Shady dealings in the whisky underworld

Robert Paterson Pattison and Walter Gilchrist Gray Pattison may sound suspiciously Gilbert & Sullivan but were in fact real life Victorian whisky and scandal merchants. Their Leith based dynasty fronted a murky world of fraud and embezzlement that when discovered, shocked all of Edinburgh and caused a sensation.

The Pattison brothers were whisky distillers and merchants. Their rise to prominence was meteoric; the time it took to build up the business, amass astonishing wealth and then lose it all took all but one decade.

Bartholomew’s relationship with Pattisons could be said to be entirely innocent, even if that innocence constituted supplying them with advertising. The items in this entry were printed by Bartholomew between 1896-97. Pattisons advertising is highly ornate, very intricate and very beautiful and was indeed one of the secrets of their success.

The Pattison family had been in business since 1849 (by admission of their own advertising), initially dealing with dairy products. Both brothers entered the firm and upon the death of their father they assumed control. They could be described as the epitome of entrepreneurship and accordingly jumped aboard the newly buoyant whisky trade right at its late Victorian peak. There is no doubt that this was a shrewd move. Their skill and background in dairy was surprisingly transferable and their mastery of promotion enabled them to cash in on whisky right at the point when the market burst open. The adverts that Bartholomew printed represent a tiny fraction of their tireless, avid and greedy self promotion which perhaps peaked with the (possibly/probably apocryphal) story of the brothers distributing 500 parrots to licensed grocers, all taught to intermittently recant ‘buy Pattisons whisky’. In 1898, it is claimed, they spent £60,000 on advertising alone which equates to roughly £5,000,000 today.

Ought they to have been honest, whilst staggering, their success and excess could be excused as the consequences of insightful business acumen. But they were not honest. The turning point came when the company was floated on the stock market. Shares were sold at highly inflated prices and were also over subscribed. Cooking the books moved from necessity to habit, banks loans offered temporary bailouts but could never be repaid, dishonest dealings saw innocent clients buying the same stock twice over and perhaps worst of all (from a whisky lovers perspective) they tampered with the product. Picture a warehouse with barrels of cheap, imported Irish whisky at a retail price of 11 pence a gallon on one side and a prestige product such as Glenlivet or their Royal Garden brand, which retailed for 8 shillings, 6 pence a gallon on the other. Then imagine passing the Irish off as the Glenlivet. This is in fact exactly what they did, making the brothers a tidy profit of £28,000 (£2,300,000).

They were caught of course and three years later, between 8-17 July 1901, they stood trial at Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary accused of fraud and embezzlement. The prosecutor was the very Solicitor General himself, Scott Dickson Q.C. Of the brothers only Walter took to the stand, perhaps reflected in his more lenient sentence. In a trial which sensationalised the Edinburgh and indeed Scottish press, lengthy accounts of the assorted witnesses follow a similar pattern; there is reluctant yet inevitable condemnation. When the trial was over Robert was sentenced to serve an 18 month jail term, Walter 9 months.

If the whisky trade had remained buoyant Pattisons would probably have survived beyond 1898. They were not only victims of their own greed but also a bigger picture of a declining trade over which they had no control. But the effects were devastating. The collapse of Pattisons reportedly brought down nine other distilleries as well as countless other smaller and ancillary suppliers. Happily, Bartholomew were not reliant on printing whisky labels and paraphernalia otherwise their own story may well have turned out very differently.