Whisky is booming. New distilleries are sprouting like mushrooms, and even old favourites are set to reopen. With the amount of distilleries numbering in the hundreds, you can’t blame whisky makers for trying to stand out from the pack. Therefore, distillers need to sell a story as much as they sell whisky. A remote location, a pure water source or traditional production methods all help to tell this story, so it features prominently on websites and packaging, whether justified or not. But if there is one company that could truly lay claim to the mantle of Scotland’s most artisanal distillery, it would be Abhainn Dearg on the Isle of Lewis.
On a previous trip to Islay, I explored practically all corners of the island. And while the scenery is beautiful enough, when you’re on the west coast, you can’t help but shift your gaze across the Sound of Islay, where the Paps of Jura beckon on the horizon, tantalisingly close. But here’s the rub: while Islay boasts as many as eight distilleries, the Isle of Jura has just the one. So inevitably, most visitors are drawn towards Jura’s more famous neighbour for finding out how the Water of Life is made. While this might make sense from a whisky perspective, there are plenty of reasons to give Jura a visit, particularly if you love the great outdoors. Although Jura is the 5th largest island in the Hebrides, it has a population of only 200 people. Bleak, bare and boggy, Jura is the perfect wilderness, a truly remote piece of Scotland located just 10 miles from the mainland. Not that Jura is lifeless; quite the contrary. At any time you may expect to bump into one of the island’s 5000 deer or see a golden eagle soaring overhead. Suffice it to say, I liked Jura’s whiskies, and decided it was time I explored the island on which they are made. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I undertook this trip as much as three years ago, before I started this blog. But it’s nice to reminisce over a whisky, so I poured myself a dram of Jura Turas-Mara and started writing.
Nowadays we mostly know the word cooper from the surname (think Anderson, Bradley or Sheldon). But like so many surnames, the name Cooper is actually based on an old craft or profession. Imagine you’re being asked to come up with your own surname. What would you choose? What defines you? For many people in Medieval times, the obvious choice was their profession, giving us surnames such as Baker, Smith, Potter or Taylor. While some of these professions have continued to be commonplace in the modern era, others have become more arcane over time. The surname Cooper surely falls into the latter category, reflecting the fact that casks are no longer the most common way of storing things. With the notable exception of the wine and spirit trade of course…
How envious we are sometimes of people like Anthony Bourdain, Ian Wright or Michael Palin. Offered a chance to travel the world, explore new places and try new cuisines. And getting paid to boot! Amazing, right? But now imagine the same job, all the while being able to sample the finest of whiskies at some of the most scenic distilleries. Such was the luck of legendary whisky writer Alfred Barnard. Sure, the geographical spread of distilleries at the time wasn’t very global, and indeed Barnard’s assignment was limited to the UK. But for someone who likes whisky and writing, it still seems like a dream job! Sent out on an epic assignment to chronicle every known whisky distillery in the United Kingdom, Barnard’s grand tour took over two years to complete. The result is considered by many as the most important book about whisky ever written. Despite this, relatively little remains known about Barnard beyond his epic journey.
Brexit. Who hasn’t heard of it by now? Britain’s attempt to rid itself of restrictive and overbearing EU regulations that have allegedly put a big dent in its budget. But while topics such as freedom of movement, a divorce bill and the Single Market regularly make headlines, Brexit also has many smaller implications that have escaped national attention. But that doesn’t mean there are no local concerns. One issue that Scottish people are certainly aware of, is the impact that Brexit might have on their whisky industry.
And this is hardly surprising, given the importance that whisky plays in the Scottish economy. Exports total around £4.25 billion per year, making up a quarter of the entire UK’s food and drink revenues. The industry supports around 35.000 jobs, with many more added indirectly through tourism. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) proudly states that “Scotch whisky is the single biggest net contributor to the UK’s balance of trade in goods, with the EU taking around a third of Scotch whisky exports.” While the first statement isn’t surprising (Scotland can’t actually import any Scotch whisky), the latter part is important. Because it is exactly this relationship with the EU that has fuelled concerns about the fate of Scotch whisky in a post-Brexit scenario.
What’s better than being out in nature, drinking whisky under a clear night sky? Being out in nature, drinking whisky and hiking towards a distillery to drink more whisky! So that’s exactly what I did this summer, along with two friends. Having already done a similar (solo) trip on the Isle of Jura, this time it was Arran’s turn to awe us with its natural beauty. We set out with a tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear and of course a bottle of Arran whisky.
The easiest way to get to Arran is by taking the CalMac ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick, the main entry point to the island. The boat ride provided great views of Arran, often called ‘Scotland in miniature’: gently rolling hills in the south, and more barren and mountainous towards the north. And the north was where we would be going, so our gaze was inevitably turned towards the jagged peaks rising from the sea, rainclouds ominously swirling around their summits.
If you’ve ever visited Dufftown in Speyside, chances are a local will have proudly told you that “Rome was built on seven hills, but Dufftown stands on seven stills”. And while a cluster of seven distilleries in a village of 1600 people is indeed impressive, there was once a time when Dufftown’s claim to be the whisky capital of the world would have been brushed aside without a second thought.
Nowadays, few whisky fans make the long drive down the Kintyre peninsula. In fact, many are even unaware that Campbeltown is a whisky region in its own right. And this is perhaps not surprising, given that there are now only three distilleries operational. How different this once was. In its heyday, Campbeltown was the undisputed Whisky Metropolis (to use Alfred Barnard’s words), boasting no less than 26 distilleries. Coming in by sea through the Campbeltown Loch, the sight of all those chimneys belching out smoke must have been quite something to behold. The town, never housing more than a few thousand inhabitants, was a bustle of whisky making activity, buildings blackened with soot and the smell of peat reek permeating everything. So successful were Campbeltown’s whisky barons in attracting the business of large Lowland blenders such as Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s, that by the 1890s, Campbeltown boasted the highest per capita income anywhere in Britain. And not only the local economy was thriving. Converted into today’s money, every inhabitant was contributing the equivalent of £30.000 a year to the Treasury in excise duty. Clearly, Campbeltown distillers were getting things very right. The sky was the limit and one could not imagine a Scotch whisky industry without Campbeltown at its forefront. But fast-forward 30 years and Campbeltown paints a much bleaker, more desolate picture, one of financial struggle, distillery closures and rampant unemployment. At its very lowest point, only Springbank distillery remained open, and even they ceased production for a few seasons. How did Campbeltown’s fortunes reverse so dramatically? What were the factors that brought down this mighty force in whisky making? And what might the future hold for this proud town that once lived and breathed whisky? This is a story of impossible highs, heart-wrenching lows and glimmers of hope on the horizon. This is the story of the Campbeltown boom and bust.
With its frosty temperatures and dark winter months, Iceland seems as good a place as any to pour yourself a warming dram of whisky. And while you’re at it, why not opt for a locally distilled whisky, as the perfect companion for exploring Iceland’s stunning natural beauty. Until recently this would not have been possible, but fortunately Eimverk distillery has since entered the scene.
Apparently in Icelandic, there is no word for ‘distillery’, so a bit of linguistic creativity was required. Eim is short for distilling in Icelandic, while verk means ‘a job being done’, and this is exactly what this small distillery has enthusiastically kept busy with since 2009. The result is not only the Flóki whisky range, but also a selection of award winning gins and the traditional Icelandic spirit called Brennivín.
I’ve visited quite some distilleries over the years, and at most you will be warmly received with a short tour of the premises, followed by a generous helping of the local liquid. While I love these distillery visits, there is no denying that by and large, they mostly show the same thing. This is why it’s so refreshing that Laphroaig has put on something more extensive for the die-hard whisky fan. The tour is called the Water to Whisky Experience, it takes around 4,5 hours and will currently set you back £100 (it was much cheaper when I went in 2011, but did admittedly not involve taking home your own bottle). A trip to Islay is always something special, but this distillery experience really is the icing on the proverbial cake.
If you’ve ever been on a distillery tour, chances are that the milling room wasn’t exactly the highlight of your trip. Sure, looking at the boxes with husks, grit and flour can be fun, but unless the machinery is running, there really isn’t all that much to see. And if the mill is in fact operational, the noise level is so deafening that you will quickly be ushered into the next room, where the tour guide can give an explanation.
While washbacks might be made out of fresh pine wood and a newly replaced still may yet be shiny, the malt mill is always the same old, worn machine, like something straight out of a dusty shed with antique, discarded equipment. There is a reason for this though, and that reason is simple: almost all the malt mills currently in use do date back a few generations. You sometimes hear the phrase “They don’t make them like this anymore”, and in the case of the malt mill, this is actually true: they stopped being produced in the 1970s. But the reason the malt mill went out of production wasn’t because it wasn’t working properly or had somehow become obsolete. Quite the contrary, malt mills were so effective and durable, that they forced the companies that produced them into bankruptcy. Never breaking down, never malfunctioning, just grinding away the tonnes of barley that are thrown at it, year in, year out. Since they hardly ever needed to be replaced, there wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made by selling them. Malt mills are an example of something that was simply too well made, and contemporary manufacturers have taken notice. While a malt mill could easily last a lifetime, cars or phones these days are made to break down in mere years, thereby boosting sales.