Selling the ‘Illusion’ of the Brand: W & A Gilbey

  • Thora Hands
Open Access


In this chapter, considers the alcohol retail trade with a case study of one of the leading wine and spirit merchants in the Victorian period, W & A Gilbey, which restructured its business model due to pressure from customers to supply branded products. In the late Victorian period, particular brands of wine, champagne and spirits became more popular because they were associated with ideas about quality and taste. The company realised that in an emerging consumer culture, the power or ‘illusion’ of the brand held great commercial profit.

There are indeed many people who want to buy limited quantities of the best brandy than of the best champagne, as it is looked upon somewhat as a medicine that must be kept in the house, and it is just as difficult to get them to believe this can be obtained without the brand of Hennessey or Moet, as the finest champagne can be obtained under W&A Gilbey’s Castle 4a or Castle 5a. We shall therefore, make just as large a profit on any goods we sell under these brands as if we sold them under the brand of W&A Gilbey, and shall thereby meet the wants and prejudices of two classes of consumers, and at the same time reap equal advantages both present and future out of either. 1

W & A Gilbey began business in the wine and spirit trade in the 1850s as a family company run by three brothers, Walter, Alfred and Henry along with other male family members. The business expanded after the 1860 Licensing Act which led to the growth in the off-licence trade. The company appointed sales agents in most principle cities in Britain in order to stimulate and secure business with licensed grocers. Gilbey’s interests lay principally in the retail side of the trade and the company bought wines and spirits which they either sold directly on to customers or bottled and labelled as their own brand of goods. However, as the quote above indicates, the demand for branded goods increased towards the end of the century and the company was forced to restructure its business model in order to meet customer demand and secure the market for its products.

The company produced a price list in 1896 that was designed to promote its market position as the leading retailer of wines and spirits. It claimed that during 1895 every 14th bottle of wine and every 35th bottle of spirits consumed in Britain had been sold by W & A Gilbey. 2 The price lists from 1870 to 1896 featured a broad range of wines, spirits and beers that were purchased and then rebranded under Gilbey’s ‘Castle’ brand name. The Castle branding was given to a range of drinks, such as brandy, gin, whisky, sherry, port, liqueurs, champagnes and wines. The price lists were extensive and contained detailed information on the types of drinks, their origin, strength, qualities and uses. Although the Castle brand dominated the price lists, by 1890, sales agents reported complaints from customers who wanted particular brands of wine and spirits that Gilbey did not supply. The company was therefore forced to rethink its position on the supply of branded goods.

There was a realisation that in order to compete in a changing market for alcohol, the company would have to give customers what they wanted—which was the ‘illusion’ cast by particular brand names which conferred ideas about quality, taste and status. The committee agreed to expand the sale of branded goods and decided to deal with five prominent wine houses: Croft & Co., Silva & Cosens (Dow), Gonzales Byass & Co., Ingham Whitaker and Cossart Gordon & Co. 3 It was also agreed to provisionally deal with Burgoyne & Co. for the supply of Australian wines because it was noted that ‘the introduction of Australian Wines has afforded us an insight of the power of certain brands over the public, and the additional customers that our agents have secured for them.’ 4 The committee also discussed the purchase of wine that had been rebranded under the Castle label which simply listed the type of wine, for example sauvignon etc. It was noted that

It is a very fortunate thing for us that a knowledge of brands on the part of the public have only gone as far as champagne and brandy, which has naturally been owing to their having been bottled abroad, when the shippers have been enabled to place their name before the public rather than the wine merchant on this side. The reputation of champagne is entirely owing to the fact that the wine must be bottled in the place of production … It would however be impossible to make one name famous alike for ports, sherries, whiskies, brandies and W&A Gilbey never can hope to do so. They can, however, easily make themselves famous for supplying the finest brands of every country and it is important that they should lose no time in endeavouring to make the names of the Houses they have allied themselves with equally famous to the public as they now are to the trade before attempts are made to supply the public with other. 5

By selling brands that would in essence compete with their own brand of goods, the company believed it would secure its position in the market because it could promote its own goods alongside others. In the 1860s, the company had entered into a contract with John Jameson & Sons to purchase large quantities of whisky from Jameson’s Irish distillery. The whisky was held in bonded warehouses in Dublin and then marketed under the Gilbey brand name ‘Castle Grand JJ’. This branding partnership had been successful in securing sales of Jameson’s whisky until the 1890s when Scotch whisky captured the market position previously held by Irish whisky. By 1890, it was felt that rebranding Jameson’s whisky would help boost sales and therefore all reference to W & A Gilbey was removed from the labelling. However, this clearly did not remedy the situation and in 1897 the committee produced a report, which included an interview with Jameson himself. The report stated that

He [Jameson] referred to the decline in England in the consumption of Irish, compared with the great strides made in Scotch whisky. He remarked in a jocular way “we are not going to give up the game yet, but want to do all we can to popularise Dublin whisky in England, and we think you can help us.” 6

Jameson suggested that Gilbey’s sales agents ask grocers to display show cards for JJ whisky alongside any adverts for Scotch. Jameson did not want to advertise his products in any other way and refused advertising in railway stations but preferred adverts in grocers at the point of sale. He was told that it was not within the company’s power to compel customers to advertise Jameson’s whisky. Jameson pointed out that their mutual arrangement and success depended on the continued trade in Irish whisky in England and that in Ireland he could ‘run alone’ but needed help to sell his goods in England. 7 However, the committee felt that they could only go so far in promoting Jameson’s whisky and if sales in Irish whisky in England were declining then the company’s focus should instead be placed on the marketing of Scotch.

Rebranding Castle Grand JJ had not halted declining sales in Irish whisky but the committee still believed that removing the W & A Gilbey name from Jameson’s whisky and their own Glen Spey Scotch would improve brand confidence. The 1897 committee report effectively recommended the removal of the Gilbey name from all but the cheapest brands. 8 The logic for this was based on an analysis of sales which identified four types of consumers: First, there were those who wanted to buy the cheapest products if they were known to be genuine; Second were those who wanted a ‘fair medium price article.’; Third were consumers who wanted the finest quality products regardless of name or brand; Fourth were those who wanted the best brand regardless of quality. The report went on to state that

The public cannot be brought to feel that W&A Gilbey with all their advantages of wealth and commercial knowledge which they give them credit for, possess the same opportunities of buying ports and sherries or Marsala and Madeiras as Croft and Dow or Gonzales, Crossart and Ingham. They imagine these brands are connected with the production of certain favoured vineyards and form monopolies of these Houses … If during the last few years we have increased our reputation for selling pure but cheap wine, we have also considerably increased our commercial reputation and the public are disposed to place unbounded confidence in us when we state that Croft’s Port and Gonzales Sherry are the finest, but are very loathe to believe us when we endeavour to crack open our own goods such as Castle J Port and Castle A Sherry, no matter what the quality may be. … The whole of our success is to be traced to names, brands, vintages etc. which by degrees we have added to our price list. 9

From the analysis of consumers and based on the information from sales agents, the company had decided that the Castle label could only fill a certain niche in the market. By the turn of the century, consumers wanted branded goods and therefore the company focus had to shift accordingly. When the business had taken off in the 1860s, Gilbey’s customers were less ‘brand driven’ and were content to buy many products from reputable wine and spirit merchants. By the turn of the century however, the company name and reputation could no longer be relied upon to generate sufficient alcohol sales because unbranded products could not be consumed conspicuously. Brand names of particular types of alcoholic drinks were well known—even the more expensive ones and sometimes the form of advertising was particularly innovative.

A good example of this was found in the music halls which emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century from pubs that offered entertainments. 10 These places ranged from small ‘penny gaffs’ located in pubs to large venues such as theatres. 11 By the turn of the century, music halls had grown in popularity by offering cheap entertainment to the urban working classes in cities across Britain. 12 One of the most popular acts in the late Victorian period was a musical pastiche of upper-class men known as the ‘swell song’. Bailey describes a swell as ‘a lordly figure of resplendent dress and confident air whose exploits centered on drink and women.’ 13 The most famous (or indeed infamous) performer of the swell song was George Leybourne with his act ‘Champagne Charlie’. Leybourne’s theatrical success was built upon his sharp observations of the drinking habits of the rich, which was wrung out for a laugh to the appreciation of the music hall crowds. Leybourne wrote the lyrics for Champagne Charlie

The way I gained my title’s
By a hobby which I’ve got
Of never letting others pay
However long the shot
Whoever drinks at my expense
Are treated all the same
From Dukes to Lords to cabmen down
I make them drink champagne

From coffee and from supper rooms
From Poplar to Pall Mall
The girls on seeing me exclaim
“Oh what a champagne swell”!
The notion ‘tis of everyone
If ‘twere not for my name
And causing so much to be drunk
They’d never make champagne

Some epicures like Burgundy,
Hock, Claret and Moselle,
But Moet’ s vintage only
Satisfies this champagne swell
What matters if to bed I go
Dull head and muddled thick
A bottle in the morning
Sets me right then very quick

For Champagne Charlie is my name
Champagne Charlie is my game
Good for any game at night, my boys
Good for any game at night, my boys
For Champagne Charlie is my name
Champagne Charlie is my game
Good for any game at night, my boys
Who’ll come and join me in the spree?

The idea that Champagne Charlie kept the champagne industry in business through his prolific drinking bore some reality to the free supply of champagne gifted to Leybourne from London wine merchants in return for publicity. 15 So it would seem that the reference to Moet was perhaps intentional. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Gilbey & Co. supplied champagne to Leybourne or any other music hall performer, the Champagne Charlie act demonstrates the ways in which ideas about particular brands of alcoholic drinks were propagated.

In the consumer society that emerged in the late nineteenth century, Veblen’s ideas about conspicuous consumption were evident. The Gilbey records show that customers were increasingly brand-driven, demanding particular types of wines, spirits and champagnes that could be consumed as markers of wealth, status or taste. The company knew that it was impossible to convince customers that its own-brand products were of an equal quality and therefore relegated only the cheapest products to the company branding. This in turn elevated the status of branded goods to those which were more expensive and therefore all the more exclusive and desirable. In this sense, the ‘illusion’ of the brand was a powerful and persuasive way to secure the market for alcohol.


  1. 1.

    Diageo Archives (DA): 100433/1: W & A Gilbey Committee Minutes: 1890.

  2. 2.

    DA: 100422/190: W & A Gilbey Price Lists: 1870–1896.

  3. 3.


  4. 4.

    DA: 100433/1: W & A Gilbey Committee Minutes: 1890.

  5. 5.

    DA: 100433/1: W & A Gilbey Committee Minutes: 1890.

  6. 6.

    DA: 100433/1: W & A Gilbey Committee Minutes: 1897.

  7. 7.

    DA: 100433/1: W & A Gilbey Committee Minutes: 1897.

  8. 8.

    DA: 100433/1: W & A Gilbey Committee Minutes: 1897.

  9. 9.

    DA: 100433/1: W & A Gilbey Committee Minutes: 1897.

  10. 10.

    Maloney P. 1993. Scotland and the Music Hall 18501914: Manchester: Manchester University Press: pp. 24–57.

  11. 11.

    Bailey P. 2003. Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: p. 100.

  12. 12.

    Maloney: pp. 24–57.

  13. 13.

    Bailey: p. 101.

  14. 14.

    Ibid.: pp. 109–110.

  15. 15.



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Authors and Affiliations

  • Thora Hands
    • 1
  1. 1.Social SciencesCity of Glasgow CollegeGlasgowUK

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