One unappreciated and unsung link in the chain between distillery and your local supermarket or off-licence is the distributor. And the big distribution name in the whisky world, and indeed the spirits world generally, is Gordon and MacPhail of Elgin.
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.
Last week I commented on how the 21st Century whisky industry is widely scattered with its various stages (malting, then fermenting and distilling, and finally warehousing, blending and bottling) taking place at different locations —with everything being shifted between locations by truck. And that this is very different to how the industry operated 100-120 years ago.
Few established distilleries in Scotland have undergone such radical transformation in the past few years as Tullibardine, at Blackford just off the A9.
I’ve heard some world-weary souls declare if you’ve seen one whisky distillery, you’ve seen them all. I disagree — it’s like saying every car is the same, whether a Mini or Rolls Royce.
The beating heart of any distillery is not the stills, or washbacks, or mashtun or the casking store. It is the distillery boiler, without which the distillery grinds to a halt. Hot water and steam are needed throughout the production process and, if the boiler packs up, so does the distillery.
One aspect of the Scotch industry that I find amusing is how so many whiskies – mainly blends, I must add – are apparently bottled by obscure whisky firms that vanished years ago but whose names still appear on the bottles, usually in small print at the bottom of the reverse-side label.
I recently viewed a large collection of whisky water jugs that once sat on every bar but have now become rarities and even collector’s items.
Detective fiction, Norse mythology and single malts are not obvious bedfellows but at a recent tasting of four Highland Park expressions in Edinburgh, they all came together during a most agreeable hour at the Caledonian Hotel.
Were one to compare today’s Scotch whisky industry with the industry around 1900-1920, several things would be obviously different. Volumes today are far greater, Scotch is exported to far more countries — while greater automation has decimated the numbers of people working in distilleries, warehouses and bottling plants.