From the editors

The ghosts of Scotch whisky’s past

  • We walk down the hill, detectors aloft, waiting for the click as the orange glow of Brighton dips away. The sun has gone. Sheep sit like boulders in the grass; a crow on a fencepost pretends to be an owl. It’s a time of settling down and seeming silence.

    I did my first bat walk on Islay, leaving the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) centre at Loch Gruinart and heading along the road towards the loch in the gloaming, as long-eared and pipistrelle bats flitted out of farm buildings and started dive-bombing us for the mealworms we were flinging into the darkening air. When we arrived home, we bought two bat detectors to reveal this invisible sound world.

    As we pass the badger sett, the bat calls start sounding like some strange mutant dub, growing in intensity as we group together in a little glade listening as they loop crazily above our heads, caught in torch beams guzzling gnats, fattening up for a long sleep. A tawny owl, hidden in the trees, starts murmuring.

    Nocturnal behaviour: Can the sights and sounds of silent distilleries be recorded, like bats?​

    This magical little place is Balsdean. It was once a hamlet – just two farms, some workers’ cottages and a Norman chapel. The chapel went first, converted into a barn. One of the farms was next, spending time as a lunatic asylum. The final farm was evacuated in 1940 and the buildings used as target practice by the Canadian infantry.

    Nothing is left; a community gone, leaving the hollow to the bats, owls, shapeshifting crows and startled sheep.

    It’s strange how fragile things are, how places can just be wiped away; made invisible. It happens with whisky too. The Balsdean bats reminded me of a chat I’ve been having with photographer Sean Dooley about a potential project.

    Not a catalogue and history of lost distilleries – that has been well-charted by Brian Townsend (there’s a new edition of his excellent book just out) – but how silent stills act as palimpsests, images of empty spaces, an examination of the untrustworthy nature of memory.

    Is a former distillery site always just that, or does the space change as its former use is forgotten? Can echoes still be heard in each location? What sort of detector do we need for that? A camera? Words?

    Thoughts about silent stills were floating about anyway, what with Brora and Port Ellen making their annual reappearance at the 2016 Diageo Special Releases tasting, the ghosts at the feast. I’m doing a tasting of two 50-year-old Karuizawas later today. The same applies there.

    Drinking whiskies from silent stills becomes a process of exhumation because the distilleries only live in the taste. With each sip there is one less mouthful in the world, with each swirl of the glass more aromas are released never to return. With each year, the men who worked there dwindle.

    Perhaps there’s little surprise that when we encounter whiskies such as these we lapse into sentimentalism and reverence. Critical faculties are suspended because we have all been brought up not to speak ill of the dead.

    Better, surely, not to mourn but celebrate, and when tasting them meditate on the transience of things and the invisible world.

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