W & A Gilbey Ltd. (Diaego Company), Beam Inc., Kentucky, USA.
Henry Gilbey at the turn of the 1800’s was
an innkeeper and ran a passenger stagecoach service. He had 7 children and his
eldest son, also called Henry, became a wholesale wine merchant. Two other sons
Walter and Alfred volunteered to support the Army in the Crimean War during the
1850’s. They returned in 1857 and were at a loss what to do so, on the advice and
financial support of their brother Henry, opened a wine and spirits retail
business in Oxford Street, London.
At this time the tax on wines and spirits from France, Portugal and Spain (due to wars with these Catholic states) was high and thus could only be readily afforded by the upper classes and some of the more affluent middle classes (hence beer was the drink of choice for the majority of the middle and working classes). There was a gap in the market to supply wine to the middle classes providing the price was right. Walter and Alfred filled that gap by importing wines and spirits from colonial countries of the British Empire (with a lower tax levy), in particular from the Cape of Africa. Within a few years the business had become a runaway success and continued to grow. By 1861 they had become the third largest wine importer in the UK, and in 1864 their brother Henry gave up his business to join them. The Gilbey’s are perhaps the people responsible for first bringing wine in the UK within the reach of the everyday man (especially being the first to sell wine by the bottle, rather than the traditionally established minimum of a case of 12 bottles).
In 1872 they started distilling their own Gin (marketing it under their own name “Gilbey’s” in 1895); in 1875 they purchased a large wine estate in the Medoc region of France; and also bought two whisky distilleries in Scotland during the 1880’s. By the end of the 1800’s they had expanded to having 10 Gin distilleries in other countries (4 in Africa) and owned Crofts Port. In 1893 Walter Gilbey was made a Baronet and the business became W & A Gilbey Ltd., with the newly made Sir Walter appointed as chairman. Walter Gilbey was a philanthropist and businessman through and through with many interests and pursuits. He was a breeder of and writer on horses (president of the Shire Horse Society, president of the Hackney Horse Society, president of the Hunters Improvement Society, a governor of the Royal Veterinary College and founder & chairman of the London Harness Horse Parade). A keen horticulturalist and agriculturalist (president of the Royal Agricultural Society) he started growing fruit in 1889 and turned this into a business, including the establishment of a Jam production factory in 1893, and also grew Lavender and Mint. In 1868 he became Lord of the Manor of Bishop Stortford, in 1906 he was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Essex and was also a Justice of the Peace (a local law judge).
Sir Walter, having led a full life died in 1914, aged 83. He left 8 children, with his eldest son becoming Sir Walter Henry Gilbey, who went on to gain the chairmanship of W & A Gilbey Ltd. as well. Unfortunately the company eventually faced financial difficulties and to try to stop a take over, they merged with United Wine Traders in 1962 and became International Distillers and Vintners (IDV). This proved relatively short lived as a decade later they finally lost control of the business when taken over by Grand Metropolitan in 1972. In 1997 Grand Metropolitan merged with United Distillers to create Diageo.
Gilbey’s Gin was so popular throughout the world that a license to make it in the USA was granted back in 1938, today it is made for Diageo by Beam Inc. (of Jim Beam fame).