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The Macallan & David Holmes An Introduction

Macallan is one of the most highly regarded whiskies in the world. The Macallan brand has become synonymous with luxury whisky, with rare and collectable bottlings commanding enviable prices on the secondary market.

Macallan’s continuing success is built upon the foundation of creative and distinctive advertising campaigns, promoting high quality luxury whisky through artistic and innovative design. For three decades, talented and quirky art director and advertising agent David Holmes played a key role in Macallan’s branding, marketing and design.

Macallan: A Brief History

Located in Scotland’s Speyside region in close proximity to the river Spey, Macallan was first licenced to Alexander Reid in 1824 as the Elchies distillery. In 1868, James Stuart acquired the Elchies lease and rebuilt the distillery. James Stuart sold Elchies in 1892, to Roderick Kemp who recognised Elchies’ potential and set to modernising the site and increasing malt production. Kemp also renamed the distillery Macallan-Glenlivet (although the Glenlivet suffix would be dropped in 1980).

Following Kemp’s death in 1909, the Roderick Kemp Trust was established to secure the family’s future ownership of Macallan, although the Trust was reformed as a private limited company in 1966. The Kemp family’s ownership of Macallan ended after a takeover in 1996, with Edrington becoming Macallan’s major stakeholder in 1999, alongside minority shareholders William Grant & Sons and Suntory.

Since 1984, Macallan has opted to focus on the growing single malt market and launched the first official Macallan single malt bottling; an 18-year-old matured in ex-sherry casks. Since its takeover in 1999 Edrington has continued to promote Macallan’s growth as a single malt brand, establishing the distillery’s commitment to using ex-sherry casks for maturation as Macallan’s unique selling point.

Alongside the core single malt range, Macallan regularly releases a variety of vintage expressions, luxury bottlings and limited editions including the Macallan 1926 60-Year-Old Vintage attracting attention from whisky enthusiasts, collectors and investors.

David Holmes: A Career History

In a decades-long creative career David Holmes was an artist, illustrator and advertising designer, responsible for the creation of some of the UK’s earliest iconic branding. Born on the 10th September 1933, David Holmes lived in Ealing, West London for much of his life. Between 1947-48, Holmes attended the Ealing Technical College & School of Art studying a foundation course, which included technical drawing, photography, illustration, and wood work. From 1952, Holmes completed two years National Service with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, before joining a series of advertising agencies including WS Crawfords and The KMP Partnership. 

In the 1960’s, whilst working at KMP, David Holmes gained his first experience in whisky brand advertising as one of the art directors on the White Horse whisky campaign. Holmes’ early advertising accounts included campaigns for Shell Petrol, The Salvation Army and Conservative Central Office. By 1973, Holmes had joined The Television Department agency, when he and creative partner Nick Salaman were approached by Peter Shiach of Macallan, beginning a three decade-long creative partnership with the distillery. 

In 1975, Holmes established his own agency, David Holmes & Partners, before jointly founding Holmes Knight Ritchie in 1977. Amidst continuing work with Macallan and the Salvation Army, Holmes collaborated with eminent photographers and artists, including David Bailey and Peter Blake. Continuing to work on commissions at his London studio into his eighties, Holmes created the Royal Mail Christmas postage stamps for 2015, and released an autobiography of his life and work, A Brush with the Music of Time, in 2017. David Holmes passed away on the 29th September 2018. 

David Holmes and Macallan: Three Decades of Creativity

In the late 1960’s, Peter Shiach, the chairman of Macallan began to establish the foundations to shift Macallan’s focus from the production of malt for blending, to establishing a single malt brand; a strategy which heralded the start of David Holmes involvement with Macallan.

Shiach approached creative partners David Holmes and Nick Salaman in 1973, to design a brochure to attract national and overseas distributors for the future Macallan brand. The result was The Remarkable History of The Macallan-Glenlivet, designed by Holmes to resemble a classic leather-bordered artists folio featuring copperplate script and twelve watercolour prints by Sara Midda, telling the history of Macallan and Scotch whisky.

In an interview, Holmes revealed he had sent Sara Midda to Macallan for a week to observe the distillery character and whisky distillation process, and record everything as an artist’s journal before creating the final watercolour illustrations. Only 900 copies of the Macallan portfolio were produced, subsequently becoming sought after amongst collectors of Macallan memorabilia and retailing for up to £1,000.  

Amongst Holmes most distinctive advertising work for Macallan was a series of pen and ink illustrations placed in national newspapers. In 1979, Shiach and Hugh Mitcalfe, Macallan’s Marketing Director, returned to Holmes and Salaman to produce a campaign which simultaneously established Macallan’s brand identity and attracted consumers. Holmes and Salaman created a targeted campaign placing small illustrated ads next to The Times crossword, deemed the perfect spot to catch the eye of Macallan’s target customers.

The Archival Folio series was originally envisioned as three bottlings; one commemorating each decade of Holmes artistic creativity with Macallan. This quickly expanded to plans for an epic, 24 bottle series.

Building A Brand

The adverts created by the pair were quirky illustrations combining Holmes’ artistic skill and Salaman’s verbal dexterity, with more than 200 produced over 16 years. David Holmes’ son, Rupert, recalls how Holmes “illustrated between sixty and seventy percent of these adverts,” scouting upcoming and talented illustrators including Sara Midda, Peter Till, and Axel Sheffler (creator of The Gruffalo) to produce advert illustrations.

For inspiration, Holmes originally used amusing anecdotes and stories from Macallan’s distillery workers. In later years Macallan enthusiasts were encouraged to submit their own anecdotes for illustration.

Rupert Holmes recalls the pen and ink illustrations were one of his father’s favourite Macallan projects, fondly remembered as “all a good bit of fun.” 

As Macallan’s reputation grew into an expanding single malt market, Holmes designed a diverse range of advertisements. His projects varied from billboards and posters to a cinema commercial featuring the voices of Brian Blessed and Miriam Margolyes.

David Holmes’ influence at Macallan extended beyond advertisements. Rupert Holmes recollects his father painted the famous watercolour of Macallan’s Easter Elchies House and built a functioning pipe-style organ which produced sound through empty Macallan bottles.

Involved In Iconic Bottlings

Holmes also designed labels and packaging for Macallan’s growing range of limited and vintage releases including the Macallan 1926 60 Year Old and Macallan Robert Burns Semiquincentenary 1998. Rupert Holmes recalls there was never any pressure to complete designs or advertisements from Macallan under Shiach’s management, “Dad had free reign, they trusted him and were always grateful… sending cases of Macallan when he’d designed the label or packaging.”

Following Macallan’s takeover by Edrington in 1999, advertising was taken over by a dedicated Macallan branding department. Despite this, David Holmes’ involvement with Macallan did not end.

Ken Grier, Macallan’s Creative Director at the time, sought to create a range of bottlings celebrating Holmes’ contribution to Macallan’s success, particularly the pen and ink advertising campaigns from the 1970’s to the 1990’s. The series was originally envisioned as three bottlings, one commemorating each decade of Holmes artistic creativity with Macallan.

Rupert Holmes explains, “Between Dad and Ken it became more extravagant… each picked 6 illustrations and then another 12 were picked by marketing executives at Macallan.” The ongoing 24-part Macallan Archival Series of bottlings each focuses on a different illustration advert created by Holmes and Salaman, presented in a folio-book style tin with accompanying booklet. The Macallan Archival Series Folio One was released in 2015, with a total of seven different bottlings currently released so far.

In 2018, David Holmes and Nick Salaman attended the launch party for Macallan’s new £140 million distillery, in recognition of their contribution to Macallan’s legacy of success. David Holmes passed away later that year, a week after his 85th birthday.

Mark Bostock

Since joining Mark Littler LTD as a freelance article contributor in 2019, Mark Bostock has become an integral part of our UK content writing team. His enthusiasm for whisky, particularly independent bottlings, drives him to deepen his knowledge through frequent attendance at tasting events and the thoughtful expansion of his own whisky collection. This dedication not only fuels his passion but also enriches his contributions to our platform, blending expertise with a genuine love for the subject.

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