The origin of Tim Tams involved a penguin, a racehorse, a copycat, and a lot of chocolate. The end result: Australia’s most popular biscuit.
William Arnott was a Scottish born baker who was lured to Australia by the Gold Rush. Arriving in Melbourne in 1851, at the age of 24, he spent two years prospecting.
But when he did not strike it rich, Arnott returned to his trade. He relocated to Maitland, in regional New South Wales, and opened a bakery there in 1853.
Making a range of baked sweets, Arnott now found success. Particularly popular were his biscuits; simple treats made with flour, butter and sugar (the actual recipe remains a secret).
Arnott’s ‘Steam Bakery’, so called as the ovens were steam powered, was successful enough that he could soon expand. He opened more shops in the surrounding area, and his first factory, in Newcastle, in 1865.
‘Arnott’s Famous Biscuits’, as they were now known, remained his focus. They had not changed much from the simple recipe he had started with, but proved enduringly popular.
After a trip to Scotland in 1870, Arnott was gifted a Macaw by the ship’s captain. The bird developed a taste for Arnott’s biscuits, and became a cherished pet.
Arnott liked the bird so much, he adopted a drawing of it, done by his daughter-in-law, as the company’s logo.
In 1882, Arnott began shipping his biscuits to Sydney, where they found a much larger market. He opened his first factory there shortly afterwards.
By this time, his sons had joined him in running the family business. When Arnott retired in 1899, his family assumed control of the company completely.
It would remain in family hands for the next 60 years.
As Arnott’s expanded, it faced competition from other biscuit manufacturers. New products were needed to tempt new customers.
William Arnott himself came up with the first: he created ‘Milk Arrowroot’ biscuits, a mix of milk biscuits and digestives, in 1882. They were immediately popular. Arnott’s also launched a line of water crackers, and dried fruit biscuits, the same year.
In the following decades, other products would follow.
As well as creating new biscuits from scratch, the company would also co-opt existing biscuit recipes from elsewhere.
The ‘Marie’ was a plain tea biscuit, originally made in London in 1874 to commemorate the marriage of the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, to the Duke of Edinburgh. The ‘Nice’ biscuit had a similar backstory, having first appeared in England in the late 19th century.
Arnott’s began producing both in the early 1900s (the company claimed to be the creator of the ‘Nice’, although this is almost certainly false). In each case it studied the existing biscuit, and simply replicated the recipe through trial and error.
In 1958, Ian Norris was the head of Food Technology at Arnott’s. That year he went on a worldwide fact finding trip, looking for new product ideas for the company.
In England, he came across the ‘Penguin’.
The Penguin consisted of two rectangular chocolate biscuits, separated by a layer of sweet cream, coated in milk chocolate. The name came from the colour contrast: the cream was originally white, alongside the dark coloured biscuits it looked to the creators, a bit like a penguin.
Then made by ‘Macdonalds’, it was one of the most popular bikkies in England.
‘I thought it was not a bad idea for a biscuit: so, we’ll make a better one.
There is nothing wrong with coming up with a similar product.’
– Ian Norris, ‘Sydney Morning Herald’, 2004
Norris brought the idea of the Penguin back to Australia, and set to work, experimenting with different biscuit textures, and cream flavours.
But getting the mix right proved elusive. The new Australian version would be five years in development.
The new product also needed a name.
Also in 1958, Ross Arnott, great grandson of William Arnott, attended the Kentucky Derby while on a business trip to the United States.
On a wet day, a previously unheralded 3 year old horse came from behind to sprint home and clinch a dramatic victory, by half a length. The horse’s name was ‘Tim Tam’.
It’s Kentucky Derby winning effort made quite an impression on Arnott, who later suggested the horse’s name for his company’s new biscuit. His colleagues agreed; Tim Tam was playful, fun to say, somehow it just seemed right.
Tim Tam the horse would go on to further success. In 1958 it also won the Preakness Stakes, and came second in the Belmont, and so just missed the prestigious ‘Triple Crown’, the greatest feat in American horse racing.
The horse would later be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.
Tim Tam the biscuit was not ready for consumers until 1963.
While the new product would be very similar to the Penguin, Norris had finally succeeded in altering the recipe, to make it distinctive. The Arnott’s version would have lighter biscuits, and more chocolate, including chocolate flavoured cream for the filling.
It was smaller, but also had a stronger flavour.
After its launch, the Tim Tam was an immediate hit. It soon established itself as Arnott’s best-selling product, and has remained so through the subsequent decades.
The company now sells about 30 million packets of Tim Tams a year.
The Tim Tam’s blatant copying of the Penguin, which remains an entrenched favourite in England, has led to ongoing debate as to which is the better biscuit.
Where you land in this important consideration, likely depends on your country of origin.
From a British food site:
‘The whole colour of the Tim Tam is a warm bronze to the Penguin’s almost slatey grey chocolate. And now to the flavour; well we were very impressed.
The Tim Tam has a buttery richness to its chocolate and chocolate cream, I was put in mind of Galaxy chocolate.
So the verdict? Well the Tim Tam is a classy little biscuit. However, the mighty Penguin offers a more satisfying mouthful, and its greater bulk elevates it from treat to a snack.’
And from the Australian perspective:
‘The wheat base in the Penguin makes it taste more like a chocolate digestive. Not to say it’s necessarily bad, but it’s just not the same mouth experience as a Tim Tam.
What the Penguin did do though, is make the Tim Tams taste about 400x better. The sweetness, the creaminess, the perfection between crunchy brick and chocolate innards.
There’s no improving on perfection, my friends.
Penguins are now in my local supermarket, and so I tried them for the first time recently.
And I concur: similar but different. The Tim Tam is sweeter, richer, and lighter. The Penguin is more substantial, and leans towards a caramel flavour, rather than straight chocolate.
The Tim Tam’s success has influenced the Penguin to some extent: the cream filling is no longer white, which was changed, partly, as a response to the Tim Tam’s success in the English market.
With the Penguin though, you do get a joke on the wrapper of each biscuit.
The Arnott family were out of the company William had founded by the end of the 1960s. In 1997, the company was acquired by ‘Campbell’s’, the US food giant best known for its canned soups.
In 1999, Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith founded his own Australian food company, ‘Dick Smith Foods’. Smith was a populist, and wanted to market locally made versions of iconic food items, that had been acquired by overseas companies.
Among his main products, versions of Vegemite (owned by US company ‘Kraft’), and Tim Tams.
The Dick Smith version of the biscuit would be called ‘Temptin’. Smith cheekily cast Greg Arnott, from the founding family, in TV commercials to promote the product.
Campbells sued Smith for breach of copyright in 2003. The case was settled out of court.