Did You Know?
- Drambuie - An Dram Buidheach - The Drink That Satisfies
Drambuie is a golden liqueur based on the finest Scotch malt whisky, sweetened with a hint of heather honey and flavoured with herbs, prepared from a legendary secret recipe.
Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward the sailors cry,
Carry the lad that's born to be king,
Over the sea to Skye "
This feature on the history of Drambuie, from its origins to the present day, was written by guest writer Vivien Devlin.
The isle of Skye is rich in its own individual Scottish history, legends, myth and magic - none more so than the romantic tale of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the rebel with a cause, whose life was protected by the young Flora Macdonald, the young lady who rowed him to safety, immortalised in the Skye Boat song. Members of the MacKinnon clan too were to be part of the story in helping the Prince escape the enemy. His gift in gratitude of their support was a precious recipe which has been passed down through several generations of the MacKinnon family and today this honey-sweet golden drink is still enjoyed by millions across the world.
250 years on, Drambuie is a brand name as famous and distinctive as Mercedes-Benz or Gucci. Click on to an internet search engine today and there are over 18,000 references to stories and features, recipes and reviews. There's a world of Drambuie out there, with links in all languages including Russian, Greek and Japanese sites. It's not simply an after-dinner liqueur. Try Drambuie on Ice, a Rusty Nail cocktail or make Drambuie ice-cream; send a Yahoo Drambuie greetings card, enter the Drambuie ice golf championships, or watch the power-boat races in Florida and around Britain.
Prince Charles Edward's liqueur today is big business and smoothly blends together both a classic image of Scottish Highland tradition together with an international image of contemporary style and sophistication.
The story of the creation of a yellow drink from the original family recipe on the isle of Skye in 1745 to its global popularity today is a rich and romantic tale. This is a shortened version of that extraordinary journey.
The Gift of the Prince
The Jacobite rebellion began in earnest in 1715, the year after George I, a Protestant, was proclaimed King of Great Britain. Thousands of opponents across the nation supported the succession of the Scottish Stuart dynasty under James Francis Edward Stewart (the "Old Pretender"), a Catholic, whose father, KIng James VII, had been ousted and sent into exile. News of his baby son, Prince Charles Edward, born in Rome in 1720 brought renewed hope and strength to their cause; as a young boy he must have quickly appreciated the importance of his role in claiming his family's right to the throne.
In July 1745, aged just 25 years old, Bonnie Prince Charlie, as he became known, arrived in Scotland on the island of Eriskay, ready for battle. He soon gathered together his Jacobite Army of supporters, which included the clan Chieftain Iain Dubh MacKinnon who marched from Skye with several hundred clan members, to offer his sword to the Prince. The army progressed slowly towards England with King George's army under the Duke of Cumberland advancing towards them. Reinforcements from England, Wales, and France had failed to join the Jacobites and they were forced to retreat. Back in Scotland it was now the heart of the winter with atrocious conditions as they prepared for the battle of Falkirk in which, like all the other battles in the campaign to date, the Jacobites were the victors. The Jacobite Army was then divided into two regiments, one led by Captain John MacKinnon as they travelled north. Meanwhile the government troops were raising their own support for a final and bloody confrontation at Culloden, in April 1746. Charlie's dream of heroic victory was shattered.
A ransom of £30,000 (the value of £15 million today) was offered for the capture of the young Prince. He travelled to the isle of Uist where he was given sanctuary in the Jacobite home of Flora Macdonald for a while, before sailing over the sea to Skye. As a wanted man he had to keep moving with the assistance of his loyal supporters. Captain Malcolm Macleod led Charles to the south of the island to Elgol and the home of his sister who was married to Captain John MacKinnon, of the clan who had, as we've heard, shown staunch allegiance to the Jacobite cause. With other members of his family, John MacKinnon rowed the Prince across the Sound of Sleat to Mallaig only to find themselves in enemy territory with a camp of government troops.
It was a close escape from capture, so now heading south Charles was taken to the home of Angus Macdonald of Borrodale, who ensured him safety and protection. John McKinnon's role in royal protection was now over but not without receiving heartfelt gratitude from the Prince. As a man on the run, who had lost all possessions, he had nothing to offer Mackinnon as a farewell gift except the precious recipe for his personal "eau de vie" liqueur.
John then returned to Skye where he and Iain Dubh, clan chieftain as well as Flora Macdonald and other Jacobite loyalists were finally arrested, taken to London and imprisoned to await trial. Two years later they were released and returned home, only to find that a great deal of the land and property belonging to the MacKinnon clan had been forfeited with other members of the family having fled the island. Meanwhile Bonnie Prince Charlie, knowing his fight for the crown was over, had taken the decision to flee to France, never to return home.
The gift of the Prince was preserved by the MacKinnon family, who concocted variations of the ancient recipe - which became known locally on Skye as "dram buidhe", the yellow drink, or "an Dram Buidheach", meaning the drink that satisfies. This is the origin of the Drambuie Liqueur we know across the world today.
Fact or Fantasy?
It is a certainly an heroic tale but how do we know that the story of the Captain and Prince's friendship and the nature of his parting gift is not just the stuff of a romantic and family legend? Extensive and painstaking research has been carried out by Robin Nicholson, the curator of the Drambuie Liqueur Company Limited, into the MacKinnon clan and family archives, Jacobite manuscripts, the life of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, and the history of whisky and liqueurs. While in the 18th century history was passed on by the traditional oral tradition of stories around the fireside and word of mouth accounts, there is a great deal of factual written information to support the events.
- Captain John MacKinnon was interviewed by the Reverend Forbes who recorded in detail the story of the friendship with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the adventures they shared during the Jacobite Rebellion through to the final escape from Skye to the mainland. The three volume account entitled The Lyon in Mourning was published in 1859.
- There is accurate proof of the popularity of liqueurs as a digestif, an after-dinner drink based on spirits flavoured with herbs, spices and sugar across Europe, especially the Royal courts. Prince Charles brought up in Italy and France would have developed a taste for such sweetened and flavoured liqueurs as a young man.
- Many witnesses in Scotland saw the Prince take a small bottle from which he would take a few drops during the day. This was his personal eau de vie mixture, often used for medicinal purposes. He was also seen to carry a bottle of whisky on his belt before he set off on his travels in Skye. Prince Charles's personal medicine cabinet from Culloden is now preserved at the Royal College of Physicians. This contains a collection of small bottles, essences, tinctures together with recipes and measuring scales.
- Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited Skye during their tour of Scotland in 1773 and visited Lachlan MacKinnon, who was more than generous with his hospitality. Boswell wrote in his journals of the drams he drank until the wee sma` hours. From his description it seems that he had been enjoying the family recipe for "dram buidhe", yellow dram, the colour denoting the addition of saffron to the mixture of whisky and herbs to give it a rich golden colour.
- More conclusive proof to the story comes a century later when in the 1870s, John Ross, the owner of the Broadford Inn on Skye persuaded the MacKinnons to make up large quantities of their family liqueur and sell it to his customers. By this time it was a well known local drink, produced for family use. Twenty years later in 1893 John Ross's son, James, recognising the popularity and unique quality of the Isle of Skye liqueur, was far-sighted enough to patent the name Drambuie as a trademark name.
A Family Passion
Just a few years later Malcolm MacKinnon decided to leave Skye to seek his fortune in the metropolis of Edinburgh. He arrived in 1900, the start of the century, an auspicious time to begin a new career in the wine and spirit trade with W. MacBeth & son. Malcolm worked very hard and within a few years became a partner in the business, keen to expand sales to the whisky market. A chance encounter at the church he attended was going to assist him greatly in his ambition and change his life forever. Eleanor Ross, the widow of James Ross had also moved to Edinburgh after her husband's death. She still had the recipe for Drambuie and Malcolm realised this would be the perfect opportunity to market the liqueur commercially. She agreed to pass over the patented trademark to the Macbeth company.
The first bottles of Drambuie went on sale in 1909, the very year when the Prime Minister Lloyd George decided to increase the excise duty on whisky with another tax directed on the distilleries. The first year was disastrous for Macbeths. But Malcolm, with a true MacKinnon strength and passion in his blood, was determined to ride the storm. Whisky sales were falling and prices escalating yet he decided to buy out Macbeths and go it alone.
In 1914 The Drambuie Liqueur Company was established. For the next 30 years he managed the business with an astute managerial and marketing eye for success. The company had to endure two World Wars, prohibition of alcohol in the United States and fluctuating prices of Scotch Whisky. Malcolm did not have to struggle entirely alone for by his side was his wife Gina, whom he married in 1915 and she became personally involved in the production of Drambuie. The intricate recipe required the careful collection and preparation of herbs and spices which she oversaw and this tradition continues to this day. The recipe is passed down the female side of the family with the matriarch only allowed to prepare the secret mixture.
The company thrived during the 1920s, when Gina's three brothers joined the company to assist in the management, the development of the export business and advertising. Sales in America grew and the company were able to move to more prestigious and spacious offices in Edinburgh's 18th century New Town. And so the name Drambuie became recognised and, more importantly, requested throughout the world.
Perhaps because of the hard struggle to develop the business during tough times, Malcolm died prematurely young in 1945, aged just 62. Gina and her brothers were there to try and fill his place. The next generation too was waiting in the wings, Gina and Malcolm's son, Norman, now aged 21. Over the next twenty years the family firm flourished, with Gina as chairman of the company and an international ambassador for Drambuie.
According to the company historian, Robin Nicholson -"Apparently inexhaustible, Gina MacKinnon travelled constantly, speaking at dinners, on radio even television. Inevitably, she went down a storm in North America. With her snow white hair and sharp bright eyes she was the "canny Scots Granny" with the $2 million secret".
Gina was awarded an OBE for export achievements in 1964.
Norman MacKinnon now Managing Director, continued to pursue the marketing of Drambuie during an era of changing fashions and contemporary popular culture. With his wife Mary, they had two sons, Calum and Duncan - the next in Iine for succession to take over the family firm.
The family passion to maintain the Drambuie company in private hands is a remarkable achievement in the present day of corporate takeovers. Tradition continues to this day down the matriarchal line. Following the death of Norman in 1989, Mary became chairman and in charge of the secret family recipe, now also passed on to Calum's wife Pamela.
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