Diageo archive in Menstrie is a drinks geek’s dreamland

A woman stands surrounded by shelves full of whisky bottles
Christine McCafferty in Diageo’s ‘liquid library’

By Dave Hunter

For certain drinks enthusiasts  – and whisky enthusiasts in particular – the Diageo Archive is something akin to a cross between the British Museum and Disneyland. 

The facility – located on Diageo’s huge Menstrie site – houses documents, bottlings and other historic artefacts from each of the company’s brands, encompassing everything from century-old advertisements to recent special-edition bottles. 

When you consider that the company’s portfolio includes historic Scottish brands including Johnnie Walker, Talisker, Lagavulin and Bell’s, as well as international names like Smirnoff and Guinness, there’s no shortage of material for a drinks geek to get lost in.

Old books on shelves
In-depth records provide arguably more than just a history of the drinks giant we now know as Diageo; it’s a history of the drinks industry as a whole

In fact, if every item and artefact in the Archive was removed from storage, the resulting mass of material would take up 55 football pitches. 

With such in-depth records the Archive provides arguably more than just a history of the drinks giant we now know as Diageo; it’s a history of the drinks industry as a whole – in Scotland and across the world.

While it’s not open to the general public, the Archive does welcome visitors regularly, from researchers and authors looking to put together a clear picture of a particular brand or drinks category, to bar owners and staff. 

Perhaps most importantly, the Archive functions as an invaluable resource for the company’s marketing and innovation teams as they plan new products and campaigns. 

It’s so important to understand your journey to date.

“We always say it’s so important to understand your journey to date as you start thinking about where you want to take your next footsteps,” head archivist – and self-described ‘history geek’ – Christine McCafferty told SLTN on a recent visit.   

“Is there anything from the past we might want to learn from or bring back for consumers today? And for production innovation – are there any historical hooks that we can lay into? Even pack design, if we look at renovating a product, is there something we wouldn’t want to lose because it’s been so integral to that brand for so long? Or is there something we might want to bring back from the past? All those touchpoints the Archive plays a role in.”

A brightly lit room full of whisky bottles on display
Diageo’s ‘liquid library’

In the building’s stunning ‘liquid library’ – which contains every bottling ever released by the company – you’ll find curiosities like pre-mixed cocktails from the 1920s, as well as weird and wonderful versions of the company’s spirits brands from different markets and at different times. 

“Sometimes if you go back further than living memory there are things that are more relevant to us today than might have been in our parents’ generation,” said Christine. 

“Mixed drinks is a great example of that. In the Victorian era people enjoyed Scotch and soda and highballs and all of that kind of stuff. 

“And then it’s in the 60s and 70s, when malt whisky became a thing, that the snobbery around how you should enjoy Scotch – in your leather armchair in front of a roaring fire, with a drop of water and a sliver of ice – (began), kind of taking all the enjoyment out of it for lots of other people. 

“So it’s great that we’re now celebrating the versatility of Scotch whisky from a drinks point of view, and just allowing people to enjoy it however they want to enjoy it.”

It’s in the Archive’s printed materials that you can really delve into the stories behind familiar names on the back-bar. 

Very old whisky bottles
Ancient bottles from the famed brand

Johnnie Walker is a great example. The earliest item the company has relating to the Scotch staple dates from 1819. It’s a document detailing the sale of the Walker family farm after the death of John Walker’s father. 

A few years later another document is a list of stock from the Walker family’s recently -opened grocery shop in Kilmarnock – including whisky from Islay in addition to rum, brandy, gin and tea. 

A generation after that John’s son, Alexander, would move the company forward with the launch of John Walker & Sons’ Old Highland Whisky and the famous square bottle with slanted label. 

Among the Archive’s treasure trove of artefacts is a letter from Alexander to an agent in Australia, who had the temerity to suggest cutting the price of John Walker & Sons’ whiskies in the face of tough competition from rival brands.

“After various pleasantries he wrote ‘with regard to the different brands of whisky that you mention they may, for a time, detract from the sale of John Walker & Sons, but we are determined to make our whisky, so far as quality is concerned, of such a standard that nothing in the market shall come before it’,” reads Christine. 

“That’s like gold dust for us, finding these quotes from our founders hiding in our documents. 

“It just shows you how important quality was to him, and obviously remains for us today. 

“That commitment really paid off, because his reputation grew really rapidly.”

The earliest reference to ‘Johnnie Walker’ can also be seen in the Archive. 

The original Johnnie Walker 'striding man' illustration
The original Johnnie Walker ‘striding man’ illustration

Though Christine reckoned customers had already been referring to the brand – officially still John Walker & Sons – as Johnnie Walker for a while, it wasn’t until an illustration by famous cartoonist Tom Browne  in 1908 that the brand in its current form coalesced.

The image, of the now famous ‘striding man’, was sketched by Browne along with the message ‘Johnnie Walker. Born 1820. Still going strong’. 

Shortly afterwards, the brand officially became Johnnie Walker, with the Old Highland whiskies also renamed in line with what had become their popular nicknames: White, Red and Black labels, respectively. 

While delving back into drinks history is fascinating, the Archive doesn’t stand still. In fact, new items are added every day, from press releases to digital marketing campaigns. 

Today’s news is tomorrow’s history, after all. 

“Keeping it up to date is a challenge,” admitted Christine. 

“We’re constantly raising awareness internally about how important it is not just to have a historical piece but to have a future-proofing piece as well. 

“In Diageo people move roles a lot, so it’s for us to remind them constantly not just to use the Archive as an asset, but also to feed back into it for the people that come behind them.”