Once in a blue moon, whisky history buffs like me stumble unexpectedly upon an unknown goldmine. That happened a few weeks back on a quiet, cobbled street in Belfast when I passed a whisky shop called, whimsically, The Friend at Hand. I went in – and it was an hour before I emerged.
I’ve often thought a whisky distillery would be a great asset, and visitor attraction, at Scotland’s historic castles or stately homes. In the past, all castles and stately homes brewed beer, for both the lairds and the lads, and today their souvenir shops offer their own-label beer and whisky, blend or malt, supplied by one of the major distillers or blenders.
Edrington’s recent decision to end the Famous Grouse Experience at Glenturret Distillery near Crieff and sell the distillery reflects the whisky industry’s years-long push to increase the output of single malts and market them as widely and extensively as they can.
I suspect that to the purists, English whisky sounds a bit of a historic oxymoron. Yet in the late 19th Century, England boasted four official whisky distilleries and there would have been many more illicit ones in barns and garrets.
It is interesting how whisky distilling has changed, from the days of illicit stills in remote caves to the big pot and column stills of today. Yet the central process, separating alcohol from water, remains the same.
This summer has spawned many articles and TV programmes on 1918, being the year women – or at least some of them – got the vote and the First World War ended.
During a recent long wait at Heathrow airport, I spent a considerable time touring the duty-free shop and the nearby World of Whiskies outlet. It was not an uplifting experience.
If there is one place in Britain where I suspect the Scottish Government is the No 1 pet hate, it is in Cornwall and the West Country. Why? Because their minimum pricing policy has effectively decimated sales of cider in Scotland. A two-litre bottle of supermarket’s-own cider has spiralled from £2 to £5 (that’s 150%) and canned ciders have also suffered crippling price rises.
It happened a third of a century ago, and to many it’s an event as distant as Flodden or Agincourt. However, the battle for Distillers, Scotland’s then-biggest whisky firm, in the mid-1980s proved a mega-earthquake that shook the whisky industry, the City, the Stock Exchange and, frankly, the whole of Britain as never before. And, for good or ill, it ushered in an unscrupulous way of doing business that, sadly, has become almost wholly the norm.
For the most part, the big-name blends and malts seem to have an immortality all their own. Somehow their names and repute liveth for ever in the public mind, ensuring they remain on the shelves and whisky websites decade after decade.