Saturday, February 21, 2009

James Anderson is not The Father of American Whiskey

Here is what happens when a young company tries to look old.

Spencerfield Spirit, a four-year-old company, has gone a long way to link itself to an 18th century Scottish-American distiller in order to promote two novelty scotches from the 1960s and 70s.

In the process, they have created a dubious new historic claim, declaring James Anderson to be "The Father of American Whiskey."

Sorry, not buying it.

What we have here is a perfect example of how history often is corrupted, or at least subverted, for marketing purposes.

Spencerfield Spirit, founded in 2005, has its headquarters in a house, built in 1510, at Spencerfield Farm in Scotland. There was a distillery on the Spencerfield Farm estate as early as 1795 and there were distilleries around there in the 19th and 20th centuries as well. There is no distillery there today and the new Spencerfield company’s products are made elsewhere; many elsewheres, actually, since they are both blends.

James Anderson was born near Inverkeithing, Scotland, in 1745. Spencerfield is also near Inverkeithing. Anderson was a tenant farmer and farm manager who probably did some distilling too. He left the area in 1791, at the age of 46 with a wife and seven children, to escape an economic depression caused by a crash of the Scottish whiskey market. They migrated to Virginia.

The Andersons had their own farm and James also took work as an estate manager. On January 1, 1797, he landed the plum job of George Washington’s plantation boss at Mount Vernon. The farm already produced a lot of grain, so Anderson thought a distillery would be a good way to add value. Washington approved and the distillery was very successful. It recently was reconstructed on the original site and is open to the public.

All of that is well-documented and sound history, but from that Spencerfield has concocted the title for Anderson of "Father of American Whiskey." Presumably, the claim is derived from the honorific, "Father of His Country," that is often applied to Washington.

However, there is nothing in Anderson’s story to suggest that he was the father of anything except his seven offspring. He missed being America’s first distiller by about 150 years. Mount Vernon wasn’t the first distillery in America, it wasn’t even the first to make whiskey, and it wasn’t the first to make any particular kind of whiskey. The only historically supportable claim for the distillery being exceptional is that it may have been among the largest distilleries of its day. Even Spencerfield concedes that it was a distillery very much like the distilleries Anderson would have seen in Inverkeithing.

None of this is intended to belittle James Anderson, whose accomplishments are what they are. It’s just that the only reason anyone knows about James Anderson is because he worked for George Washington, and making whiskey for the father of our country does not make him the father of American whiskey. This is the kind of thing that starts out as seemingly harmless marketing fluff and winds up in history books, at least in badly-researched history books.

The reason for connecting Anderson to Spencerfield in press releases timed to coincide with last week’s President’s Day holiday was to promote Spencerfield’s two blended scotches, Pig Nose and Sheep Dip. They have their own rich history, of being popular in the 60s and 70s but falling out of fashion. They’re both perfectly good whiskeys, but were always sold on the novelty of their names more than anything else.

in 2005, Alex Nicol and Jane Nicol formed Spencerfield Spirit, and secured the rights to the Pig Nose and Sheep Dip names. They got Whyte and Mackay master blender James "The Nose" Patterson, who is promoting a book right now, to recreate the blends for them.

To give their young company some borrowed historical cred, the Nicols linked it to the whiskey heritage of Spencerfield, which had nothing to do with those two whiskeys. This year they are championing James Anderson, a son of Inverkeithing, which gives them a tie-in with Mount Vernon so they have something to market against each President’s Day.

The story has so many great hooks it got picked up everywhere and the press release usually ran verbatim, unlike here. It has a certain artfulness to it except for one thing.

It's not true.

James Anderson is not The Father of American Whiskey.


Davin de Kergommeaux said...

So much of today's whisky 'tradition' and history began with just such fanciful pap. And yes, as you suggest, it soon finds its way into poorly-researched books which are then quoted and re-quoted in new, cut-and-paste iterations. Good on you for telling it like it is, now.
By the way, do the new Pig's Nose and Sheep Dip have any connection to the old, other than the name?

Chuck Cowdery said...

They have made a good effort to duplicate the taste of the originals and clearly they acquired the rights from the previous owner, but if the Nicols had some previous connection to the brands, I don't know about it.

Unknown said...

Hey Chuck, I'm interested in finding out more about James Anderson. Not much out there. Appreciate it if you could point me in the direction of Anderson info. Also, do you know what were the factors that contributed to the Scottish whisky market collapse in 1771? Thanks!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Mount Vernon is your best source for information about Anderson. The history of scotch is not my field, but I know there are many books that cover it. If I had to guess about 1771, I would guess over-production.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Chuck. I am going to look into the 1791 Scottish crash and will let you know what I find out. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

James Anderson being called the father of American Whisky is a title of endearment no different than that of George Washington. Neither were the father of nothing more than their children. The Anderson family has been in the whiskey business for more than 10 generations.