Gina MacKinnon (1884-1973)

Born: Georgina Russell Davidson

Sector: Food & Beverage

Gina MacKinnon played a key role in the development and growth of Drambuie, the whisky liqueur which at its peak was selling 750,000 cases a year. This drink has a long history: legend has it that the elixir of herbs that gives the drink its distinctive taste was made according to a secret recipe created for Bonnie Prince Charlie by his Royal Apothecary. When he landed in Scotland in 1745 to try to restore the Stuart monarchy, he brought it with him.  After his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 Charles was forced to flee across Scotland. Flora MacDonald helped him reach the Isle of Skye and there he was given shelter and support by the Clan MacKinnon, who helped him make it back to the mainland, where he was rescued by a French ship. In gratitude he (or one of his followers) gave the elixir recipe to the leader of the Clan, John Mackinnon.

The family used it to make liquor in very small quantities for their own consumption for the next hundred years or so, but in the 1870s until a local hotelier, John Ross, persuaded the family to let him make a batch. 

His son, James Ross, further developed the final blend of the elixir recipe with whisky, sugar, honey and glycerine with his wife, Eleanor and it was James who registered the name Drambuie as a trademark in 1893.

Commercialisation
After his death, Eleanor moved to Edinburgh to be nearer her children and took the recipe with her.  It was here that she met a local whisky wholesaler, Malcolm MacKinnon, known as Calum and they agreed to join forces. Eleanor continued to make the elixir and Calum played around with the blend. In 1908 the first advertisement appeared for Drambuie.  In 1912, the company Calum worked for, Macbeth & Son, bought the elixir recipe from the Ross family but within two years it was in financial difficulties.

By now Calum had met Georgina (Gina) Russell Davidson, who was born on 1st March 1884 in Wick. It is said that she was the one who encouraged Calum to buy the business and set up a separate company for the liqueur, the Drambuie Liquor Company in 1914. The next year they were married and Calum shared the elixir recipe with on their honeymoon. She became its sole custodian, taking responsibility from then on for collecting the herbs, spices and oils and mixing the concentrate in her kitchen. Only small quantities were needed – one small phial could create 300 gallons of Drambuie or roughly 1,700 bottles – but initially low sales meant that only very small amounts were needed.

The war gave business a much needed boost. Drambuie was exported to officers messes of Highland regiments and in 1916 it was the first liqueur to be allowed in the cellars of the House of Lords. With no imports from the Continent, the shortage of demand also pushed up the prices and the company went into the 1920s in good shape. Between the wars other members of the family joined the firm including Gina’s brother in 1937.

Post-war boom
When Calum died in May 1945, Gina’s brother took over the day to day management and Gina stepped into the role of Chair. Although she had clearly been involved in the company all along, it was at this point that her public profile started to rise.

Exports to the United States played a critical part in the company’s growth – it had been quick to move in when Prohibition ended in 1933 – and Gina regularly crossed the Atlantic for marketing trips, playing up the legendary origins of Drambuie by travelling with two pipers.

By 1953 volumes meant that it had to move its blending and bottling to new, larger premises, quadrupling capacity and making it the operator of largest liqueur producing plant in the country. As Drambuie started to rack up gold medal wins in international competitions, fascination grew with the woman whose hand held a million-dollar secret, the sole keeper of a recipe which she made in the turret of her castle had only written down once to store in a bank vault. The combination of the legendary past and the mysterious present made for a compelling publicity mix.

Exports to the United States played a critical part in the company’s growth – it had been quick to move in when Prohibition ended in 1933 – and by 1953 volumes meant that it had to move its blending and bottling to new, larger premises, quadrupling capacity and making it the operator of largest liqueur producing plant in the country. As Drambuie started to rack up gold medal wins in international competitions, fascination grew with the woman whose hand held a million-dollar secret, the sole keeper of a recipe which she made in the turret of her castle had only written down once to store in a bank vault. The combination of the legendary past and the mysterious present made for a compelling publicity mix.

Gina continued both to make the elixir and to market the liqueur through her 60s and 70s and this was another publicity angle that attracted columnists. Ageism was rife: how could it be that a ‘frail..wispy’ white-haired grandmother who ‘at first sight gives you the impression of a woman who might lose her way in a big city or who couldn’t be trusted to cross a busy street without a Boy Scout at her elbow’ also be an astute business woman? But, miracle of miracles, it was indeed possible and in 1961, she earned the rather dubious label of ‘the canny wee grannie’,

Gina’s age and gender also led to comparisons with one of the witches of Macbeth muttering over their cauldron as she makes her secret brew in a Scottish castle and she played up to these tropes: there is some British Pathé film footage from 1961 showing Gina out gathering herbs in a basket and then standing in the turret window of her home holding up test tubes. By now she was making around 70 phials a week, usually getting up to do it first thing in the morning but her work for Drambuie was only one part of her life. Her main interest was farming and she bred cattle and pigs on her Scottish estate.

More publicity came from the popularity in the 1960s of the Rusty Nail, a cocktail that mixed Drambuie with whisky. The drink had been around for nearly thirty years by then, first launched at the British Industries Fair in 1937, but it was only in 1963 that it acquired the name it has now, one that received Gina’s seal of approval. It was soon a favourite of the Rat Pack, downed by Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

In 1964, Gina was awarded an OBE for her services to British exports. She carried on working almost up to her death on 11th April 1973 and handed the recipe down to her daughter-in-law, maintaining the tradition of women holding the key to Drambuie.


Sources include:
The Tatler 15/6/1955; The Portadown News 10/9/1955; Reveile 17/12/1956; The Sphere 6/4/1957; Daily News 28/11/1957; Sunday Dispatch 2/4/1961; The Sunday Times 22/1/2006

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