The little-known story of the man who wrote one of Scotch whisky’s most important books.
When Boris Johnson, the supremely gaffe-prone Brexit campaigner, was appointed Foreign Secretary by new UK Prime Minister Theresa May, eyebrows arched heavenward. After all, wasn’t giving ‘bumbling’ Boris the job a bit like entrusting the country’s foreign relations to a combination of a golden retriever puppy and the Duke of Edinburgh?
This week, Johnson has been in India talking up business as the UK contemplates a raft of international trade deals in the brave new post-EU world. In a speech to local business leaders, he decided that there was really only one subject with which to open.
Not a bad idea, given the enormous tariffs on imported whisky which make it so hard for most Indians to be able to afford the likes of Johnnie Walker or Ballantine’s. Time, said the Foreign Secretary, to ‘tear these barriers down’.
Puppy meets Prince Philip: Boris Johnson may need to spend more time on Whiskypedia than Wikipedia
Hard to argue with the thrust of Johnson’s message, but let’s take a look at the detail of his speech and… erm… Well, you be the judge.
‘I have come on several official trips [to India] now, as well as various family weddings, and we always try to remember to bring something for our Sikh relatives who live in both Delhi and Mumbai.
‘Can you guess what it is? That’s right – we tend to bring a bottle of whisky, Black Label whisky, to add to the astonishing 1.5bn litres of whisky that are consumed every year in this country.
‘And why do we bring a bottle of Scotch to our relatives in Mumbai and Delhi (normally Black Label, though I have just bought something called Green Label; I hope it isn’t crème de menthe)?
‘The reason, my friends, is that this wonderful country still sets a tariff of 150% on whisky imports, and I believe this matters.’
‘It is an extraordinary fact that no-one can deny, that even though Scotland is incontestably the home and progenitor of Scotch, the only place in the world where the water trickles through the peaty glen in exactly the right way to turn into liquid fire, even though whisky is itself a Gaelic word, uisge beatha. Does anyone know what it means? H2O – water of life.’
I know, I know. But there’s more. The above is the official Foreign & Commonwealth Office transcript of the speech but, according to STV, the Foreign Secretary – as is his wont – departed slightly from the published text.
‘Uisge’ came out, rather unfortunately, as the Irish variant ‘uisce’, while ‘uisge beatha’ was mangled into ‘uisceaugh’, which more closely resembles a sneeze than the water of life.
Worse still, where did he gain this somewhat flawed knowledge, by his own admission? Wikipedia.
Yes, Wikipedia. The UK’s Foreign Secretary is relying on Wikipedia to provide the technical background to a keynote speech to a vital trading partner.
If only, at times like this, he had someone in his entourage with a detailed knowledge of the subject on whom he could rely. A trusted special advisor. Someone like – oh, I don’t know – former Scotch Whisky Association chief executive David Frost?
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