On the 23rd March 1923, an important piece of Berry's history was made.
Seated round a table at lunch discussing whisky were the partners together with James McBey, the well-known Scottish artist. Berrys was already selling their own brands of Scotch Whisky to customers at home, and just a little had been sold before the war to private customers in the U.S.A. There were signs that the disastrous experiment of Prohibition would not last for ever and they now sought a new and different blend for the export trade.
Like his cousin Walter, Francis Berry was an authority on fine Cognac and he supported the suggestion that they should choose a blend made up from only the very finest and most delicate whiskies. It would be bottled at its natural pale colour to avoid the danger of the caramel colouring masking or destroying the gentle and crisp flavour which they enjoyed so much - but which was far away from the fashionable idea of dark, heavy and oily Scotch whisky.
All the new Scotch whisky blend lacked was a name and a symbol. At the time, the famous clipper ship "Cutty Sark" was much in the news as she had just returned to England after many years trading under the Portuguese flag. McBey, who was a keen sailor, suggested that this would be an admirable name for the new whisky. Appropriate too, for nothing could seem more Scottish, the name being taken from Robert Burns' "Tam O'Shanter" (Cutty Sark means "short shift" or "the abbreviated chemise of a winsome wench").
McBey also volunteered to design the label which remains today almost exactly as he originally drew it, even to the hand-drawn lettering and the use of the correct descriptive word "Scots" rather than the Sassenach's "Scotch". Only the colour of the label is different. McBey had suggested a creamy shade to imply age. The printers, by accident, used a bright yellow so striking in its effect that the partners decided to keep it.
Eighty seven years after it was born in the parlour at 3 St James’s Street, the Cutty Sark brand was sold. For as long as I can remember the familiar yellow label has been part of our identity. Somehow this always seemed to be paradoxical: very few of our UK wine customers automatically associated BB&R with an international whisky blend, but the reality is that the wine division of our business would never have survived, let alone prospered, if it hadn’t been for Uncle Cutty paying the bills for forty years or more.
Cutty Sark itself was a bit of a paradox. It was invented by London wine merchants who rarely drank whisky. They decided it should be pale in colour because the best wood aged spirits – Cognac, for example – did not have to be darkened by caramel to hide their flaws. It was drunk, initially, in Prohibition-bound America, where its pale colour convinced suspicious eyes that tea – or at any rate a weaker dram – was being consumed. For a whisky with such a British heritage (including a royal warrant), it was strangely always an export brand: America initially, especially after Prohibition was lifted, but subsequently markets as diverse as Greece, Japan, and Spain.
Nevertheless, Cutty was a huge success. In the 1970s, it was the largest selling brand in the largest spirits market the world has ever known: blended whisky in the USA. As it declined in America, it spread throughout the world, at one time being sold in over 150 separate countries.