...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Black & White blended whisky, a history

Born in Ontario and raised in Scotland, James Buchanan began working with Charles Mackinlay & Co in London in 1879, at the age of 30. In 1884, he started his own company, James Buchanan & Co Ltd. Sourcing whiskies from W.P. Lowrie, Buchanan began selling The Buchanan Blend the following year. (Buchanan and W.P. Lowrie later had Glentauchers Distillery built in 1896, and together bought Bankier and Convalmore in the following decade.)

Buchanan's goal with his Blend was a whisky, light in character, that would appeal to the English palate. It was such a success that Buchanan & Co received an exclusive contract with Parliament, the following year, to supply them with Buchanan’s House of Commons Finest Old Highland (also known as, House of Commons).

James Buchanan, Lord Woolvington
The House of Commons whisky, also sold by English grocers, came in a black bottle with a white label, and that's how customers began ordering it: "that Black and White whisky." As he began exporting the whisky around the world, Buchanan renamed it "Black & White" (with the quotation marks) in 1902.

As one of the most influential Scotch whisky producers, Buchanan chose to expand his business further by merging James Buchanan & Co Ltd. with the company of Scotch titan, John Dewar, forming Buchanan-Dewar in 1915. Their company was then consumed by the giant Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in 1925.

Black & White — the quotes were dropped around 1970 — included Dalwhinne, Clynelish and Glendullan malts for many decades, with Dalwhinnie often being the main ingredient. It's likely that the blend had Glentauchers, Bankier and Convalmore in it at various times as well. Though it usually had no age statement, Black & White was at various times an 8 year old. A 12-year-old version was briefly offered post-Prohibition, then again a half century later. And, as if the light-style whisky wasn't enough, there was an Extra Light version in the mid-20th century.

Said to have been an animal lover, Buchanan often used images of horses in his early adverts. But, as the legend goes, after attending a dog show in 1920, he got the idea of using two terriers, one black, one white for all his advertising campaigns. Early on, they were known as Scottie and Westie, but became better known as Blackie and Whitey.

Black & White has appeared in novels as diverse as Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, Fleming's Moonraker and Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. It has also shown up in films such as La Dolce Vita, Dr. No and Father Goose.

In 1964, the year of Father Goose's release, Black & White was one of DCL's best selling brands, trailing only Haig and Johnnie Walker. But as the market changed, and DCL experienced management struggles, Black & White's sales fell 50% over the next five years. Volume declined throughout the 1970s, until the brand was eventually pulled out of England and became an export-only product.

By focusing on emerging markets, Diageo was able to revive Black & White's sales in the latter half of the 2010s, expanding its volume 100% between 2013 and 2017, raising it from the 18th best-selling Scotch brand to the 10th. Two decades into its third century, Black & White has left its original demographic, finding more welcoming new homes in South America, Asia and Africa.

--MacLean, Charles. Scotch Whisky, A Liquid History. London, UK: Cassell Illustrated, 2005. (also, the photo source)


  1. I've only seen Black and White on the shelves of Beltramo's (RIP) so after their closing I have not seen any stores in my area carrying a bottle. It's one of several bottles I wish I'd grabbed when they were available.

    1. Didn't realize Beltramo's had closed. I'm way out of the loop re: California stores now. Mission Spirits in Pasadena used to always have Black & White on the shelves, but they don't now. I don't think you missed much by not nabbing a bottle of current B&W.

    2. To make a long story short, the owners (two Beltramo brothers) decided to retire and none of their children wanted to run the store. It's quite bittersweet considering Beltramo's was open for 134 years!