The surge in new Scotch distilleries has some striking similarities to the Victorian whisky boom.
Forget what you know. Take a map of the British Isles and Northern Europe, rotate it through 180 degrees and look again. Let your eyes rest naturally where they will.
With a conventionally aligned atlas, the gravitational pull of the south-east corner of England is compelling. London, the proximity of continental Europe, the sheer weight of numbers in terms of population, not to mention influences political, legal and cultural.
Maybe the simple trick of flipping north and south will suggest an alternative narrative to you; maybe it won’t. But if geographical trickery won’t do it, a delve into the past surely will.
We have historian Neil Oliver to thank for the atlas-upturning trick, in his fascinating new book, The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places. What could have been yet another box-ticking listicle in print form instead offers an eclectic sweep through British and Irish history, from the first known touch of humanoid feet on UK soil to the fragile collision of nature and technology at Dungeness.
The map-flipping is reserved for the chapter on the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney; rotate a page in the atlas, reckons Oliver, and:
‘...Orkney – and Shetland – are revealed as the hub of the wheel. For people on the move around northern Britain, north-western Europe and Scandinavia, those archipelagos appear like roundabouts, way stations en route from somewhere to everywhere else.’
Prized finds: Archaeologists have been excavating the Ness of Brodgar for 15 years
Some 5,000 years ago, Brodgar was London. What was assumed (until as recently as 2003) to be a natural whaleback of land forming part of the isthmus between the lochs of Stenness and Harray is instead a disguised mound of rubble, a vast complex of prehistoric buildings – the result of centuries of human habitation: construction, demolition, reconstruction.
The experts are still scratching their heads about the Ness of Brodgar, but the architecture and the pottery unearthed on-site is older than similar examples found elsewhere. In other words, the innovations created here may well have rippled southwards, to Stonehenge, Avebury, throughout the British Isles and probably beyond. At this point in history, Orkney was anything but peripheral. Instead it was central, leading, pioneering.
Any contemporary world whisky map would have a similar northern bias. In terms of the numbers, the power and the influence, the global scale, Scotch is at the centre of things, the hub around which much else revolves. Producers elsewhere may choose to emulate or consciously react against its example but, either way, Scotch retains its role as reference point.
Huge influence: The advances made on Orkney may have reverberated beyond the UK
With scale can come an appearance of permanence. Distillery numbers well into three figures (and rising), exports worth upwards of £4bn a year; it becomes hard to imagine a world without Scotch, even one in which Scotch takes a supporting role and allows another country of origin to move into the spotlight.
But we wouldn’t have thought that in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, during that first period of mass distillery closures; nor during the Irish whiskey boom that followed when, less than 150 years ago, the most prized and popular whisky on the planet hailed from Dublin, not Dufftown.
We wouldn’t have thought it as the 19th century ticked over into the 20th, and the effects of the Pattison Crash reverberated throughout the industry; nor during the 1920s devastation of Campbeltown and beyond; nor, as recently as 35 years ago, when the last round of cuts claimed Port Ellen, Brora and many more distilleries as casualties. All of these events had their own causes and effects, but all can also be seen as forming part of the natural popularity cycle of any consumer product.
Famous victims: Brora and Port Ellen were casualties of whisky’s natural popularity cycle
It’s not that Scotch is in any immediate trouble right now; these remain good days for the industry, but the good days are the best times to ask questions, to explore new directions, for the industry to interrogate itself about how to do things even better, and create a product that resonates even more powerfully with consumers young and old.
Irish whiskey is resurgent, American whiskey booming, Japanese whisky more popular (although also arguably more troubled) than ever before; meanwhile, the world beyond whisky’s boundaries of convention, from Norfolk to the Nordics, is finding its own way, building in confidence. Perhaps the needle of the compass is already beginning to twitch.
Neolithic farmers continued to develop the Ness of Brodgar for at least 1,000 years, constructing two huge walls to mark it out as special, and to shelter it from the outside world over which it exerted so much influence.
No doubt, over the course of a millennium, there were numerous ups and downs, times of prosperity and poverty; nonetheless, behind those towering walls, the people who lived there may have grown to take its pre-eminence for granted, to believe that its supremacy was vouchsafed for eternity by whatever gods they worshipped.
Clearly, they were wrong.
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