December 20, 2016

Whisky is in our Culture

“The Nature of distillation is that distillers use what grows around them. So if you’re in France you use grapes to make brandy, if you’re in Mexico you use agave to make mezcal and if you’re in the Caribbean you use cane to make rum. In Scotland, our geology means that we grow barley.  So immediately you’re talking about distillers having a sense of location.  Their spirits are embedded within the ground, soil and (I would argue) the culture of that place.” Dave Broom

Scottish Whisky

I recently immersed myself in the recent, stunning BBC documentary Scotch; The Story of Whisky presented by Scotland’s own David Hayman. The documentary is a 3 part whisky trail taking its viewers on a trip of God’s country and beyond to explore the industry.

bbc2 scotch the story of whisky with david haymanCredit: BBC

Hayman opens the show with a virtual graphic showing the volume and diversity of Scotland’s whisky industry.  However, soon cuts to the chase of one of Scotch’s main themes; there are a number of contenders to Scotland’s throne as king of the amber liquid.

It’s a lucrative business

Hayman is clear about how lucrative the industry is stating “in whisky there is money”.  The industry is estimated at a value of 5 billion pounds. However, globalisation and innovation within the industry are making the competitive environment more fierce than ever and Scotch cuts to the heart of this lucrative business.

The start of the episode looks at how intertwined whisky is into Scottish culture.  With a heritage that spans over 500 years and its underpinning values of passion, quality and entrepreneurship. Mr. Dewar, Mr. Walker and Mr. Grant are just some of the early entrepreneurs.  Their obsession with the craft would help give rise to the popularity of scotch whisky.  Today, in a world of start ups, their journey has a relevant lesson; the key to entrepreneurial success is not necessarily in pursuit of profit but achieving one’s vision.

What gives whisky its unique flavour?

Before setting off on the first leg of our journey, Scotch takes time to address an issue which whisky enthusiasts have bickered over for many years; what gives each whisky its unique flavour? In general, it is accepted that most of any aged spirit’s flavour comes from the wood in which it is maturated. However, Scotch gives the coppersmiths a brief moment in the spotlight. In an interview, one of the smiths states that the number of different factors at play at this early stage in production. These are what really form the DNA of the final product.  In an entertaining exchange of verbal nuances, Hayman almost accepts defeat to one of Diageo’s coppersmith hissing ‘’you’re a hard man to argue with Charlie’’.

Starting in Campbeltown

After receiving our 20 minute apprenticeship in whisky production, the state of the scotch whisky industry and a brief history, we then set off on the first leg of our journey; Campbeltown. Secreted on Scotland’s west coast, Campbeltown is a remote town, hard to access by land.

However, its ready access to the ocean and wealth of raw materials once made it home to 34 distilleries.  Hayman states “The air must have hung like a strange perfume; heady, intoxicating…delightful.”.

campbeltowncredit: Woods

Campbeltown’s story in whisky is indeed a poignant one, but rather than dewlling on the sadness surrounding whisky production here, we are taken to the Springbank distillery.

In Scotland, each distillery likes to find which superlative it can utilise I.e smallest, most northerly, westerly etc. and Scotch really highlights that Springbank is surely the winner of the ‘’most labour intensive process’’ title.

Springbank’s strong sense of family and community are a breath of fresh air; in the face of increasing technological advancements.  Springbank continues to keep the entire process in house in order to provide jobs for the town.  This alone makes it the perfect first stop on our trail- a stellar example of early whisky production.

Where to go next with Whisky?

As leg one reaches a close, my excitement in the journey increases as the topic of conversation moves towards the ancient art of blending.

Over the last thirty years, rising popularity has put single malt on a pedestal and blended whisky has suffered as a result. Now characterised as being single malt’s uglier, less talented sibling, blending whisky is, in fact, the true art form at the heart of this spirit.

I was excited when Hayman visited the Edrington plant in Drumchapel to spend time with Master Blender of Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark, Kirsteen Campbell.

Kirsteen Campbell Master BlenderCredit: BarLiveUK

Blending whisky

The role of the blender is to combine a number of different spirits in order to consistently produce the same product.  As Dave Broom highlights, with a number of volatile forces in the market, this can prove very difficult.

Their role has been incremental in giving whisky its global appeal.  During the late 19th century blenders made whisky palatable to Brits.  More importantly during prohibition, blenders created even softer spirits suitable for mixing, bringing our American friends on board.

Hayman, a man who swears by single malt whisky, is astounded by his time spent with Campbell. He states “you’re the first person I’ve met in my life who’s convinced me to stop being a god damn snob in terms of the whisky you drink”.

This victory for blended whisky may indeed be a small one but it is refreshing to hear and proves very remarkable in future episodes when the show examines the global industry in finer detail.

Written By Andrew Dempster