In 1822, a young George Ballantine left home at 13, bound for a grocer apprenticeship in Edinburgh. By 1827, Ballantine had opened his own grocery store in Cowgate, an area of Edinburgh a fair distance away from the majority of other grocers. The decision to open in Cowgate proved to be worthwhile, with Ballantine able to provide goods like tea, soap, and even whisky to a new market in the city.
Just 10 years later, Ballantine shifted the focus of his store to wine and spirits, blending and aging whisky in his shop. Today, Ballantine’s is the world’s No. 2 top-selling Scotch whisky (behind only Johnnie Walker) with over 9 million cases sold in 2022.
The brand, which currently falls under the Chivas Brothers umbrella owned by Pernod-Ricard, has since expanded past the spirits market by partnering with pioneers across the music, video game, and fashion industries. Now that you know the basics, here are seven more things you should know about Ballantine’s.
In the 1800s, it was common for grocery stores to purchase an abundance of single malts from distilleries to sell themselves in barrels. At the time, though, single-malt Scotch tended to be inconsistent. Many shop owners, like Ballantine, chose to blend the spirits together to achieve a more appealing flavor profile. By 1836, approximately 10 years after opening his store, Ballantine had honed in on his blending practices, and was hand-selecting malts to add to his blends. His whisky operation was so successful that he was forced to open a larger shop in South Bridge to keep up with demand. Furthering the shop’s and the whisky’s successes was the introduction of the “shop and drop” method in 1857, which allowed for customers to place orders and expect free delivery within a 10-mile radius.
As the business continued to grow, Ballantine’s evolved into George Ballantine & Co., a family-owned business with George’s eldest son, Archibald, taking over the Edinburgh shop while the larger operation was established in Glasgow. By the time George retired in 1881, the Scotch was immensely popular and was being exported all over the globe. While Ballantine’s grocery stores are no longer operational, the brand has remained true to its origins; its flagship expression, Ballantine’s Finest, consists of a blend of over 50 single malts.
Queen Victoria was quite the fan of Scotch whisky, having fallen in love with the beverage while on a visit to the Scottish Highlands while on holiday in 1842. Ballantine’s was no exception: In 1895, she even awarded George Ballantine & Co. with a Royal Warrant following a visit to Glasgow, identifying the brand as a trusted supplier to the toyal family. While the brand is no longer a royal warrant holder, it was also beloved by the Lord Lyon King of Arms in the 1930s, which granted the brand its own Heraldic Arms in 1938. The emblem, displayed on every bottle of Ballantine’s whisky, features two horses carrying Scottish flags on either side of a crest depicting the four essential quadrants of whisky production: barley, water, pot stills, and casks. Below each coat of arms is a Latin phrase reading Amicus Humani Generis, or “friend of all mankind.”
Relatively short, squat, and completely rectangular, Ballantine’s first debuted its unusual bottle design during American Prohibition to prevent the bottles from rolling around and clanking together during transport. At the time, many of Ballantine’s salesmen would travel from establishment to establishment with nothing more than a briefcase, sneakily selling the square bottles of illicit alcohol. The bottle design still helps the brand stick out on shelves today.
Ballantine’s Finest became the flagship expression of the Scotch brand in 1910, but in the 124 years since, the brand has added 16 other bottlings to its lineup across four collections. Ballantine’s 7 American Barrel, Ballantine’s 12 Year Old Whisky, and Ballantine’s Barrel Smooth Whisky join the flagship in the Core Collection, and the age-focused Iconic Collection features Scotch expressions ranging from 17 to 40 years old. While the brand is known for its blends, Ballantine’s has produced numerous single-malt expressions, including 12-, 15-, and 18-year bottlings. The Drinks Range is where the brand tends to have a bit more fun, offering a lighter expression of Ballantine’s Finest, bottled at 20 percent ABV, as well as a selection of fruit-flavored Scotches.
In the 1950s, the Ballantine’s Dumbarton warehouses were overseen by Brigadier Ronald Cowan, a civil engineer and avid birdwatcher. Considering whisky’s potential to generate extreme profits, thefts at distilleries aren’t unusual, and those in charge of guarding Ballantine’s stock were looking for ways to protect against potential thieves. Cowan, drawing on his ornithology knowledge, told managing director Tom Scott that geese have excellent hearing and eyesight, and tend to be extremely territorial, loudly honking when they feel threatened. The birds would also be cheaper than guard dogs, considering their diet of mainly grasses would make it easy for them to feed on the greenery surrounding the warehouse. So, in 1959, six white geese were brought onto the Dumbarton campus, where they earned the nickname the “Scotch Watch.” Over the decades, the Scotch Watch expanded to include over 100 geese with the help of a breeding program developed by the West of Scotland Agricultural College. Though the flock was replaced with CCTV in 2012, the birds remain a beloved part of the brand’s history and have even starred in numerous advertising campaigns.
In 2014, Ballantine’s launched the True Music Series, an initiative that stretches across several categories in the music industry and seeks to create a more welcoming and diverse space for artists and fans. The Scotch brand has partnered with the DJ store Beatport, the Glasgow-based music venue Sub Club, and record label Defected Records to foster grassroots music exploration. Ballantine’s also has a long-established partnership with Boiler Room, a U.K.-based music broadcaster, which has resulted in several live events intended to celebrate underground music scenes and stories from around the world. In 2021, Ballantine’s launched the True Music Fund after watching numerous live music venues shutter their doors following the pandemic. Every year, 100,000 pounds is donated to 10 organizations around the world that are making serious strides to diversify and shake up the music industry.
The brand also launched the True Music Icons Collection in 2023 to pay homage to some of music’s most iconic artists and bands. In the first release, the Scotch brand celebrated legendary rock band Queen with a limited-edition label of Ballantine’s Finest featuring the crest designed by Freddie Mercury depicted on the band’s Greatest Hits II album cover. A month later, the brand followed it up with its second bottle in the collection, this time paying homage to AC/DC. The bottle design is similarly commemorative, showcasing the band’s archetypal lightning bolt.
Sticking true to its brand ethos of supporting innovators in the music industry, Ballantine’s partnered with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA in July 2023 to celebrate hip-hop’s 50th anniversary through the Stay True campaign. The campaign has produced three collaborations so far across the music, fashion, and food industries. In the first collaboration, Ballantine’s, RZA, and Crosley collaborated to put forth a limited-edition C6 record player and Montero bluetooth speaker, the release of which coincided with the 30th anniversary of Wu-Tang’s first album launch. Drop two saw a collaboration with Japanese fashion brand Neighborhood, which takes inspiration from vintage motorcycle culture, while the third introduced a Ballantine’s-inspired sriracha. This collaboration with Flying Goose takes inspiration from the notes of Ballantine’s 7 American Barrel (creamy caramel, ripe pear, and red apples) and combines them with siracha’s signature spice.