What’s the association with Bell’s Scotch whisky and Christmas? Well it might well be in the name, bells ringing out for Christmas day and all that. Or it might be people of a certain age who remember the Bell’s TV adverts at Christmas in the 1980s and ‘90s. Bell’s on the TV meant that it would soon be time to put bells on the tree. Bell’s even came in bells with special editions for Christmas and royal occasions. My parents still have a Charles & Diana one. Apparently it’s now worth over £200!
Bell’s whisky was ubiquitous when I was growing up. It was the number one Scotch whisky brand in Britain and in the early 1980s had something 35% of the market share with its ubiquity only challenged by Famous Grouse. I remember seeing Johnnie Walker adverts but I don’t think I ever saw a bottle of the stuff.
The company was founded in Perth by Arthur Bell in 1851. In the 19th century Perth was whisky central – something you can see in the architecture which is incredibly grand for a city so small. Other famous Perth names were John Dewar, Matthew Gloag, the man behind Famous Grouse, and Peter Thomson. With the coming of the railways in 1848, the city was ideally placed for merchants to buy characterful malt whiskies from the north and blend them with the lighter spirits of the Lowlands to create a consistent product to sell not just locally but throughout Britan and export around the world. Arthur Bell was one of the first whisky merchants to employ a London agent. He died in 1900 but the company, Arthur Bell & Sons, would go from strengh to strength.
The Perth style tended to be very different from West Coast blends like Johnnie Walker which had more Islay and Campbeltown single malts. Perth whiskies lent toward nearby Speyside for their flavour profile. To keep up with demand, in the 1930s Arthur Bell & Sons acquired three distilleries Inchgower, Blair Athol, and Dufftown, and in 1975, built a new one next to Dufftown called Pittyvaich, which later closed in 1993 and was demolished.
Bell’s was always memorable for its marketing. In the 1920s the words ‘Afore ye go’ first appeared on every bottle as they do to this day. Later, according to Dr Nick Morgan, former Diageo marketing man and whisky writer, much of the ubiquity of Bell’s came down to its innovative marketing director Raymond Miquel. “Bell’s had grown to be a leading brand in the UK through the remorseless attention to detail (if not quality) of Raymond Miquel, and the very close ties it had built with the on-trade,” Morgan writes.
In 1985, Guinness, owner of the Distillers Company, bought Bell’s and joined the two to form United Distillers, a forerunner of Diageo. In 1994 Bell’s became an eight-year-old age statement with a huge marketing campaign including television advertising which, according to Morgan, broke “a long-standing ‘gentleman’s agreement’ in the whisky industry.”
As whisky stocks were depleted, the age statement was dropped in 2008. Today Bell’s Original, as it is now called, is a classic light and fruity Perth blend based on Blair Athol, with contributions from the likes of Glenkinchie, Dufftown and Inchgower. Though there have been older versions of Bell’s such as a 12 year old in the 1990s, it seems today that Diageo is content to keep things simple with its bestselling blend. The only version we stock is Bell’s Original. Plus a good selection of Bell’s bells. Wouldn’t a Queen Mother version be the perfect present for the special whisky lover in your life this Christmas?