From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Whisky’s journey began millions of years ago

    26 September 2018

    ‘Why aren’t we told about this stuff?’ my walking companion asked. I’d been pointing out the rickle of stones and the lines of lazy beds the slanting sunlight was picking out among the heather. The stones would have been a small township, the lazybeds its occupants’ strips for cultivation, fertilised by seaweed dragged up from the bay where we’d landed, spread on piles.

    I’d started to explain that the abandonment was unlikely to have been optional.  We were on South Uist – north-east South Uist to be precise. Between 1841 and 1851 the island’s population was halved as its then landlord, John Gordon of Cluny, embarked on brutal clearances of the island, Benbecula, and Barra. His former tenants were forcibly shipped to Canada and left abandoned on the dockside.

    ‘It’s a forgotten history,’ he said, shaking his head as we head along the moor towards the lighthouse. ‘It needs to be told, it explains so much about how people spread over the world.’

    Ancient foundations: This South Uist rock pool is lined with impenetrable Lewisian gneiss

    Maybe wandering, whether by choice or enforced, is in Scottish bones. Over a week’s expedition we’d followed the whale-road from Orkney to Loch Ewe, Rum, and now the Uists (an attempt to reach St. Kilda having been nixed thanks to stormy weather). On board the ship I gave talks, wandering through whisky’s roots, flavours, styles often picking up on what information we’d gleaned in the morning hikes with the attendant geologists, historians, and naturalists.

    A new picture of Scotland was beginning to form. One rooted in rock and migration. A year ago I wrote of shearwaters, now they were on the waves once more getting ready to head south. We travelled, picking up knowledge, fitting pieces into this new frame. The Clearances were now part of it.

    On one side, over the Minch, were the hills of Skye, to the north the shattered landscape of the Hebrides. We sat next to one of the pools which stud the Uist landscape, its dark brown waters lit by flashes of cornflower blue.

    I picked up a fist-sized lump of rock, gritty, zebra-striped, kibbled with crystals. Lewisian gneiss. It is old, and I mean old. 3,000 million years, which is so absurd a number it is impossible to compute. It is so ancient it contains no fossils, just the sparkles of those early minerals. I hold the roughness of unimaginable time in my hand, a rendering of liquefied rock from the earth’s heart, warped and buckled over eons.

    As tectonic plates shifted, these rocks were heaved out of the planet’s belly to its surface to cool. They drifted across the globe as the continents continued their slow dance, starting close to where Antarctica is now, then settling into what is now Canada, before splitting off and fusing with what is now England. Odd that the emigrants took the same journey, but in reverse. Wandering rock, people, ship.

    Distant beginnings: Looking out from South Uist across to the Isle of Skye

    When the gneiss appears we have reached the basement. It is the bedrock, obdurate, unchanging, impermeable, and because of this, water cannot penetrate hence the pools, and the boggy ground. Gneiss flares red on geological maps, which is appropriate enough for these boggy, oxygen-starved conditions, and means that peat starts to build up, and peat means fuel, and fuel means home.

    The thin soils were suitable only for some crops: kale, potatoes, bere barley or oats. Basic sustenance, and also the roots of what we call whisky.

    All that’s left behind are the stones, the lines in the turf and the lost memories of the songs they sang and the drink they made. The scent of peat gone as they started their wanderings. The memories fragile, worn away. It’s perhaps too neat a metaphor.  

    We’ve caught up with Chris Edwards, the expedition’s geologist. I ask him if this scoured landscape is the result of erosion, is this is what was left behind after people, rock and soil had been removed?

    ‘We don’t know fully, but what we can say is that this landscape now is what it would have been like just after the ice left,’ he replies. ‘Isn’t that amazing? How things stay the same, and yet change.’ Time seems to compress, the houses rebuilt, smoke through the thatch, boats in the bay, crops in the field, the buzz of bees and, who knows, a wee sensation of spirit after the day’s work is done.

    This is how it started. This is whisky’s bedrock.

  • Scotch’s rulebook: a liberating force?

    19 September 2018

    ‘Before the beginning there was nothing. And nothing came from nothing, since nothing can. But something, somehow, did, and that was the change…’

    The idea that brought these words to life sounds like a twisted, regret-inducing New Year’s resolution, or a contrived concept for the Twitter age: create a short story, exactly 365 words long, every day, for a calendar year.

    Anyone who writes will be breaking into an empathetic cold sweat. Every day? Exactly 365 words? Inspiration, or literary hair shirt? 

    But James Robertson, author of And the Land Lay Still and The Testament of Gideon Mack, did it, and the result was 365 Stories, written throughout 2013, published online on the corresponding days in 2014, then collected into one volume.

    365 Stories book cover

    Liberating force: Robertson says the impact of the format of 365 Stories was revelatory

    ‘It’s amazing what you can do within those constraints,’ Robertson explained recently on Radio 4. ‘I found myself going back to really basic, elemental stories, to folk tales, ballads, fairy tales, myths and kind of reusing them and refreshing them – and for me it was a revelation because it opened up this toolbox of things that I didn’t really think I could use, and actually it’s all there to be used and it has to be used.’

    ‘Elemental stories’, but also satires, frivolities, snapshots of stories in progress, portraits of family life; an in memoriam to fellow novelist Iain Banks on the day he died. As the threads interweave, they inspire a deeper contemplation of the creation and direction of narrative and how our lives shape and shift.

    James Robertson

    Daily discipline: Robertson’s story-telling reverted to ‘basic, elemental’ subjects (Photo: Marianne Mitchelson)

    Then composer Aidan O’Rourke wrote a ‘response tune’ to each story, one a day, for a year. Now Robertson, O’Rourke and another musician, Kit Downes, bring words and music together live in what Robertson calls ‘a wee show’. Creative cells merging and multiplying, generating new artistic life.

    We’re often told that the rules governing Scotch whisky are too tightly drawn, that they hamstring innovation and smother creativity. Water, barley, yeast; malt, mill, mash, ferment, distil, mature – all have boundaries.

    But they only provide the frame, inside which the canvas is pristinely blank. The constraints fence off a safe space in which whisky’s creators can explore and play.

    Far from bemoaning whisky’s rulebook, rejoice in it.

    Aidan O’Rourke, Kit Downes and James Robertson are appearing in concert in Bath and London in early October.

  • Calling out whisky marketing bull

    12 September 2018

    On receiving a press release announcing Chivas Brothers’ launch of Allt-a-Bhainne as a single malt, Dave Broom imagines a conversation with the agency behind the words…

    You’re from where? Text100 PR agency? Nice to meet you. You’re releasing Allt-a-Bhainne? That’s good news. It’s always good to see a new OB being launched. It can’t be easy releasing a new product, especially one from a lesser-known distillery. You have to find some angle which will allow it to cut through, but the options are becoming increasingly limited. I understand the problem. Do tell me more about it.

    I see. It’s here ‘to shake up the single malt category’. Well, there’s a bold statement. That’ll strike fear into those complacent old malts, with their tired old strategies. This’ll teach them. I’d love to see the faces of the owners of… I dunno… The Glenlivet when they see how wrong they’ve been. Oh… hang on.

    You’re going to do this by pushing ‘conventional boundaries in a bid to attract a whole new generation of drinkers?’ Interesting. I thought one of the most exciting elements within Scotch was that there was a new generation of drinkers becoming interested in whisky, but let’s not get bogged down in that. Tell me what’s different about this new Allt-a-Bhainne.

    Defying conventions?: Allt-a-Bhainne is touted as ‘shaking up the single malt’ category to ‘attract a whole new generation of drinkers?’

    Your radical solution is ‘mixing the smokiness of peat with the fruity sweetness of the Speyside region in Scotland’. Glad you put in the Scotland bit. Accuracy. It’s important. Sorry, I interrupted, please do continue, I’m interested.

    ‘Convention said we shouldn’t mix peat with Speyside and that smokiness and sweetness wouldn’t work together.’ Really? Smoke and sweetness aren’t natural bedfellows? Have you run that statement past a blender? Still, it’s unconventional you say? I’m amazed that no-one has tried that before.

    Oh… hang on, they have. Benromach uses peated malt, Glenfiddich runs peat every year, as does BenRiach. It’s been done at Glenglassaugh and Tomintoul as well, not to mention all the other Speyside whiskies which have a peated element in their malt as standard.

    I got you wrong. You’re saying that the idea of this whisky challenging the norms is inspired by the fact that the distillery was built in 1975? You say it was ‘an era of punks, mods and breaking with convention’. Really? I always thought mods were more of ‘60s thing and the mod revival came a lot later than ’75. Punks? Well, sure, the Sex Pistols played their first gig that year. Supporting Johnny Bazooka. To 20 people. It lasted 15 minutes. Not really an era…

    The biggest thing musically that year was The Bay City Rollers. It was a time of pomp rock, and judging by the charts, a love of the middle of the road. Max Bygraves and Telly Savalas had hits, for god’s sake.

    Ugly distillery: Allt-a-Bhainne is described by its owner as being a place for ‘whisky-making, not picture taking’

    1975 was the year when inflation reached 24%, the IRA was bombing Britain, the National Front was on the march, football hooliganism was rife, and Margaret Thatcher took over the Tory party. Yes, let’s celebrate that challenging of convention.

    It’s actually to do with the actual distillery you say? It’s ‘truly a product of its time… liberated, open and original’. Again, I repeat: hooligans, rampant inflation, crises, conflict. A distillery which represented the late 1970s would have bin bags around the door, the occasional bomb blast, policemen racially profiling black youths, and crowds of unemployed youth from Dufftown asking for a job.

    I see, the distillery itself challenges convention. ‘Those who have visited can testify that it’s a place for whisky-making, not picture-taking’ you say? So you mean it’s ugly and those which are beautiful to look at, like say… Strathisla… are not worthy of consideration because of all that surface gloss? Should tell its owner. Oh… hang on.

    Anyway, let’s forget about the brutalist exterior and run inside (if you can. There’s no visitor centre or shop, that’s so… modern) and marvel at it being, what, wholly functional? Ah, that’s what you mean by ‘liberated, open and original’. I get it now. This is all an exercise in post-modern irony. You scamp.

    Ultimately though what I really want to know about is the whisky. Why decide on this radical strategy of have a sweet smoky whisky? I see. ‘Peated malts are growing globally by 7.6% (CAGR 2012/2017 IWSR).’  So, it’s nothing to do with breaking convention. It’s a marketing exercise. Let me imagine the conversation.

    ‘Peated malt is popular. Do we have a distillery on Islay?’

    ‘No but we’ve made peated malt at Allt-a-Bhainne for years, so that our blenders have a peated component for our blends. Maybe we can use some of that.’

    Wouldn’t you agree that sometimes the truth is more interesting than claiming that, ‘we followed our nose, distilled the whisky in the way we know and trust, and Allt-A-Bhainne is the result. It’s a match that might go against traditional Speyside conventions, but that’s something we’re not afraid to challenge.’

    But if it’s not radical, if the whisky is aimed to appeal to everyone, isn’t representative of 1975, is made in what you seem to claim is an ugly, functional distillery that’s best not looked at, and is the product of a wise strategic decision to make smoky whisky for blends, then what is left?

    The packaging you say? It ‘features strong, geometric shapes to create an energetic look that resonates with the 70s style of the Allt-A-Bhainne distillery on the label’ and ‘screams confidence in what’s inside’. So. Clear glass. Oh, and a wooden stopper that’s ‘a gesture towards the craftsmanship at the heart of the brand.’

    Forgive me if I gesture in a slightly different manner.

  • It’s time to protect whisky’s history

    05 September 2018

    It’s the day when the weather finally broke. The grass is soaked by a continual drizzle, the sky one cloud which blurs the horizon, colour reduced to a palette of greys. Dreich and drubly indeed, and here we are, heading to the beach to see if we can find an abandoned pier. A curlew’s haunted cry seems magnified across the desolate flats.

    The tides have slathered down a thick seam of textured, rippled mud along the channel which once carried the whisky. On the opposite side, the walls of the old distillery peek out from the trees and weeds, looking more like an abandoned prison. At the top of the channel are the warehouse buildings, cracked and teetering, slowly being sucked into the Forth.

    Disappearing distillery: Kennetpans' legacy is literally sinking in the mud

    Kennetpans was, for a period, the largest distillery in Scotland, one of the links in a chain across Clackmannanshire and Fife which made the Stein family and their Haig cousins the most powerful distillers of their time. Now it is reverting back to nature, slumping into total disrepair.

    It was founded, some believe, in the early 18th century by Andrew Stein whose son, John, expanded it to its full size. One of his sons, also John, would eventually take over. Another, James, built an even larger plant nearby at Kilbagie, which was to outstrip Kennetpans in terms of size, and where, in 1826, his son Robert installed the first of his own design of column still.

    For a time the Steins seemed to be able to turn the country to their needs: farmers grew grain to their requirements, James Watt supplied Kennetpans with the first of his steam engines, Scotland’s first railway linked the two distilleries, and the spirit from the two sites flooded out to the domestic market, and also across the border to England where it was rectified into gin. By the 1780s, the duty paid by the two distilleries was greater than all land tax collected annually in Scotland.

    Then came a change in law setting a higher rate of tax for Scottish spirit and a banning of exports to England. Sequestration and bankruptcy followed, the effects of which rippled out across the Scottish economy. Although there would be a revival of the family’s fortunes, the Stein’s Scottish empire was on shifting ground. 

    John Jr. closed Kennetpans in 1825. By then, he had his sights on the growing potential of Irish whiskey and had invested in Dublin’s Marrowbone Lane distillery. There was a further connection between the two industries. John Stein’s daughter, Isabella, was married to a certain John Jameson, who had been trained at Kennetpans before being sent over to Dublin to manage and distil at his father’s Bow Street plant.

    Kilbagie closed in 1860, and was turned into a manure factory. The world moved on. The Haigs grew in importance, the Steins slipped away, their distilleries taken over, closed, demolished. The fractured walls of Kennetpans are their memorial.

    It’s a salutary lesson of the fragility of the industry, the nature of boom and bust, over-stretching, and the fickleness of the market. We wander around the site, reflecting on how easily things seem to collapse and be forgotten, the lessons not learned. Time does not wait, things disappear, names are forgotten.

    That morning, at Lindores Abbey, I’d looked into what could have been a still pit uncovered during the excavations for the new distillery’s suds pond. Two teams of archaeologists have visited, one unsure about the pit’s use, the other more convinced that this could be a site of medieval distillation.

    Historic find?: One of the potential still pits uncovered at Lindores Abbey

    It’s not a smoking gun but could be a hugely important step, taking our understanding of whisky’s roots further back than ever before. The site is in a fragile state and needs to be made secure and watertight now, before there is irreparable loss of potentially vital evidence.

    Lindores needs to be properly excavated to find out quite what is under the surface. It is too important for it to disappear into the mud. Equally, Kennetpans should be preserved in some way (Historic Scotland is currently trying to stabilise the remaining buildings) to show the origins of the modern industry and a forgotten part of whisky’s convoluted tale.

    The curlew calls again over the echo and high whine of traffic on the bridge. Is this place just a palpable example of impermanence, is it hubris, are it and the Lindores’ pit examples of how casually we treat the past? Maybe all are true in some way. They are certainly reminders of how fragile it all is and how easy it is to be lost in the weeds, sucked into the estuary mud and downriver, lost forever.

    Responsibility passes down the generations. We have little time.

  • Whisky in the golden hour

    29 August 2018

    The golden hour, the period of transition between day and night when the earth seems to pause and hold its breath, readying itself for the changes that come with the hours of darkness. The last rays of sun sneak underneath the cloud layer gilding the hill on the other side of Finlaggan, transforming a haze of rain into a rainbow.

    At this moment, Rachel Newton gently plucks her harp’s strings and starts to sing, her notes gliding over the calmed loch. A song, Mo Thruaigh Leir Thu Ille Bhuidhe, about smuggling whisky from Ireland to Scotland in a boat ‘as watertight as a bottle of wine with a cork in it’. 

    We sit transfixed, conversation stilled, drams resting in our hands, occasionally drawn to lips. Boundaries seem to shift, the whisky becomes part of the music, the music part of the whisky.

    She’s singing in Gaelic, which few of us there understand, making the music about mood, the rhythm woozy like the currents dragging a boat over the swell (or a drunk weaving the width, as well as the length, of the road). Ille bhuidhe, she tells me later, means ‘blond-haired boy’, which refers to the whisky itself. 

    The best traditional music is simultaneously ancient and new, sufficiently malleable to be open to change and reinterpretation, alive with an energy that allows it to inspire new developments. It isn’t preserved, or anchored to an era. That would be like putting it onto a mortuary slab to be poked and prodded by musicologists.

    Rachel Newton

    Old and new: Traditional music from artists like Rachel Newton has life and energy

    Rather, it plays with time, altering it, stretching it, reminding you of its passing from the first version to now. It floats free of the linear, into this place, this moment, flooding out, touching hearts.

    Whisky is also about time. In every sip we take as Rachel plays, we taste the vestigial memories in the liquid of barley, distillery, peat, wood and air. 

    At its best it spins you back along the line of time, thinking of what has happened while it has been in the cask; to the world, to you, things lost, moments of joy, the bittersweet notion of time passing.

    This effect is about complexity. Those flavours emerge only over time. You taste the metamorphosis of simple ingredients: seed, wood, vegetation, air and how they have worked with, and against, each other, weaving and obscuring, revealing and dying, rising and changing. The greater the complexity, the more it makes you stop and think ‘this is special’.  

    It is a wholly emotional response. Yes, you can then spend time trying to find out why it is special, but really that’s missing the point. Surrender to the transfiguration.

    ‘But the whisky was incidental to this moment,’ you may say. ‘It was about the music.’ True enough, but many of the great whisky moments in life are not just about the bottle and the glass, but the people, the occasion; the lap of water on the hull of a boat, the dram at the top of the hill, in some late-night bar with friends.

    Rachel Newton

    Music and mood: Rachel Newton’s music, like great whisky, has the power to transport

    That is whisky at its best, doing its job, supporting rather than leading, quietly shifting conversations and softening hearts, almost invisibly helping to create the moment. The complexity makes you pause, take notice, then it widens into the rest of the moment.

    Music is transportive, it takes you into a different place. Your response is visceral, rather than intellectual. You could work out the chord structures and intervals and rhythmic progression, but it won’t tell you why there’s tears in our eyes, why we are smiling at each other, or someone is dancing spontaneously.

    Yes, you can sit, as I do on a daily basis, and look at the glasses in as sterile a place as I can manage, but even then I know in my heart that the whisky will only show itself fully when it is out in the world and whether, in small sips, it can help to create moments like this. 

    Our response to whisky is the same as to music. Equally, whisky making is a creative rather than technical act, so it needs to be viewed in the same way as the arts. It has the same effect as a piece of poetry, a line from a book, a film, or notes from voice and harp flying out over the water, into the golden light. 

    To hear more of Rachel’s music, check out her Bandcamp page.

  • Don’t sacrifice authenticity for innovation

    22 August 2018

    So there we were having dinner. Shellfish to be precise. It seemed the right time to reach for a bottle of Muscadet. Stay with me. It was from Chéreau-Carré (their Comte Leloup top be precise, available from the Wine Society), had some age, had spent some time sucking up depth and richness from lazing around on its lees and was wonderful. ‘Muscadet, all my troubles seemed so far away,’ I began to sing.

    Muscadet, eh? In a previous life in a previous century I used to sell wine and for a period Muscadet was the style to go for. Fresh, with racy mineral qualities, and clean acidity it was reliable, the bottle you’d choose for an aperitif, a picnic, a seafood dinner. Slowly the ox cart of popularity began to creak and rumble. As its popularity elided into ubiquity so the wine became thinner, meaner, pricier until we all moved away seduced by the allure of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or somesuch. Muscadet? So last year, then so last decade.

    Staying true: Whisky innovation shouldn’t have to mean radical shifts in a brand’s DNA

    It’s an example of how as a species we demand constant stimulation. We are by nature fickle, reluctant to stick with the same thing so that even if Muscadet had retained its overall quality we’d still have slowly drifted apart, leaving it like a half-recalled, once best friend from schooldays. 

    This is why producers have to find new ways of keeping their offer exciting. One of the roots of innovation is this need to keep things fresh, while retaining some identifying signature. It’s new, but simultaneously reassuring. That reassurance is important as it shows you, the drinker, that things have not moved so far that the elements which made you love the whisky/wine/beer in the first place have not been lost, they’ve just been moved forward gently.

    Which brings the recent Mortlach... er… retrenchment to light. It’s not often that a major firm puts its hands up and says, ‘OK, we screwed up,’ which is effectively what has happened. They tried, they overreached, they admitted they were wrong and went back to what made the whisky special in the first place. Better to be honest and suffer the inevitable, if short-term, cries of ‘Told you!’ than trying some ham-fisted misdirection. ‘New Mortlach? No, nothing’s changed.’ Sadly, no-one else seems to be following in their footsteps.

    Innovation is a tricky balancing act and one which can too easily tip into a blind panic where short term fixes take over. People like gin, but don’t like juniper? No bother, we’ll make it fruity…  and pink. They don’t like the taste of whisky? Fine, we’ll filter that nasty taste out. People like Tequila? OK, let’s make an agave/malt mashup (I’m not against using Tequila casks by the way if they add to quality and don’t overpower the character of the whisky).

    Honest mistake: Diageo relaunched its Mortlach range after admitting its previous series failed to hit the mark with fans

    Throwing ideas around in a blind panic is the equivalent of trying to play darts in a crowded pub while blindfolded and stoked up on a mix of Red Bull and Buckfast. Just because an idea is new doesn’t mean it is good. Often a tweak is required, rather than a radical shift.

    Equally, trying to be all things to all drinkers isn’t the answer. Rather, it shows a lack of confidence in the flavours which built your reputation in the first place. Single malt, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, is about individuality, the fact that this distillery makes something substantially different to its neighbour. These are the flavour boundaries along which you can play but, I’d argue, you cannot break. Sadly, too many malts are forgetting that.

    Sticking to the DNA of the whisky may seem boring, but it is substantially harder to quietly get better at what makes you special in the first place, finding the flavour links, the nuances and subtleties, rather than swinging from one extreme to the other on a fraying rope of credibility.

    And you know what? Sometimes making these small, incremental shifts works just as well. Monsieur Chéreau has looked at what his vineyard can give and how to maximise that expressiveness rather than rushing around trying to find a space for it on the next bandwagon leaving Nantes. He stuck to what he knew and continued to make it better. There’s a lesson there methinks.

  • Recalling Scotch’s usquebaugh roots

    15 August 2018

    We huddle in the tower around the wee copper still. Smoke rises, caught in the beams of sunlight. There’s a hissing from inside the pot, the neck is getting warmer, then steam starts to lift off the worm tub and the first drops begin to leak reluctantly out of the pipe into the flask. Claire Mackay dips her finger in it, grins and nods, James Donaldson does the same, then it’s my turn. Yes, the angelica is there.

    Claire is a historian and practitioner of herbal medicine; James is Bruichladdich’s professional forager. That morning we had wandered the coast, roadside and woods of Islay’s Rinns in search of herbs with which to distil this, our own usquebaugh.

    I won’t give you the exact recipe, only to say that the following were picked: angelica seed, wild thyme leaf and flower, bramble leaf, creeping thistle tops, meadowsweet flowers, hog seed and wood avens.

    Medical practice: Distilling wild, foraged herbs to create local usquebaugh

    While all had their medicinal properties, they also had their own compelling flavour: the heavy vanilla and amaretto of meadowsweet, the Seville orange-like bittersweet punch of hog seed, or the seductive apricot and honey of creeping thistle.

    It was our own recipe, but one which conceivably could have been made on Islay centuries ago. Distilled spirit started life as medicine, and all of the ingredients we had picked had their own properties.

    As James pointed out, Islay’s terroir means that it is home to some plants which might not be found on other islands – and vice versa – leading to the thought that as usquebaugh grew, each location would have begun to have its own specific character and specialisation.

    Could it be that when distillers eventually gave up flavouring their spirit, they still searched for ways to retain the aromas and flavours which had long set their own whisky apart? Impossible to answer, but an intriguing notion nonetheless.

    The moment of whisky’s history we were channelling came earlier than that. We were tapping into the period when the medical shifted into the social – probably around the end of the 15th century. After all, Hector Boece in his History of Scotland in 1526 wrote that when his ancestors were ‘of a set purpose to be merrie [sic]’ they used herbs to flavour their aquavitae.

    Local barley: Are usquebaugh’s flavours still apparent in Scotch whisky’s terroir?

    It would be another 100 years before whisky would become the preferred drink of the islands, thanks to the Statutes of Iona in 1609 which banned the sale and consumption of wine in that part of Scotland in order to curb excessive drinking. The populace then turned to distillation whenever they were of a set purpose… which was relatively frequently.

    We’re also honouring the links to the Beaton family (originally MacMeic-bethad/ MacBeth). They were doctors, possibly originally from Ireland who arrived, legend has it, on Islay in the 13th century as part of the entourage of Aine O’Cathain when she married Angus Og MacDonald, Lord of the Isles.

    For 400 years, the Beatons were hereditary physicians to the Scottish crown – from Robert the Bruce to James VI and I – and to the wider populace. They were doctors, surgeons and alchemists, translators of medical texts from Latin to Gaelic; upholders of an older botanical-based medical tradition at a time when the rest of the country followed a different path.

    Make a wish: The smooth stone turned by many a visitor to the Beaton’s Celtic cross

    Just as Gaelic song is the earliest source of information about whisky making and drinking, so the Beatons’ Gaelic texts are an overlooked resource of the early days of medicine and distillation – the roots of those usquebaughs and proto-whiskies.

    Later that afternoon, Claire and I head to Kilchoman Kirk. This was Beaton land, granted to the family for free in return for their services. In the graveyard stands a Celtic cross erected at some point in the 14th or 15th century by Thomas Beaton for his father Patrick, his mother, and his wife. On its pedestal are four depressions. The deepest is filled by a smooth stone worn into a pear shape by centuries of turning deiseil (with the sun) in order to grant wishes.

    We look across to Kilchoman distillery and over the fields of barley, growing for it and Bruichladdich, ripening after this perfect long, hot summer. Whisky making has moved a long way from the eye-smarting smoke and the smell of efficacious herbs rising from the new spirit, yet those aromas are still there in today’s whiskies, rooted in earth if you look hard enough. We’re so different and yet not so far removed.

  • Propaganda is harming whisky education

    08 August 2018

    Sometimes we can get so immersed in our own interests that we forget the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily have the same level of knowledge or experience. Many readers of Scotchwhisky.com will no doubt be able to explain the simplest differences between Bourbon and single malt, but – as Glenfiddich’s Jennifer Wren can attest – ask a stranger in the street and you’ll likely be met with a blank face.

    That said, general knowledge of whisky is increasing – we’re a curious bunch, and whisky naturally encourages exploration, what with all its complexities and scientific wonders that seemingly stray into the realms of magic.

    They say toddlers are like sponges, soaking up every word and fact, including the most surprising (and random) pieces of information, but I think the same is true of whisky enthusiasts; frankly anyone who’s fascinated by a particular subject. When we’re inspired by something, when a topic ignites our curiosity and leads us down that rabbit hole, our thirst for knowledge can be insatiable.

    For the most part, we also have a tendency to believe what we read or are told by authoritative sources – the ‘experts’, be they lecturers, brand ambassadors, tour guides or journalists – why wouldn’t we? But it’s this element of trust that makes it so vitally important that these educators are educated themselves, and teach the truth.

    One of the most explosive responses to an article published by Scotchwhisky.com – coincidentally almost a year to the day – was to an exploration of the role brand ambassadors have in dispelling whisky myths and clichés. Yes, I’m going there again. But before the trolling commences, bear with me.

    Truth or propaganda?: Whisky enthusiasts put their trust in experts’ assumed knowledge

    One cross-category myth that is arguably perpetuated more than any other is that Irish whiskey is more accessible to new drinkers than Scotch, because it isn’t peated. Never mind the fact that Ireland also produces peated whiskey, and the more glaringly obvious fact that around 90% of all Scotch is unpeated. I’ve heard this statement several times in the past 12 months, including during a tour at the Jameson Bow Street experience in Dublin, and most recently in a whisky seminar at the Tales of the Cocktail bartender conference in New Orleans just last month.

    When a respected figure – tour guide, writer or ambassador – tells an audience of eager, novice drinkers that all Scotch whisky is peated, they are going to be believed, regardless of whether that statement is true or not. Those listeners are then going to tell their friends, their bar’s patrons, and thus the message spreads like an ‘alternative fact’ on Facebook.

    In the heart of Dublin’s old town, Jameson Bow St. is one of the largest whisky attractions in the world, drawing thousands of visitors every year. It’s a powerful mouthpiece for showcasing Irish whiskey to global visitors, and – quite worryingly – it’s my understanding that that particular mistruth is part of the tour guides’ script. Bizarre for a company that’s also the world’s second-largest Scotch whisky producer.

    In the same Tales seminar, whisky enthusiasts were also told by one ‘craft’ American distiller that ‘Scotch whisky producers don’t think barley has any flavour, but we do,’ and, ‘we’ve used 10 barley varietals in the past year, which is more than the Scotch industry combined.’ Perhaps most disconcertingly, that ‘none of the Scotch producers believe the strain of yeast matters – why would you not care about the quality of your ingredients?’

    Whisky Mecca: Jameson Bow St. is one of the most-visited whisky attractions in the world

    Not one of these statements is true, yet when the educator is a respected figure they are more likely to be taken as fact. There is no excuse for category or brand bashing to make an ambassador’s own appear more revolutionary, unique or interesting. The cynic in me would say it’s basic propaganda designed to improve image and increase sales.

    Perhaps, however, part of the issue is a lack of knowledge from the educators themselves. Some are trapped in their own category bubble – because their world is comprised of Irish whiskey, or Bourbon, or American single malt, or Scotch for that matter, the fundamentals of other categories are elusive. Yet in order to teach you need to be able to see the whole picture, rather than inflate an opinion based on the one piece of the jigsaw in your hand.

    At the recent World Whisky Forum held in the Cotswolds, various distillers from across the world spoke of their plans to distil rye whisky, but not one communicated their story in a way that denigrated another distillery or country. There’s a real sense of collectiveness among global distillers, a sense of sharing experiences and innovations for the benefit of the entire whisky world. That’s the spirit of the global industry, and something every educator needs to remember.

    This isn’t ‘Brand Ambassador Bashing: Season 2’, but rather a timely reminder that as consumers we need to keep our minds open, and that the industry needs to be more aware of the entire whisky universe, rather than just what’s happening in their own backyard.

  • Whisky, cliché and the real Scotland

    01 August 2018

    Avoid cliché. That’s what my mentor Michael Jackson told me. Probably more than once. It’s hard to do. Aren’t clichés just shopworn truths whose meaning has been diminished by careless handling over the years?

    It sprang to mind when we were stravaiging across the Highlands. Mountains? Tick. Heather coming into bloom? Tick. Hairy coos? Tick. All we needed was a red stag at bay looking into the middle distance, and our I-Spy Book of the Highlands would have been complete.

    Maybe the folks on the Lochs & Glens coach would be lucky enough to grab that one. There you have it. The clichés. But the mountains and heather and coos are real. Why, then, are we so irritated by them?

    It’s been buzzing about at the (very) back of my mind while I’m trying to relax on holiday, surrounded by birds – a hen harrier yesterday, which was a bit of treat – waves, wind, family, friends, music and books.

    There’s a lot of poetry, and it was a poem which brought the whole cliché thing back into focus once again, namely Robin Robertson’s Camera Obscura, which includes fictive diary extracts from the (real) pioneering photographer David Octavius Hill, who worked in Edinburgh in the 1840s.

    ‘The price we pay for railways, better roads & speedier mail,’ one extract goes, ‘is seeing our most able Artists & Scientists leave for London – their places taken by Thomas Cook travellers decked in tartan looking for “The Picturesque”. It is the end of an old song.’

    Robertson may have invented the diary, but the debate about how Scotland was being packaged and sold was real, even in those days. Here’s the dilemma: Scotland became popular thanks in part to the novels of Walter Scott, the poetry of Burns, the paintings of Landseer and the Royal approval of Victoria and Albert. 

    It was cleared, so there was more romantic space to gaze at without the inconvenience of people working in the foreground. The sheep and deer helped to reduce the number of trees ruining the view, making things more acceptably ‘wild’.

    Monarch of the Glen

    Stag at bay: Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen helped create a Scottish romantic stereotype

    Hill and his partner Robert Adamson created calotypes of not just Edinburgh’s great and good, but its overlooked: fishermen, oyster sellers, workers. They are early attempts to move away from easy stereotypes.

    Not that they appeared to succeed. By the end of the 19th century, Scotland was ‘North Britain’ (they even named a distillery that to reinforce the point), its music reduced to music hall caperings, its literature and art overtly sentimental.

    Or was it? At the start of the holiday, my daughter and I went along to the exhibition on Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow style at Kelvingrove – which showed how radical he and his colleagues were in terms of art, architecture and design at the turn of the 20th century. Anything but clichéd.

    Kelvingrove also has a new gallery dedicated to the Glasgow Boys, a loose collective of artists who worked together in the 1880s and whose work was anything but nostalgic or hackneyed.

    They painted in the open air, used workers and children as their models, aimed for realism, or at the other extreme created fantastical, gilded and mythical worlds. For a brief period, they were the most radical artists in Britain.

    They were pushing back, just as Hill and Adamson had done, and as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid would do from the 1920s onwards.

    ‘Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?
    Only as a patch of hillside might be a cliché corner
    To a fool who cries “nothing but heather!”… 
    How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete.’

    Scotland Small (1943)

    Fisher girls at Newhaven, Edinburgh 1843-7

    Edinburgh life: Fisher girls at Newhaven, captured by David Octavius Hill (c. 1843-7)

    MacDiarmid’s argument is not to ignore the heather, but to look more closely (which takes us back to Nan Shepherd) and realise that there is richness and complexity beneath the cliché.

    He and other writers of his generation – Aeneas MacDonald, Neil Gunn – also began to write about their love of whisky and use it as a symbol, or example, of identity, in their attempts to move away from the glib and sentimentalised idea of ‘Scotland’.

    For them, single malt represented the ‘real’ Scotland. It was linked closely to the land and the people rather than – heaven help us – the world of blends, which was only concerned with business, export and balance of trade. 

    Before anyone jumps on me, this is too partisan an outlook. You can see their point, though. Whisky had wrapped a plaid of late Victorian clichés around itself and sold the world Scotch-land.

    On one hand you could say this is where it all went wrong but, were it not for these simple signifiers, would Scotch be where it is today? 

    As I’ve said before, it’s strange that we still fulminate about whisky’s co-opting of tartan, coos and heather when the industry has long moved away from it. Why then does that perception linger?

    James Ballantine Dr George Bell David Octavius Hill at an Edinburgh ale house

    Edinburgh ale: David Octavius Hill (right), with James Ballantine and Dr George Bell

    Perhaps we haven’t been clever enough to create a richer alternative, which is why now, when there are huge opportunities to talk about whisky (and its role in Scottish culture), it is once again being reduced and simplified to lists and ‘10 things you need to know’ – the online equivalent of an out-of-focus photo taken from the window seat of a Lochs & Glens coach speeding through Glenshee.

    ‘People don’t have the time,’ we are told. Well, you know, we do. We like films, and binge on box sets. We read books, we sit and have conversations. Yes, we need to find new ways to talk and explain and communicate, but that can’t be done through simplification to the point of inanity because, by doing that, you simply create a whole new set of clichés.

    The same battle fought by the writers and artists continues. Resist. Push back. Bring the real Scotland to life. Look into the heather, go to the fishing villages or mines, paint the clarty boots, the slums and the wild coast.

    Yes there are coos amongst the heather. Yes, people make shortbread. Don’t ignore it, but don’t ignore the fact that there is more.

  • Let experiences shape your palate

    25 July 2018

    It was about halfway up Ben Rinnes when we began to wonder whether it was such a smart idea to carry a drone, cameras, and sound equipment up a 2,759-foot (840 metre) mountain. My assertions that it wasn’t far now and it would definitely be worth it when we saw the vista from the summit were, I suspect, beginning to grate with my companions. The idea that we suffer for our art (in this case the forthcoming documentary The Amber Light) was beginning to pall.

    When the gradient eased a little I paused for a rest. In among the heather on the side of the track were strange bright orange nodules, golden mutant berries huddling low in the ground. I’ve been up the Ben many times, but had never spotted them before. I bent down and picked one. Potentially poisonous, but what the hell.

    I tentatively tasted it and the flavour flooded by palate: honey-sweet, slightly milky, gentle hints of apricot. I’d tasted a sweeter version before in Norway, albeit in a jar. Cloudberries. The more I looked, the more there were, nestling in the roots and tangle. We tasted them, grinning, amazed.

    Alpine fruit: The cloudberry grows in cool climates, and has a milky, honey-sweet flavour

    I reached into my pocket, pulled out a book and read:

    Each of the senses is a way in to what the mountain has to give. The palate can taste the wild berries, blaeberry, ‘wild free-born cranberry’ and, most subtle and sweet of all, the avern or cloudberry a name like a dream. The juicy gold globe melts against the tongue, but who can describe a flavour? The tongue cannot give it back. One must find the berries, golden-ripe, to know their taste.

    That was Nan Shepherd, writing in her remarkable account of the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. It’s been a touchstone since I discovered a copy in a second-hand bookshop in Ballater. This book – written in 1944, but not published until 1977 – is about her engagement with the mountains. Rather than having an obsessive drive for the summit, she takes her time, stravaiging into their hidden depths, experiencing the place with all of her senses.

    It’s a passage which I use on a semi-regular basis in talks – and also as a reminder to myself about how vital it is to stay engaged with the world. After all, if you cannot write and talk about a taste unless you have experienced it, the more you do taste, the more you tune in to the world and, by extension, the liquid.

    I’d read the passage to Alan Winchester [master distiller of The Glenlivet, who was recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Spirits Challenge] the day before as we’d walked to the abandoned Scalan seminary, discussing how astonishing it was that here in the wilds of the Braes of Glenlivet in the 18th century, were people discussing theology in Latin while growing their food, cultivating the land, milling, brewing and, who knows, maybe even distilling, all the while wondering when this, the only place in Scotland where priests could be trained, would be raided. A place of contemplation and yet of rebellion; a locale for rebels and anti-establishment thinking, a home for dreamers.

    Elevated perspective: Scaling Ben Rinnes gives Broom an opportunity to reflect on how experiences shape us

    We’d been talking of the importance of place, and how smells can help root you in a landscape. ‘I don’t get why people think of Scotland as being dark and grim,’ Alan had said. ‘You go walking and the landscape is lit up with colours and scents. For me it’s the smell of home.’

    Nan has her own take:

    So with the scents. All the aromatic and heady fragrances – pine and birch, bog myrtle, the spicy juniper, heather and the honey-sweet orchis, and the clean smell of wild thyme – mean nothing at all in words. They are there, to be smelled.

    I first read this with a sense of dismay because it appears to open up a potential issue with writing tasting notes. Can they really mean nothing? After all, you can point to an object, get people to share a sound, compare a touch, but taste and smell are internalised and personal. Is it a pointless exercise trying to get people to understand what you are experiencing?

    It’s another reason why I return to the passage regularly. What she means, I believe, is that to truly understand the world you have to experience it fully: immerse yourself in it totally: see it, touch it, hear its sounds, and taste and smell everything. Log the sensations away, use them as aids to navigation, allow them to bring you deeper into the world of experience.

    And what of the whisky makers of the Braes? I’d asked Alan. Could they have been influenced by the smells around them: the heather honey, the herbs, the grass? ‘I think it’s inevitable,’ he’d answered.

    The landscape is a living one. Engage with it, allow its sensations to fill you, let the cloudberries, fresh and wild, melt on the tongue, never to be forgotten.

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