In 1825, Thomas Sandeman (of the famous port family) established a small shop in Perth, trading as a whisky merchant. He was joined by Arthur Bell, who, by the late 1840s, had become sole partner. Bell was a cautious, modest, highly moral man - a member of a religious sect whose motto was 'work to the best of your light and play fair’.
He was one of the first to recognise the potential of blending malt and grain whisky. “Several fine whiskies blended together please the palates of a greater number of people than one whisky unmixed", he wrote. His confidence led him to appoint a London agent for his brands as early as 1863 - the first whisky firm to do so and he brought in his sons, Arthur Kinmond and Robert, to look after the domestic and overseas markets respectively. By the I880s the firm's focus was blended whisky. A number of blends were offered, but Arthur Bell's modesty prevented them registering a brand under the family name until 1896 - "I have long adopted the practice and allowed the qualities of my goods to speak for themselves", he said. Arthur Bell died in 1900. Robert went to Australia and New Zealand and also established agencies in India, Ceylon, Italy and France. A.K. Bell ran the business in Perth, and made a lengthy trip to North America in 1908. But Bell's remained a small brand compared to the Big Three.
The last whisky baron
Under the chairmanship of William Govan Farquharson - described as ‘the last whisky baron'- Bell's joined the big league. Farquharson had joined the company in 1942, the year that both the Bell brothers died. He began to promote Bell's Extra Special more vigorously, advertising under the slogan ‘Afore Ye Go' in the USA and at home. By 1970 it was the leading brand in Scotland, and a decade later the leading brand in the U.K., a position it still holds. In 1985 Bell's was acquired by the Guinness Group, which two years later took over DCL to become United Distillers.