Ruling a country is hard work. It should therefore come as no surprise that some monarchs need a drink from time to time. History is littered with examples of royalty who liked their booze perhaps a bit too much. William IV broke his arm while drunkenly falling down a flight of stairs, George IV was known as a party animal to rival even Prince Harry, and Queen Mother Elizabeth would famously tell her attendants to hide a bottle of gin in a hatbox while being about her official duties. Henry VII spent the equivalent of £900.000 a year replenishing his wine cellar, while Queen Victoria was known for adding a splash of malt whisky to her claret. And although Queen Elizabeth II declined to drink Guinness on a recent visit to Dublin, she does enjoy a gin before lunch, wine during, and Martini and champagne in the evening, according to her cousin Margaret Rhodes.
Of course not all monarchs were notorious drinkers, but there has long been an appreciation for Scotch whisky within royal circles. One way in which this can be acknowledged is through the issuing of a Royal Warrant. A Royal Warrant is a sign of recognition to a company which has provided goods or services to the royal family for at least five years. It can only be granted by the king or queen and his or her consort, as well as the heir apparent. Currently this means Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Prince Charles can issue Royal Warrants. Warrants are valid for a period of five years, after which they are reviewed. Examples include typical British brands such as Twinings, HP Sauce, Cadbury and Aston Martin, but also more exotic products such as Tabasco and Veuve Clicquot.
The only whisky distillery to currently hold a Royal Warrant is Laphroaig. It was granted on a visit to the distillery by Prince Charles in 1994. Considering Charles is the current Lord of the Isles, it is of course only fitting for him to bestow his personal patronage on an Islay distillery. In celebration, Laphroaig launched the 10 year old Royal Warrant edition, which currently sells for around £325. Charles himself supposedly prefers the 15 year old, which is said to be his favourite malt whisky. He is such a fan of the distillery that he decided to spend part of his 60th birthday there, while also returning to Laphroaig to celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2015.
Throughout history, there have been other distilleries that were awarded a Royal Warrant, but at some point did not get it renewed. They are easy to identify, as it was customary to attach ‘Royal’ as a prefix or suffix to the distillery name. I speak of course of Royal Brackla, Royal Lochnagar and Glenury Royal.
Royal Brackla was the first whisky distillery ever to be awarded a Royal Warrant in 1833, just 23 years into its existence. As one of the few licensed highland distilleries, it can’t have been easy for Brackla to compete with the illegal moonshiners of Glen Livet, but once William IV bestowed his personal patronage, things became decidedly easier. Still marketed as ‘The King’s Own Whisky’, this slogan was in need of an overhaul when Queen Victoria decided to renew the Warrant in 1838. Although Royal Brackla remains a relatively small and unknown distillery, it has continued producing quality whiskies ever since.
With the Queen’s holiday home at Balmoral Castle just a mile away from Lochnagar, it is perhaps no surprise that the distillery can now boast a royal prefix. After having been burnt down by a rival smuggler, Lochnagar distillery reopened in 1845, just three years before Victoria and Albert moved into Balmoral. The distillery manager invited them and their children over for what was possibly the world’s first distillery tour. At the end of the visit, the royal party (children included) tasted the whisky, and were duly impressed. Not only did the royals become big customers, the queen also bestowed her Royal Warrant, prompting the distillery to rename itself ‘Royal Lochnagar’ for increased exposure. The Warrant was renewed by both Edward VII and George V, but has since expired. The royal connection is now somewhat played down, as Lochnagar distillery is used mostly as a training facility for Diageo’s up and coming whisky makers. Even so, occasional visits from Balmoral still take place, like when Charles visited the distillery to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
Glenury Royal illustrates the fact that even a Royal Warrant is no guarantee for success. The distillery was founded in 1825, near Aberdeen, by a man named Robert Barclay. Whisky distilling was only a side business for him though, as Barclay was one of the greatest pedestrians of all time, winning great renown (and millions of pounds by today’s equivalent) in the sport. His most famous feat was walking 1000 miles without a break – take that Proclaimers! Born into an aristocratic family, Barclay struck up a friendship with the Duke of Clarence, who would later become King William IV. Eventually, Barclay persuaded the king to issue a Royal Warrant for his distillery. This was perhaps not only down to favouritism, as Glenury produced a fine dram, which William is said to have re-ordered frequently. Despite its initial success and the royal appellation, the distillery could not escape being mothballed several times. The release of a blend called King William IV did not help reverse fortunes, and the distillery finally fell silent in 1985. Although there were hopes as late as the 1990s that Glenury might reopen, the distillery site has now been sold off to make room for a housing development, meaning that Glenury Royal is at last consigned to history.
It appears the royal family not only appreciates malt whisky, but also rewards blending houses for their commercial success. Currently, whisky giants such as Johnny Walker, Famous Grouse and Dewar’s also hold a Royal Warrant, issued by Queen Elizabeth. Yet the connection between whisky and the royal family goes far beyond the issuing of Warrants. Such is the prestige and popularity of the royals that they continue to inspire various blends, bottlings and limited editions. For example, Glenlivet released a 25 year old Royal Wedding Reserve for Prince William’s nuptials, while Johnny Walker bottled the Diamond Jubilee edition to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary. Macallan even released a whole Coronation Collection for the same occasion. But even relatively minor events may tempt whisky makers into dedicating limited editions to the royals. Glenfiddich for example marked Prince Harry’s expedition to the South Pole with a 29 year old whisky (Harry’s age at the time). Meanwhile the royal family doesn’t seem to mind at all, showing that whisky truly is a drink fit for a king.