Behind the Bottle: Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, having established itself as a brand in the 1920s with the help of an infamous smuggler. Chris Losh investigates the origins of the whisky with the yellow label

Words by Chris Losh

Cutty Sark lead

Few drinks brands make it to 100 years old but Cutty Sark, the whisky with the eye-catching yellow label, is fresh from celebrating its centenary in 2023. Its century in existence is a tale of ambition, criminality, foresight, genius and serendipity in more or less equal measure. Cutty Sark is a curious and distinctive member of the ‘big Scotch blends’ club, made all the more intriguing for its greater fame abroad than in the country where it’s made.

Cutty Sark’s creators always had global ambitions for their whisky and that included cracking the US – whether the latter was in the throes of Prohibition or not – so shortly after its invention, the whisky was heading, illegally, across the Atlantic. The skipper of the ship was the renowned (and infamous) Bill McCoy, who made his name smuggling authentic spirits into a country that was awash with moonshine – he is occasionally cited as the reason for the idiom ‘the real McCoy’, as a result.

McCoy himself was captured in late 1923, less than a year after Cutty Sark was created but by then it had already found favour with thirsty US whisky lovers. Once Prohibition was repealed in 1932, Cutty Sark duly took off: in 1961, Cutty Sark became the first scotch brand to sell 1m cases (12m bottles) in the US.

Cutty Sark ship
The Cutty Sark ship at Greenwich in London

The origins of Cutty Sark

Unusually, the story of Cutty Sark begins not in Scotland but in London, at the exclusive wine merchant Berry Brothers & Rudd in the Georgian magnificence of St James’s Street. The company was best known for its ability to supply fine claret and Burgundy to discerning Londoners but in the early 20th century, the owners decided that they wanted to create their own whisky to cater for the growing trend of scotch as an aperitif.

Stylistically, they wanted to make a whisky that was smooth, light in colour and approachable. Their thinking was simple: a big, powerful flavour profile (particularly if it had a strong peaty character) would linger on the palate of their fine-wine-loving customers and taint the flavour of what they were about to drink with dinner.

The early success in the US helped establish the brand and put it in a position to thrive in the long-term. Simon Berry, Francis Berry’s grandson, has previously suggested that Cutty initially found favour in the States partly because ‘its pale colour convinced suspicious eyes that tea – or at any rate a weaker dram – was being consumed’.

Bill McCoy
Bill McCoy was a prodigious smuggler of alcohol during Prohibition and helped Cutty Sark arrive in the US

What goes into making Cutty Sark?

Cutty Sark is a blended scotch made up of grain whisky (which is lighter in style and colour) and dozens of single malts. The character of these malts defines the mellow, accessible, distinctively pale, and mixable style of the finished whisky.

Berry Bros & Rudd owned Cutty Sark until 2010, when the business was transferred to The Edrington Group and then sold to La Martiniquaise-Bardinet, owner of Glen Moray, in late 2018. The original Cutty Sark whisky remains the core of the brand’s range, with emphasis today placed on its mixability in cocktails as well as its lightness.

The brand launched a cask strength whisky called Prohibition in 2013 as a tribute to Bill McCoy. At 50% abv, it’s not just stronger and darker but is also made from malts with big personalities. It’s a powerful base for punchy cocktails.

Cutty Sark 12 was added to the lineup in 2022 and is a blend of older whiskies (12 years is the minimum) that have been aged in sherry and bourbon casks. It has the highest malt content of the range and is stylistically similar to the standard blend – smooth and mellow – though slightly richer and with a faint hint of peat smoke. An elegant sipper.

Cutty Sark label
Scottish artist James McBey designed the Cutty Sark label

What’s the story behind the name and the design?

When Francis Berry and Hugh Rudd created their whisky in the back room of the shop, they thought it would have a head start if they gave it a familiar name with positive associations. After some deliberation, they settled on the world’s most famous sailboat. Fast and elegant, the Scots-built Cutty Sark was originally designed as a tea clipper. Capable of running from Sydney to London in a little over two months, it was a source of huge national pride.

Slicing through the oceans, sails billowing, the boat was instantly recognisable on the bright yellow label designed by Scottish artist James McBey. In truth, the colour itself was unintentional; the original labels were meant to be cream but a printer’s error meant they came out gold instead. The creators liked the colour and stuck with it, and the label ensures that Cutty Sark remains one of the most distinctive whiskies to see on back bars around the world.

Cutty Sark whisky
A bottle of Cutty Sark photographed on the ship of the same name

Cutty Sark today

Following the release of other limited-edition bottlings over the years, including a 25-year old called Tam O’Shanter and Cutty Sark 33, last September saw the release of the Centenary Edition to celebrate the brand’s 100-year anniversary. A limited release of just 1,435 bottles, it is a blend of whiskies that are at least 23 years old and shows off time in sherry cask with rolling waves of rich chocolate, bitter orange and dried-fruit flavours. The only downside? It’s around £800 a bottle.