Taken at face value the much-used advertising strapline ‘Born 1820 – still going strong,’ implies that the whisky originates from that date, but it was actually a year earlier that 14-year-old John Walker made his first steps toward building an iconic whisky brand when he sold the family farm.
Walker opened his first grocery business in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire with the proceeds and eventually began to sell and make whisky, but it wasn’t until 10 years after his death in 1857 that his son Alexander introduced the company’s Walker’s Old Highland Blend, the whisky that was the forerunner of Red Label and Black Label, created in 1909. By that time the unusual square bottle, introduced by Alexander Walker in the 1860s, and slanting label were already familiar with consumers, and it was in 1908 that cartoonist Tom Browne drew the ‘striding man’ figure which through various incarnations has remained a key piece of the brand’s imagery.
John Walker & Sons acquired Cardhu distillery on Speyside in 1893, and the firm became part of the Distillers Company (DCL) in 1925, with DCL being acquired by Guinness during 1986. Guinness subsequently merged with Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo in 1997.
During the mid-1950s Johnnie Walker took its place as the world’s best-selling whisky, a position it has occupied ever since thanks in part to major investments in marketing. These have included the £100 million ‘Keep Walking’ campaign.
Blue Label was added to the Johnnie Walker line-up in 1992, with Blue Label King George V being introduced in 2008. Double Black was released in 2011, followed a year later by the Gold Label Reserve and Platinum Label variants. Having been absent from UK outlets since 1977, Red Label made a return to its home market in 1983, and was relaunched in 2013.
Johnnie Walker had retained a link to its ‘home’ town by being bottled in Kilmarnock, but Walker’s bottling plant there closed in 2012, with production switched to Diageo’s bottling facilities at Leven in Fife and Shieldhall in Glasgow.
In September 2015 Diageo unveiled Johnnie Walker’s biggest global marketing campaign to-date. Named ‘Joy Will Take You Further’, the campaign is based on months of commissioned research into consumer behaviour and builds upon the brand’s long-running ‘Keep Walking’ message.