There is an apt saying, which goes along the lines of what’s meant for you will not pass you by. It is something that I try to remember when things don’t turn out as expected and that a greater influence is at work. Eventually, the balance will be addressed and something new will immediately scrub any lasting bitterness.
At least I try to tell myself this when I miss out on something like an auction closing. Having been pulled away by parental duties one Sunday evening. I missed out on about 95% of my possible targets, as lots started to close quicker than the bread aisle during a pandemic. A sense of irony doesn’t escape me that after years of resenting auctions that seemingly trundle on for several hours, here was one that finished promptly when in reality, I needed a marathon. It wasn’t a complete lost cause, as a couple of watched items remained without bids. These were open despite the actual timing of the lots finishing. I guess, a lot somewhere else was prompting action (probably the latest flipping prime target) and until everything was done and dusted, the unloved and ignored would remain open to bids.
Having already identified the bottle as a blend of quality, I promptly adopted a spread betting approach by putting in a minimum bid on several identical lots. Thereby diminishing the risk of missing out if another nappy called. And this time they didn’t pass me by, as out of 4 lots I managed to win 3 without resorting to making a counterbid. The hammer price was just £20 on each of the bottles, which after auction fees and shipping, turned into a modest total outlay of £84.96. That ladies and gentlemen, in theory, represents a tremendous bargain.
So, I’ve set the scene, and welcome to another journey into historical blends, where I want to show you the value and opportunities they offer for exploring whisky. To recap, if I may, we kicked off this series with 100 Pipers and Moorland Scotch Whisky before delving into the depths of decanters with Douglas Laing’s Glasgow European City of Culture 1990. This time around, I want to underline the benefits of doing some research and just because you haven’t heard of a brand (Scotch is bursting with old and extinct examples), doesn’t mean the whisky isn’t of good quality.
I’ll kick off by highlighting a book that I’ve recommended on countless occasions to so many people – several of whom are industry-based and weren’t aware of its qualities. Yes, I’m talking about the Schweppes Guide to Scotch by Philip Morrice. The book is long out of print, but you can still find it online for well under £10. I’d also suggest checking out local bookstores and fairs when we’re able to mingle post-COVID-19. It represents a significant amount of company and brand research from an unlikely source. And in my experience, I’ve yet to come across a more comprehensive resource when it comes to Blended Scotch. The book is always my first port of call, as it offers a reliable snapshot and often some nuggets that lead you elsewhere. Little did I know that this would be a start of some journey and very much down the rabbit hole…
The Hedges & Butler we know today is actually owned by Ian MacLeod since 1998 and is still in existence. Like so many brands, it has a legacy in print and bottle form, but the origins have been lost to time. Prior to Ian MacLeod, it was acquired by the Bass Charrington Group in the 1960s – you’ll note all sources keep it to that decade, rather than a specific year, as it was a decade of amalgamation and H&B had been part of another portfolio prior to this.
The actual legacy of the brand goes back to the original spirit merchants like so many of the well-known blends today and blenders. Based in Regent Street, London, think Berry Bros & Rudd in terms of quality, scale and an array of spirits to a thriving market. Initially, the family started as a greengrocer selling wines, condiments and Russian caviar. Soon they expanded into spirits and provided the Coronation dinner and banquet of King George IV with an array of drinkables. This history with monarchs is reflected upon the label, which includes kings from across the world including the Japanese Emperor. There are several images from the 1890s highlighting the family firm with a huge inventory of casks. The roots of the business go back to 1667, which made it older than Berry Bros that was established in 1698, but both companies have endured different times.
This 1920s advert gives you the sense of the business and includes details on their whisky brands. So, we have some context that this family spirit merchant was doing extremely well and thriving with their hugely influential royal connections and opening branches elsewhere in England. But this doesn’t help us date this blend.
I often find with blends it is the small, almost insignificant details that can give you some sense of what era a bottle is from. I’ll always highlight the importance of tax seals much to the dismay of friends. Apart from an official using the wrong one (and Italian excisemen were known for just using any seal to hand, so it does happen), their existence can give us a rough time frame. And that’s the case with this bottle as it was blended and bottled in the UK for the American market. The bottle size is the old imperial system (quart), which was used in the US market until 1980. This isn’t entirely helpful on our quest today, yet confirms a cut-off point and would back up any final dating and rule out one potential fakery.
The US Federal Tax Strip applied to the bottle, is known as Series 112 and was in use from 1961 to 1977, confirming the duty had been paid. Immediately, this gives us a timeframe to work within, although hereafter, it is where things become more difficult. As mentioned, the brewing giant (Bass Charrington) acquired H&B as part of a larger acquisition in, I believe, the mid-1960s. My digging indicates that H&B was part of another company prior to this, and was amalgamated in 1961 – this was a period of takeovers and the growth of huge corporations swallowing up smaller entities.
Throughout the course of its existence, H&B play a great deal on not only their Royal connections but also their original location, which was 153 Regent Street, as seen in the postcard above from 1909. The street is mentioned in all of their labellings until recent times. Such is the heritage and assumed luxury of having such a London address. The use of postcodes can again help date a bottle and on H&B there is a change sometime in the 1960s when they drop the Regent Street and begin using W1 instead. Perhaps to save room? Possibly to fit more modern demands but there is a change evident, however small. So, it is my belief that bottles without the W1 are an earlier incarnation of the blend.
Researching the Regent Street location in the hope of a bill of sale, or move to another address did throw up some interesting side stories. Today, Regent Street is a hugely busy shopping destination and a modern building has sprung up over the site. There is a tale of a time capsule that was placed in the foundations with great fanfare that is due to be opened in 2022, as this article highlights. Buried in 1922, this was part of an extension and establishment of a new H&B building at number 155 Regent Street – effectively next door. Perhaps this tale will grow legs in 2022 and it seems likely that the capsule remains in-situ on the site. The predictions of futurologist Professor Archibald Low in 1922 about our world in 2022 are well worth reading! In 2006, the Vaults beneath the site were being used as an event space and nightclub.
Always look to other bottles from the same bottler for clues as this can help date label details. For instance, we know from this bottle that the Belgium market in 1966 was receiving H&B with the W1 on the label minus Regent Street. There is also the switch to a red screw top, which is the most common version, whereas our bottle has the less seen gold cap. The outcome here is that we know there was a change in presentation and it was in existence by 1966 at least, which may tie in with the new owner, who may have revisited acquired brands and potentially made changes.
This leaves us, I believe, in the time frame of 1961 (tax seal) to 1965 with the new style of bottle. I’ve exhausted all avenues so far but remain intrigued to keep on digging. One aspect that has illuded me is the import company based in Long Island, NY and called the Westminster Corporation. This is I expect an earlier company, as bottles with the red cap and W1 are imported by Hedges & Butler of New York, which is also shown in trademark literature online in the mid-1960s. Finding details about Westminster Corp. might help us further.
Another important record is trademark applications and this is where we can really drive down the timeline even further. Given that this was a release for the United States, there should be a trademark application recorded and these are reliable dates. Looking into this confirms that on Thursday, May 28, 1964, a U.S. federal trademark registration was filed for HEDGES & BUTLER ROYAL and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) granted the trademark serial number of 72194488, which has since expired. We now know the Royal blend was a new arrival in the 1960s and specifically 1964 in America. So, I’d look to place this between 1964-1966.
Part of the appeal personally is not only the consumption but also the investigation. Even throwaway details can be of use, as each of the H&B bottles come with branded bottle wrapping paper. A feature of older releases, who did wrap their contents prior to shipping and again underlining that quality aspect. As such, I’ve not seen the later red editions featuring any wrapping whatsoever. Whatever the outcome, the lots themselves underline how well these have been kept and their pristine condition after almost 6 decades. It fills me with joy that we’re in for a real taste of the past and I opened this bottle on my IGTV channel.
Ultimately, we cannot pinpoint this blend any further. At least we’ve done a better job than the auctioneer and given some background to the main event itself. And that’s not a criticism of any auctioneer who may have hundreds, if not thousands of lots to detail. Quite often these will be just replicated from previous lots and thus any lack of detail or even mistakes, are replicated. My research has shown that may H&B bottles are labelled the 1960s or 1970s and nothing more specific. I’ve even seen some wrongly sold as the 1950s, which is possibly based on the mention of King George VI as the Royal warrant, but this Royal terminology was utilised across the decades, whereas on some bottles it can provide a clue; here it is a red herring.
I believe that sometimes it is best to have a sense of mystery; not everything can be answered and some details are lost to time. So, while we cannot say this is 1963 etc. we at least have more confidence and the ultimate mystery will be the components of the blended recipe. Some things are best left to the imagination and the tastebuds…
Hedges & Butler – Royal Blended Scotch Whisky – review
Colour: apple flesh.
On the nose: the freshness of plucked apples and soft ripe pears. A pleasing degree of maltiness. Vanilla icing and the 43% strength is proving beneficial. A touch of grain in the background, flower petals, clementines and chalk dust. Rich Tea biscuits, raisins, toffee, nutmeg, sour plums and wine gums.
In the mouth: an initial burst of meadow fruit sweetness greets your palate. The maltiness comes through alongside apple peel, creamy, tablet, lime and a touch of smoke. The grain aspect appears briefly on the finish and overall it leaves me debating that ancient topic of the old bottle effect. This blend has that characteristic and is very moreish.
In the end, all things turn out well. This is a quality blend that plays to the Royal label and leaves you reaching for another pour. I’m glad to have broken the seal and paid tribute to those involved while providing a backdrop to the brand. This bottle will be shared and hopefully enjoyed by others, as we work our way towards the conclusion that every whisky bottle should reach; the end.
1920s advert image kindly provided by Alamy. Postcard image from HipPostcard.
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