For the favoured few Tom Bruce-Gardyne speaks to Alastair Eadie, great-grandson of James Eadie.

If the Scots have earned a certain reputation for their whiskies, it is partly because they had so long to perfect the art of brewing beer. That you cannot have one without the other becomes obvious on any distillery tour as you move from the beery fumes of fermentation to the sweet scent of distillation. The bond between the two is exemplified in the tale of James Eadie. Born in the Perthshire village of Blackford in 1827, he was first and foremost a brewer, but he certainly knew a thing or two about whisky.

Alastair Eadie and Rupert Patrick (CEO) share some James Eadie whisky
Alastair Eadie and Rupert Patrick (CEO) share some James Eadie whisky

His great grandson, Alastair Eadie takes up the story: "To my knowledge Blackford was the original place beer was brewed in Scotland, and there's evidence that one of the kings, after his coronation at Scone, stopped here to buy a cask of Blackford ale on his way home." The king was said to be James IV, which means it happened six years before the first ever mention of acqua vita in the Exchequer Roll of 1494. This 'water of life', or uisge beatha in Gaelic, evolved into uiskie and eventually whisky.

The quality of water from the nearby Ochil hills attracted first brewers, then distillers and most recently Highland Spring to settle here. "In a way Blackford was to Scotland what Burton was to England," says Alastair, referring to the great brewing capital of Burton-on-Trent where James Eadie made his name. The family had a brewery or two in Blackford and his father had some connection with a distillery that may not have been strictly legal in the nearby village of Dunning. However the family's main business was that of operating the stagecoach from Stirling to Perth, with the young James who was one of fourteen children acting as postilion and steering the coach.

"On one occasion when Queen Victoria and Lord Palmerston (the then prime minister) were visiting Scotland, her postilion was taken ill," Alastair continues. "My great grand-father was roped in to fit the bill, and apparently he enlisted great cheers by the way he negotiated the entrance to Drummond Castle. Funnily enough I still have his postilion's waistcoat at home. It's absolutely tiny!"

That same year James Eadie left the village school to join his uncle, a tea broker and blender in Fazeley, near Tamworth, Staffordshire. At the tender age of fourteen, he had taken what became a well-worn path to the South. In time a stampede of whisky barons would follow in his wake, including Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan and the descendants of Johnnie Walker. As JM Barrie of Peter Pan fame, later quipped: 'there are few more impressive sights than a Scotsman on the make'. The Walker family were said to have learnt how to blend whisky from years of blending tea in their grocery store in Kilmarnock. If so, it may also have been true of James Eadie and his blended whiskies. Although it has to be said these were very much a side-line and not quite in the same league as Johnnie Walker Red and Black Label in terms of global recognition.

"To hell with this. Why don't I make beer myself?"

As well as broking tea, he began supplying malt to the local breweries, as Alastair explains: "Having worked for his uncle for a while, he said 'well, to hell with this. Why don't I make beer myself?'" So, in 1854, aged just 27, he leased land on Cross Street in Burton-on-Trent and built the James Eadie Brewery. "It was very much where the dynasty all started," says his great grandson. The principal beer, an India Pale Ale, was in great demand for its brisk, well-hopped flavours, which cut through the dust and grime of working in the local coalmines and the iron foundries of the Black Country.

"The brewery flourished, and Eadie's claim they were the first people to start the tied-house system," says Alastair. "They had fifty to sixty pubs in Middlesbrough and probably as many in and around Burton." In a James Eadie pub you could have any beer, so long as it was Eadie's, though this was no real hardship reckoned the great Victorian drinks writer, Alfred Barnard. In his 'Noted Breweries of Great Britain & Ireland' he explained how, "Mr Eadie set himself in earnest to acquire the necessary skill… [which] resulted in his ales obtaining a very high degree of excellence." And that from starting out with just two men and doing everything done by hand including grinding the malt, he had established "a great business".

On the proceeds he acquired Barrow Hall, a short coach ride from his brewery, and became a notable philanthropist in the area. He may not have been "on the make" at fourteen, but he had certainly "made it" by the time he returned to Scotland to buy the Glenrinnes estate on Speyside in 1897. On his brewery visit eight years before, Barnard wrote of a private room where "a 'wee drappie' of Mr. Eadie's own blend of Scotch whisky is here dispensed to a favoured few." Barnard made sure he was one of them, and explained how the "ancient Scotch mixture" came from a recipe of Eadie's father.

Over time, sales of the whisky grew from the "favoured few" to anyone drinking in the tied pubs.

Over time, sales of the whisky grew from the "favoured few" to anyone drinking in the tied pubs. "There was also an Eadie Rum, an Eadie Brandy and an Eadie Gin," says Alastair, whose father would have "a whisky every evening when he came home from the brewery, and then he'd drink water. I wish some of us were so virtuous. I remember him saying that he was very concerned the last blend of Eadie's whisky produced was going to last him." At just one dram a night he had little to fear, and was able to leave a couple of cases to his sons in his will.

While the brewery was taken over by Bass in the 1930s, 'James Eadie's Special Old Scotch Whisky' lived on, as did its 'Gleneagles Blend' and "another whisky called VAT something or other," says Alastair. By the 1960s however these names were beginning to fade. The whisky was no longer bottled and what dwindling stocks remained were soon only found in the family drinks cupboard. "I've still got two or three bottles left, but I haven't touched it for years," claims Alastair. "It's very dour, almost black and very peaty." But he is thrilled that his nephew Rupert Patrick is bringing the old whisky back to life. "I think it's a fantastic idea, I really do. When I first heard of Rupert's plans I was so chuffed."