn’t matter if we distributed the brand or not in the UK, it would still appear on the shelves in the on and off trade via the grey market.
Thompson was a good listener and made things happen if he felt there was justification for doing so. He closed the day by saying, ‘OK, OK, I will allocate stock to your team but you will be the only person selling Blue Label until I say otherwise. I look forward to some positive results.’ I raised my head: the positive results went without saying.
‘By the way Roger, I take it that you didn’t phone these customers prior to our visit?’
‘As if I would do a thing like that sir!’
I’m sure no one knows to this day how this milestone in whisky history came about.