New whisky distilleries are not just a Scottish phenomenon, they are springing up in England, too, even in London. So far there are six south of the Border, and all are keen to make their mark.
Some years ago, I mentioned one of the great, if now largely forgotten, names in the history of Scotch whisky, that of Charles Doig. Born on a farm near Lintrathen and originally employed in an architect’s office in Meigle, he eventually moved to Elgin and became the greatest distillery architect of all time.
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.
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.
It seems that single malt whiskies have all but matched the status of chateau-bottled great clarets. A good single malt, once the age statement is in double figures and the abv reading is 46% or cask-strength, has an aura that commands respect – and an increasingly high price tag.
It is interesting to contemplate how certain drinks (or brands) acquired their names. Wines are often named after their home village or area. Single malts are named after the distilleries that produce them. Other drinks are named after the company founder, be he Johnny Walker, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam or Mr Heineken.
Apart from working as a journalist, I have spent many years working as a tourist guide. Many foreign groups I accompany around Scotland have at least one distillery on their holiday itinerary, others are just one long pilgrimage to one distillery to the next.
Distillery fires are a very rare occurrence these days but a century and more ago, they were painfully frequent.
Writers tend to be voracious readers and I always look for old or unusual whisky books in second-hand bookshops or at car boot sales.
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.