One of the underappreciated facts about international trade is how disproportionately valuable certain goods and commodities are. To take a simple example: the Swiss export (among other things) Gruyere cheese and Rolex watches. However, one Rolex watch can be worth as much as, say, half a ton of Gruyere.
Centuries ago, illegal distilling and smuggling were rampant in Scotland and Ireland as successive governments tried, unsuccessfully, to control distilling and to tax the distillers, or the whisky, or both.
Scotch whisky today is one of today’s great success stories — it contributes £5 billion to the UK economy and earns £4 billion a year overseas — whisky accounts for some 80% of Scottish food and drink exports and a quarter of UK food and drink exports.
Most classic cars tend to have long and glorious histories, even if the grim reaper of the car world eventually seals their fate.
People occasionally ask me what first sparked my interest in whisky. Was it pub-crawling in my youth or some family connection to the industry?
Although the rest of humanity yearly becomes more appreciative of Scotch whisky, it seems the Scots themselves are becoming yearly more addicted to vodka.
Over the decades, thousands of brands of Scotch blended whisky have come and gone. Some have lasted and thrived until the present day, others have flickered and faded amid stiff competition and changing tastes.
The role of the cask in whisky making is crucial and entire forests of white oak are planted, grown and managed in the US to supply the barrel makers. They supply the bourbon industry and the ex-bourbon barrels come to Scotland, either complete or knocked-down. Pre-used casks from Spain, Portugal and France also find their way here – the Scotch industry can never get enough of them.
Scotch is Britain’s top export, it was revealed shortly before Christmas last year. It is the biggest single export earner and without that river of whisky flowing overseas Britain’s balance of payments would be 11% worse. Scotch is also a huge earner for the Exchequer through excise duty and VAT.
It takes a particularly strong frame of mind to write about a subject that seems to be in terminal decline — but that is what makes Aeneas Macdonald’s book, Whisky, so fascinating. It was written in 1930 when the fortunes of Scotch whisky were at their all-time nadir.