We take it for granted these days that a distillery (in the main) makes a load of whisky, a big chunk of which is sold off to other companies to go into blended whisky (thus providing a healthy revenue stream to keep the distillery open) and then the rest is aged and then finally bottled by the distilling company and released as a single malt. So most of the single malts we find on the shelves are “official” distillery bottles and with some also released by independent whisky companies too. Well back in the day it didn’t quite work the same as that. The concept of distillery own bottling really only began in the late 1960s, spear-headed by companies like Glenlivet. Before that whisky was generally sold in casks to individual wine and spirit merchants and they would bottle it them themselves for resale to the general public. With quality issues of consistency, bottling practices and the question of more unscrupulous merchants diluting or cutting whisky with other spirit you can see why the distilleries wanting to protecting their name this practise was eventually phased out by taking back control of these issues.
Wine and spirit merchants were very common up and down the country between the early 1800s to the mid 1900s and Sheffield was no exception. The 1851 Census lists over 10,000 Wine and Spirit Merchants and Sheffield had its fair share(1). Some would have been a simple retail outlet, much the same as a standard off-licence today (without selling beer), although others would have also been involved in importing, distributing and bottling wine and spirits. Some may have owned small parcels of land or vineyards from where they could import wine. Perhaps this country’s most famous existing example of a Wine and Spirit Merchant from those times is Berry Brothers and Rudd (2)
Right at the beginning of the year we were contacted by a lady called Jean Wright who was the executor of the estate of her friend Joan Galloway who had sadly passed away. Within her possessions was an unopened bottle of Glen Grant whisky which had been found in her drinks cabinet. What made this particular bottle interesting, and one of the reasons she got into contact with us, was that it had been bottled by a Sheffield Wine Merchant called Hay & Son. She was able to provide us a photograph of the bottle and it quite clearly says “Glen Grant Whisky – Pure Highland Malt – Bonded in 1926 – Hay & Son Ltd Sheffield”. Making it a very interesting, very rare and very old bottle of whisky. The 1829 on the label relates to the foundation of Hay & Son. There is no age statement on the bottle or date of bottling but it does say that the whisky was put into bond (stored without requiring to pay duty) so we can assume distilled in 1926.
Hay and Son were a Sheffield Wine and Spirit Merchant that were in business between 1829 and 1970. Although acquiring several locations throughout their history the main business was located at 97-101 Norfolk Street, practically opposite where the Crucible Theatre now stands. Other outlets included one at 274 London Road and operations in Deepcar, at 72 High Street in Eckington and 28 Sheffield Road in Tinsley in 1905 (Whites Directory of Sheffield & Rotherham). They are also listed as having offices at 15 Graeme St in Glasgow in 1905 (3) (Graeme St was off the High St and no longer exists).
Through looking at local Sheffield Archives, history societies and Sheffield Forum we managed to find some stories from people who had worked there as drivers (4) or retailers:
“Hay’s was next door/ or one to a pub called The Brown Bear?? on the right hand side as you looked down Norfolk street towards Pond Street. It is strange I worked there for 6 or so years but can’t remember the street number. Apart from selling wine & spirits we used to do DO’S at the Cutlers Hall.” (5)
Patrick Grubb (6) is a Master of Wine (one of the highest accolades anyone in the wine business can achieve) and was the manager of the chain of shops from 1961 to 1964. He replied:
“Thank you for your unusual enquiry! I had forgotten the dates that I was employed at Hays, but you are correct. We had 20 branches, including one each in Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Hull and Doncaster. The head office in Norfolk Street was above a wine and ale bar, behind which were the cellars where they bottled wine and beer at one time. No spirits while I was there. Among the board members were the Lee family. There was a large car park at the rear, where the Crucible was built later.”
We had a quick picture search and Ebay also brings up some interesting items that are for sale:
An old catalogue of goods.
An enamel advertising plate for Forres Blend. I assume that it was a blend created by Hay & Son, the below picture of an old invoice seems to suggest this. Forres is a small town in Speyside where the Benromach distillery is located, although this does not mean that the whisky in Forres blend would be from Benromach.
And some own label Soda Water. Nice artwork!
An old invoice for some cigars with Hays & Son mast-head. Note the Special Blends of finest Scotch whiskies – “Forres” 11 Year Old and “Red Rover” 7 Year Old.
The later history of Hays & Son is sketchy and only revealed through peoples recollections of the business on Norfolk Street. At some point the business of importing and blending would have no longer been viable and I would assume that the war years, rationing and the heavy bombing of the city would all have affected the business much like any others. Through talking to the people of Sheffield I gather that the Norfolk St site eventually became a fore-runner to the wine bar (not really an ale-house) but a place you could take a lady out when courting. People have reminisced about seeing old invoices, like the one above, used as wall decorations.
The building still stands and at one point housed an art gallery. The building is directly opposite the Coventry Building Society and is occupied by Hays who are a recruitment consultancy business (although they have no relation to Hay & Son – just one of those odd coincidences).
The whisky eventually went to auction at Bonhams on 12th June 2013. It was put in with an estimate of around £600-£800 but sold, on the day, for a very respectable £1250 including Bonham premiums and fees (7).
As to what the contents may be like. We contacted Glen Grant and Marilena at the Visitor Centre was kind enough to ask the General Manager Dennis Malcolm his thoughts:
“There were many independent bottlers who played about with bottling a single cask some 40 plus years ago and he doesn’t have any information about this one. He could not comment on the quality of the contents of the bottle because we had no control over the liquid after it was sold and this is why most whisky producers bottle their own product to make sure that it is what it says on the label and maintain the product quality at all times.”
Glen Grant distillery was founded in 1840 in Rothes in Banffshire by brothers James and John Grant and remained in the Grant family until 1953 when it merged with the Glenlivet distillery. So when this whisky was distilled it would have been under the watchful eye of Major James Grant (son of James Grant who inherited the distillery in 1872 and died in 1931). Interestingly a second Glen Grant distillery was built across the road from the original in 1897, named Glen Grant 2, but was mothballed in 1902. It later was revived in 1965 and renamed Caperdonich surviving until 2002. (8)
Without more research into Glen Grant and Hay & Son and without knowing the back-story of how this bottle came into the possession of Joan Galloway it will be hard to come up with what the liquid inside may be like. However it is worth noting that the invoice pictured above dates from 1911 and advertises the “Forres” and “Red Rover” blends with 11 Year and 7 Year age statements respectively. So even early on Hay & Son were using age statements as a indication of quality. Therefore it would not be out of the question then to assume that the Glen Grant bottle may have possibly undergone a similar range of ageing before being bottled.
(9) A bottle of Red Rover as found on the Whisky Exchange website (not in stock).
My thanks to both Jean and Colin who brought this bottle to our attention and allowing us to write about it and use their photograph too. It would be interesting to find out where the whisky went to and what the current owners plans were for it. However, we have highlighted a little of this bottles particular story and who knows we may be able to add to this article in the future.
(8) Malt Whisky Yearbook – Ingvar Ronde
Photographs of Hay & Son from
Sadly they are only thumbnails as the larger pictures are unavailable to copy and I’m probably infringing Sheffield Council’s copyright by having them on the site anyway.
Photographs of Hay & Son items from eBay and Google Images.