Berry Bros & Rudd: a brand history

28th January, 2020 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

From supplying New York’s underworld to dreaming of distilling its own spirits, the world’s oldest drinks merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd, has come a long way since it was founded in 1698.

*This feature was originally published in the October 2019 issue of The Spirits Business

Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond was not exactly your typical Berry Bros customer. Of those who bought their Port and claret from this venerable wine and spirits merchant at No.3 St James’s St, London, few, if any, had a quashed conviction for one homicide, let alone five. And it’s safe to assume that none met the same fate as Diamond. After a career as a mobster and bootlegger during US Prohibition, he was snuffed out in his silk undies in a New York boarding house in 1931.

Whether he came in person to collect an order for 300 cases of ‘Scotch’ a decade earlier is unclear, but Berry Bros & Rudd’s (BBR) chairman, Lizzy Rudd, says American gangsters did pitch up in search of a lighter style of whisky. They came to St James’s, having been told it was the centre of the drinks trade. Sadly, the details are hazy, for as Ronnie Cox, brands heritage director, spirits, says: “I don’t think any minutes were taken of that particular meeting.”

What is clear is that Francis Berry, one of the three partners, had spotted the pent‐up demand for Scotch on previous trips to the US. In 1923, he, his brother, Walter, and Rudd’s grandfather, Hugh Rudd, cooked up a new whisky called Cutty Sark, named after the last of the great tea clippers. The blend was smoke‐free, without any peated malt, and as pale as Cognac with no spirit caramel added.

The artist James McBey sketched the label; it was meant to be in the company’s typical beige but returned from the printers a bright canary yellow, which looked stunning on its green glass bottle.

DESPERATE FOR MORE WHISKY

Production was left to Glasgow’s Robertson & Baxter, which eventually became the Edrington Group, and Rudd remembers seeing a letter to them written by her grandfather in the 1940s. “It was terribly polite but desperate to have more whisky because we simply couldn’t get enough,” she says. US sales boomed after Prohibition and by 1960 Cutty Sark claimed pole position in what was the world’s biggest whisky market.

How did a small, family‐run business founded in 1698 beat rivals as powerful as Diageo’s predecessor, DCL (Distillers Company Limited)? “Relationships,” declares Rudd. “It was all about building relationships with the right people.” In the US, that meant the Buckingham Corporation, which was established to distribute the brand in 1933 when Prohibition ended. Cutty Sark’s pale colour later caught the wave for lighter spirits in the US.

Pane sailing: the exterior of No.3 St James’s St

By the 1990s it had become a big blend in Spain and Greece, though it barely existed in the UK, where most people believed Berry Bros was simply a wine merchant. As to its importance to the firm, Rudd is adamant. “It was everything. It really was the business,” she says. When sold back to Edrington in 2010, she says her father, John Rudd, himself a long‐standing chairman, told her it was like selling off one of his children. However, “it was absolutely the right decision”, she insists. Competing with the corporate giants was getting ever harder and the value of blended Scotch had imploded. Cox says a bottle cost the average farm worker three days’ pay in 1960 compared with just two hours in 2010.

In return for losing Cutty Sark, BBR gained single malt The Glenrothes, which it had distributed for years, launching it as a ‘vintage malt’ in 1994. The notion that whisky consumers could cope with vintage variations like wine drinkers was radical stuff when the Scotch industry was wedded to absolute consistency. As Johnny Roberts, managing director of BBR’s brands division, says: “Yes, there’s a huge amount of history, heritage and tradition in BBR, but it’s always been an innovative business as well.” Other examples of this include the firm’s early move into gin and its embrace of craft spirits by buying a majority share in its US importer in San Francisco, Hotaling & Co, formerly Anchor Distilling.

BBR sold spirits long before Cutty Sark, and Roberts says: “We believe we may be the oldest independent bottler of Scotch whisky still operating.” Only recently, in a meeting room, Cox unearthed a dusty bottle from around 1858. Its spirit shied clear of mentioning brands, however, with whisky listed in a pre‐First World War catalogue as simply ‘Scottish’ or ‘Irish’, and priced at 36 shillings a case. It cost the same as ‘ordinary champagne’, ‘superior sherry’ and ‘second quality port’, but twice the price of ‘Spanish port – for parish and charitable use only’.

“Our brand was always Berry Bros & Rudd,” says Lizzie Rudd who describes Cutty Sark, and now No.3 Gin, as “offshoots to the parent brand”. The recently repackaged gin, launched in 2010, is now Berry’s top‐selling spirit, and features a key to the parlour, or inner sanctum of No.3 St James’s Street, not that it will actually unlock the door. The recipe took two years to perfect under Dr David Clutton, who possesses the world’s only PhD in gin. In addition are BBR’s own bottlings of spirits and brands such as Penny Blue rum from Mauritius. A new expression, Spice Hunter, is being tested, and aims “to be the boldest spiced rum in the world, with much more of a clove and nutmeg flavour”, says Roberts.

UPMARKET DIVISION

“We’re very much focused on a spirits division that fits better within the overall BBR business,” he continues. Cutty Sark, the brand that kept the firm afloat for so long, last year sailed off to the French group La Martiniquaise‐Bardinet.

Meanwhile, BBR sold The Glenrothes brand back to Edrington in 2017. What remains of its spirits division is a fraction of its former scale, but arguably one that’s better integrated, more niche and upmarket than ever before. And one day it may even include a boutique distillery. “I’d love to do that,” says Rudd. “It would be great fun. It’s definitely an aspiration to go into production of some sort.”

Click though the following pages to see a timeline of Berry Bros & Rudd. 

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