The world’s biggest-selling Scotch whisky brand and by some distance. Johnnie Walker is owned by Diageo and the extensive range is fuelled by whiskies sourced from the company’s 28 single malt distilleries and beyond.
The brand evolved out of John Walker’s grocery store in Kilmarnock to the south of Glasgow, founded in 1820. Walker blended spices, tea and coffee arriving from around the British Empire and started doing the same with local whiskies. The rest is history and now the brand sells a mammoth 20 million cases per year (a case is 9-litres/ 12 bottles).
The core range features the two top sellers – Red Label and Black Label 12 years old – plus Green Label 15 years old, Gold Label 18 years old and the iconic Blue Label, which features several whiskies of over 20 years of age. Many limited editions and special bottlings are also regularly released.
In second place sits the fabulous Ballantine’s. This is owned by Chivas Brothers, the Scotch whisky wing of French drinks company Pernod Ricard. However, it is second to Johnnie Walker by some considerable distance with almost nine million cases sold globally per year. That is under half of what Johnnie Walker sells.
Like Johnnie Walker, the brand grew from a grocery store. In this case it was that of George Ballantine in Edinburgh, which was founded in 1827. The current range is wide and boasts exquisite multi award-winning expressions at 17-, 21- and 30-years old. But most sales are for the Finest, which was launched over a century ago in 1910 and is Europe’s biggest selling Scotch whisky.
Completing the Top 3 for world sales is Grant’s, albeit with half as many sales as Ballantine’s ahead of it. Grant’s shifts just over four million cases per year. Despite its considerable sales figures, the blend remains somewhat underrated.
It has been around since late Victorian times and remains Scotland’s oldest family-owned blended whisky. William Grant & Sons have developed an amazing range that explores both traditional age statements and different cask maturations.
Grant, a veteran of the Speyside whisky industry, developed his blend in the 1880s and it proved so popular that he had to build his own distillery to supply single malt for it. That was Glenfiddich, built in 1887, and Balvenie followed shortly after as sales grew. All single grain now comes from their Girvan distillery in Ayrshire, built in the 1960s.
The Single Malts
Glenfiddich was built by William Grant and his nine children in Dufftown, the ‘whisky capital’ of the Speyside region. Production famously began on Christmas Day, 1887. The primary function of the distillery was production of single malt for Grant’s popular blend. Single malt expressions were occasionally released but were the exception rather than the rule.
Fast forward to the 1960s where pioneering owners William Grant & Sons used Glenfiddich to spearhead the growth of single malts as a category. They opened the world’s first travel retail shop in Shannon airport, Ireland and stocked it with Glenfiddich in its striking green triangular bottle.
Why? With commercial air travel in its infancy, planes could not fly non-stop between the UK and USA. They had to stop and refuel at Shannon, so the shop gained a captive audience as passengers had to disembark there. Not only did Glenfiddich create the single malt category as we know it today, but also the travel retail category.
Now, Glenfiddich sells around 1.5 million cases per year. But despite being the world’s best-selling Scotch single malt, it only sells a quarter of what its Grant’s blended sibling does. This puts into context just how much blended Scotch is sold in comparison to single malt.
Sitting just behind Glenfiddich with 1.3 million cases sold annually is Glenlivet. Both are massive distilleries in Speyside – they are the largest single malt producers in Scotland at 21 million litres each per annum. Glenlivet was founded in 1824 and was the first to hold the License to Distil, brought in by The Excise Act of 1823. It is currently owned by Chivas Brothers, which has its roots in an Aberdeen grocery store owned by John and James Chivas in the late 1830s.
Glenlivet is popular worldwide but has a particular stronghold in the USA. Its light and fruity style can be pulled in several directions and the core range, plus many limited editions, reflect this. The biggest sellers are the American oak influenced Founder’s Reserve and classic 12 years old. Other highlights include the Caribbean Reserve, matured in ex-rum barrels, plus the 18-, 21- and 25-year-olds.
Macallan sits comfortably in third place for Scotch single malt sales and the brand has risen dramatically in the last couple of decades. This premium Speysider goes in a richer direction than Glenfiddich or Glenlivet and matures a significant amount of its whisky in ex-sherry casks. The modern distillery is a ground-breaking architectural wonder and produces 15 million litres of spirit per year. Macallan is owned by the Edrington Group.
Like Glenlivet, Macallan is particularly popular in America and its standing has grown in modern culture. During the Daniel Craig era of the James Bond movie franchise, Macallan was the British spy’s whisky brand of choice and featured in each movie.
Macallan is highly regarded, and the core range solid. Several old and rare bottlings have also been released and these are highly collectable. The prices reflect this. The Colour Collection is a new range for travel retail that has been recently released and features age statements at 12-, 15-, 18, 21- and 30-years old.