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Marks of Distinction

Setting the course: WWI and The Macallan’s refusal to compromise

E600CA23-A5CF-4F30-BC0F-7E8B830451E0@2x Nov 09 2018 · 4 min read

We make difficult choices every day; there is always a trade-off and pressure to compromise. However, when a greater purpose and vision is behind those decisions it can make certain sacrifices necessary - and worth making. It is this kind of endurance and determination that breeds longevity and strengthens character, and positions you for future challenges.

After the outbreak of WWI in 1914, the entire nation began to experience struggle and hardship on a scale that hadn’t been seen in the modern era. Companies were shutting down for lack of manpower due to the armed forces and factories focusing on the war effort, restrictions on sale of alcohol and increasing duties. The disrupted supply chains meant that there was immense pressure to compromise on the quality of products being manufactured.

At the helm of The Macallan during this time was Dr. Alexander Harbinson, a Trustee and then Managing Partner of the Kemp Trust. This was an organization established to safeguard the family’s investment in the business after the death of Roderick Kemp, the proprietor of The Macallan from 1892 to 1909. It was Kemp’s uncompromising leadership that instilled a spirit of excellence and perseverance which set the standard for the difficult time that followed, and is integral to our brand today.

Portrait of Kemp historical leader of The Macallan
Historic Image in Black and White of The Macallan Distillery and Landscape

Keeping the Standard

The Trust’s correspondence during the turbulent times throughout WW1 reflects a steadfast refusal to compromise in any area of the business (including the ingredients of the whisky) despite the very real – and understandable – pressure to cut corners. Despite sourcing difficulties, Harbinson checked the condition of the casks every week in the warehouses to ensure that standards were being met, and if there was an issue with the quality of the wood it was immediately addressed. Not a man to mince his words, in one letter he called out a supplier on the inferior quality of the barley delivered, stating to the partner that:

[Our] brewer’s report at the time was ‘Sour nasty smell, and not at all a nice sample’. It is now very evident - when it is being malted - that the barley is very bad indeed, and must affect the quality of our whisky injuriously.

The brewer struggled to get the barley to germinate – an essential process in creating a new-make spirit – and ultimately only 50 per cent sprung to life. This is an unacceptable level, particularly when it was purchased at a price based on a much higher quality sample. Harbinson then courteously and emphatically requested a refund.

In 1916 with no end of the war in sight, finding enough able-bodied workers to ensure a consistent running of the business was a very real obstacle.

Despite the loss of a cooper – impacting on the repairing of casks, the Trust insisted on continuing with the business as usual despite the reduction in output:

So many of our men have joined the forces that our staff is very depleted at present, and it will, I fear, be difficult to replace those who have gone. However, we fully intend to work if it is at all possible. Our output will be smaller than the usual owing to the 30 per cent reduction, and also to the 5 years average affecting us unfavorably.

In other, more touching, correspondence Harbinson mourns the loss of so many to the war, and expresses hope that hostilities will come to and end soon. He did what he could to maintain strong relations with the company’s clients, expressing regret when he was unable to fill orders and recommending other sources when he himself was unable to supply a certain bottle of old Macallan.

Macallan farming on the speyside estate in Scotland

It isn’t always easy to keep a standard, especially when forces out of your control create pressure to compromise. Closing down operations for a time, or working with less than optimum ingredients would have been fully understandable under the circumstances. Yet the Trust made the decision to maintain a standard of operations despite the challenges and sacrifice involved, and it is this refusal to compromise that has helped make The Macallan the inimitable brand and peerless spirit it is known as today.

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