Scotch & Mister Sam (Sam Bronfman)
Whisky writer Iain Russell shines a light on Sam Bronfman (Samuel Bronfman, 1891–1971), one of the most successful, influential and (by common consent) foul-mouthed characters to light up the drinks industry in the 20th century.
As President of Distillers Corp-Seagrams Ltd, Sam ruled a vast business empire founded on the manufacture and marketing of spirits. Only latterly did he take his company into the Scotch whisky business but when he did so, he made a huge and lasting impact.
Photographs do not suggest Sam Bronfman was an imposing personality. Short, balding and bespectacled, he has the aspect of a nondescript, mild-mannered accountant. He was indeed a shy man, capable of acts of great kindness and a generous supporter of good causes. But he had a ruthless business streak and a fierce temper.
He was notoriously prone to fly into rages, spitting obscenities at the object of his wrath – even if that might be a long-term friend or a loyal company executive. This rough edge was probably acquired during his early years in business in Canada.
Sam and his three brothers began as tavern-owners and spirits dealers in the early 1900s. Their big opportunity came in 1920, when Prohibition was introduced in the USA and the Bronfmans began to supply ‘importers’ who smuggled booze across the border. Their first products were hardly sophisticated – historian Peter C Newman claimed that “they reduced the sixty-five overproof white alcohol to required bottling strength by mixing it with water, then adding some real Scotch plus a dash of burnt sugar (caramel) for colouring.” It was then bottled with a variety of Scotch-like labels under names such as Glenlevitt and Johnny Walker [sic]. In 1926, however, they built their first distillery, at La Salle near Montreal and began to produce higher quality products.
The Bronfmans bought much of their imported whisky from Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) the forerunner of Diageo. In 1927, DCL invested heavily in the Canadian company, which became Distillers Corporation-Seagrams Ltd in 1928.
DCL held a controlling interest but left the day-to-day management of the business to their partners. Sam appears to have been the brother responsible for negotiating with established and potential customers, spending a lot of his time in the USA.
Sam would later point out that Seagram was never directly involved in smuggling – the company simply supplied customers in Canada, and later in other countries in North America and the Caribbean, with whisky, rum, gin and other products. But those customers shipped the Bronfmans’ products across the border in huge quantities: Newman estimates that “about half the liquor that poured into the United States during the Prohibition years originated with them.”
There were a number of well-publicised run-ins with Canadian law enforcement and revenue agencies. And Daniel Okrent, in his definitive history of the Prohibition era, tells of the American consul-general in Montreal, pressing the US authorities in 1934 to bring smuggling charges against the Bronfmans: the official believed a conviction “would constitute a moral and psychological triumph similar to the capture of [the notorious gangster, Al] Capone...” and would “remove from active hostilities the fertile brain and evil genius of Sam and [his brother] Alan Bronfman”.
Although they were never convicted of wrong-doing, the Bronfmans would forever be associated with the criminality of the era.
As the end of Prohibition loomed, DCL’s interest in doing business with the Bronfmans cooled: they sold their stake in Seagram back to the family in 1933. The brothers, with their network of distributor contacts in the USA and a stockpile of aged whiskies, were undaunted and Seagram quickly became established as one of the ‘Big Four’ companies supplying the American market. While brands like the Canadian whisky Seagram’s VO and the American whiskey 7 Crown became best-sellers, however, there was a gaping hole in their brand portfolio – Seagram did not have a prestigious Scotch. Sam, who had become the driving force behind the business and was appointed President of Seagram in 1933, was determined to fill the gap.
One of Sam’s greatest motivations was to make drinking ‘respectable’ in North America. The image of spirits had been tarnished by association with gangsterism and the rough-tasting (if not downright dangerous) hooch which flooded the US market during Prohibition.
To that end, Sam Bronfman set high quality standards for his products, insisting on using only well-matured spirits in his blends. “Dignity,” remembered his son Edgar, “was necessary to wash away the stain of that [Prohibition] era”. Long before the emergence of responsible drinking groups such as the Portman Group, he also advertised consistently and frequently that Seagram whiskies and other products should be enjoyed responsibly.
Sam’s encounters with the directors of DCL had impressed him in two ways. Scotch whisky was a reputable business in the UK, and he loved the aura of heritage, sophistication and club-ability communicated in Scotch advertising. But he was also impressed by the way that Scotch whisky leaders, especially those involved in DCL, were accepted into the British ‘Establishment’. Sam, so sure of himself in business, was acutely aware that there were many who looked down on him because of his former business associations. He also felt snubbed by Montreal’s business and political elite because he was Jewish.
Getting involved in Scotch would give him an introduction to the great and the good in the UK and, he hoped, the possibility of a knighthood.
There was one more important motivation for Sam’s decision to create his own Scotch brand. A highly competitive individual, he took it almost personally when a competitor outwitted Seagram, or outsold a Seagram brand. It irked him that his rival Harry Hatch of Hiram Walker-Gooderham Worts made such as success of Canadian Club and the Ballantine’s Scotch brand in the USA. He did not like to see his sworn enemy Lew Rosenstiel of Schenley’s win the distribution contract for Dewar’s. And he was determined to take on DCL, the company that had snubbed Seagram, and show them that he could ‘do’ a traditional, premium, big-selling Scotch brand without them.
Jimmy Barclay, a well-connected Scottish whisky broker and entrepreneur who Sam Bronfman met in the USA during Prohibition, was engaged to manage a long-term acquisition policy in Scotland. In 1934, Barclay acquired one of his former companies, Robert Brown Ltd, for Seagram. The business came with stocks of old whiskies and a brand name, Four Crowns, that Sam was keen should not fall into the hands of his competitors. Barclay continued to buy up old stock thereafter (much of it, also, from companies he owned!), salting it away in warehouses around the country. Sam was willing to bide his time…
Stocks of mature Scotch whiskies were depleted during the Second World War, and premium Scotch brands such as Ballantine’s and Johnnie Walker were forced to remove age statements from their labels for several years. Barclay, however, had continued building the Seagram stockpile, and in 1949 he took the next step.
Acting for Seagram, Barclay acquired the business of Chivas Brothers, an Aberdeen grocery and whisky bottling business with several low-volume but respected brands of vatted (today we would call them blended) malts. One of those brands was Chivas Regal, with a label that was dripping in ‘olde worlde’ Scotch heritage. Chivas also held a Royal Warrant, as supplier of whisky to King George VI, to add ‘class’ to the brand. Barclay followed up the acquisition in 1950 when he purchased the small Strathisla Distillery in Banffshire, to provide future single malt fillings for Sam’s new venture.
Charlie Julian, a London-based blender who had created the hugely successful J&B, was employed to create the new Chivas Regal blend. Working in the boardroom at Robert Brown Ltd’s office in Glasgow, he came up with a rich and elegant spirit, with a mix of 65 per cent single malts and 35 per cent grain whisky. Back in Montreal, Sam himself led the team modify the new packaging and plot an advertising campaign.
Chivas Regal was launched in a blaze of publicity in the USA in 1951. The brand was proclaimed Scotland’s ‘Prince of Whiskies.’ Advertising featured depictions of Robert the Bruce, the 14th century King of Scots and Aberdeen’s great benefactor, along with medieval castles, tapestries and other idealised Scottish heritage cues.
But it was the 12 years old age statement that caused most of a stir among American drinkers. Seagram rammed home the point that older whiskies were scarce and to be treasured, by deliberately holding back stock from distributors and thereby fuelling demand.
Brand communications stressed that customers should be happy to pay a little extra for Chivas Regal than they might fork out for a rival brand – and at $8 a bottle, Chivas was up to $3.50 more expensive than a regular Scotch.
Even before Chivas Regal started to make an impact in the USA, Sam had embarked on the creation of an even more expensive Scotch brand. An ardent Royalist, he had launched the Crown Royal blend in 1939 to mark the visit of King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth to Canada in 1939. In 1953 he was delighted to be invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace and to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey in 1953, and he celebrated with the creation of a very special Scotch.
Learning of the tradition that reserved a 21-gun salute for the British Royal Family, Sam instructed his team in Scotland to create a new whisky to mark the coronation of the young queen. It was to be a blend of whiskies all at least 21 years old, and named Royal Salute. Jimmy Lang, a young assistant in the blending room at the time, remembered that it proved impossible to obtain supplies of suitably aged grain whiskies, and so the original recipe was restricted to a blend of single malts.
Like Crown Royal, Royal Salute was presented in a luxurious velvet pouch. If it was intended to impress the Royal Household then it seems to have succeeded: in 1956 Sam obtained the renewal of the Royal Warrants he wanted, when Chivas Brothers were appointed Purveyors of Whisky and Provisions to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Provision Merchants to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. However, he never did get offered the knighthood he craved.
By 1962 Chivas Regal was selling 135,000 cases per annum in the USA and was hugely profitable. However, like many other established brands, its success was threatened by a change in American tastes in liquor.
There was a reaction against the fuller flavours of Scotch and dark rums, as younger drinkers switched to lighter drinks like vodka and white rums. Scotches blended to appeal to this new generation of drinkers, such as J&B and Cutty Sark, stole market share from the established brands.
There was another issue. At the dawn of the 1960s, the Chivas proposition was, frankly (and in some ways quite literally) dull. The label and imagery were staid and boring. The adverts were ponderous and too overtly snobbish at the dawn of the ‘Swinging Sixties.’ Sam, born in the 19th century, was slow to react. His son and heir-apparent Edgar – just 30 years old and more in tune with the cultural shifts of the new era – pushed him to accept a radical re-imagining of the brand, both inside and outside the bottle.
With the grudging approval of his father, Edgar changed the recipe from its 65:35 per cent malt/grain recipe to a lighter mix (believed to be approximately 40:60). Sam took overall charge of the repackaging project: the bottle shape remained but the green glass was replaced by clear flint; the dark label ‘brightened’ and de-cluttered, and a distinctive silver embossed carton was created, adorned with heraldic-like images inspired by Scottish history. To complete the ‘modernisation’ of the brand, Edgar engaged a new advertising agency, DBB, and their humorous, sassy adverts placed in fashionable magazines like The New Yorker struck a chord with the new generation of affluent Americans.
Edgar took ever-greater control of Seagram during the 1960s, but Sam continued to make his presence felt in Scotland. He was heavily involved in the design of a new distillery, Glen Keith, near Strathisla, which began production in 1958 and provided supplies of single malt so vital for the launch of two new standard brands, 100 Pipers and Passport, in the 1960s. And he was able to establish Chivas as a major player on the Scotch landscape with the opening in 1964 of the new Chivas Brothers headquarters at Paisley, near Glasgow – Scotland’s biggest whisky plant, with extensive office accommodation along with blending and bottling facilities, warehouses and a cooperage.
The construction of the plant was not without its difficulties, especially for the architects Lothian Barclay, Jarvis and Boys.
Sam was adamant that he wanted the main building to be built in the style of a medieval castle. The architects pointed out, quite reasonably, that a traditional fortress had no windows – just arrow slits – and would be quite unsuited to the practical business needs of employees in the 20th century. A compromise was reached by persuading him to accept another classical Scottish influence and the building was modelled instead on a grand country house in the style of Scottish architect Robert Adam.
Sam was able to get his way with one medieval feature in Paisley. Queen Elizabeth II had recently unveiled a statue of Scottish hero King Robert the Bruce at the site of the famous Battle of Bannockburn. Sam commissioned a smaller replica by the sculptor Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson to stand at the front of his new administration block, as a permanent reminder of his vision of Chivas Regal as the Prince of Whiskies.
Sam took less of a hands-on role at Seagram in the later 1960s, even in those areas which had been his strongest suit. His son Edgar noted that “Father’s packaging concepts became increasingly anachronistic. The same was true for advertising.” By the time his father died in 1971, Edgar was effectively running the business and slipped easily into the role of President.
Much has changed since Sam died. Indeed, Chivas Regal is no longer a Seagram brand – the company sold all its alcohol businesses, controversially, in 2000, and Chivas Brothers was acquired by the French multinational, Pernod Ricard. The company recently decided to quite the former HQ in Paisley to concentrate operations some miles away, at Kilmalid in Dunbartonshire. But Sam’s contribution to the story of Scotch whisky is a vital one. Setting aside all the controversies of the period, Sam and his brothers helped to maintain Scotch whisky in the consciousness of American drinkers during Prohibition. After the War, he showed just what could be achieved with extensive advertising and promotion, in an era when the Scotch whisky industry was arguably slow to adopt to modern marketing tools for brand building. And the small Aberdeen firm he bought in 1949 has grown to become one of the handful of Scotch whisky companies which dominate the market today.