A Highland rhythm

Think of Scotch whisky as music, and the regions are genres – Speyside is pop, Islay is heavy metal, Islands are Soundcloud rap, Campbelltown is folk, Lowlands are classical. What then of the Highlands? Their particular ouvre lies somewhere between Wagner and polka – lots of deep bass, robust melodies – this is a region that marches to the beat of an ancient drum. But of course, this is seeing the area as a group, rather than as individuals within a genre. And what if one of those individuals suddenly started making a solo album – one with steel drums and island rhythms? Now imagine one of them was Einsturzende Neubauten crossed with Jackie Mittooo – strange instruments and tropical notes. 

It has taken Fettercairn quite some time to get its moment in the spotlight – 195 years to be precise. Its founder, Sir Alexander Ramsay, was one of the first Scottish landowners to campaign for the making of whisky to be licensed, and in 1824 was one of the first to be granted permission to make whisky. Obviously, distilling had been taking place across the highlands for some time – all around the flat farmlands of the Mearns, upon which Fettercairn Distillery sits,  there are valleys and nooks ideal for setting up an illicit still. It was to these highland foothills with their secret bothies that Ramsay turned for his staff, hiring the stillmen to run his new distillery. Ramsay also built a vast mansion, Fasque, which ultimately dragged him into debt, and Fettercairn was sold to a Liverpudlian merchant family named Gladstone in 1829. If that name sounds familiar, it should – one of the sons, William Ewart Gladstone, went on to be prime minister of the United Kingdom four times. Gladstone abolished the taxes on malt and the angel’s share, and allowed scotch to be sold in glass bottles for the first time. 

Fettercairn changed hands many times over the years, was razed by fire, shut in 1926 as the postwar lean times bit, reopened 13 years later, doubled capacity in the 1960s, and is now owned by Whyte and Mackay, where thus far it was mostly used for blends. As an Irish whiskey lover, most of this seems completely bizarre – to have all that history and heritage just waiting to be put into action as part of a brand. They have so many stories just waiting to be told – even their distillery manager, Stewart Walker, seems like he was born for the distillery’s solo run. Walker is a native of the village and a born communicator; he says he is delighted to see the distillery he has worked in for three decades be celebrated for its many merits. After all, it is as unique as the unicorn crest suggests. 

In the 1960s, workers were hosing down the stills when they realised that their work was affecting the spirit, adding an extra layer of reflux. So they had the bright idea of adding a water feature to the neck of the spirit stills. It is quite the sight to behold – water being brought in from a small reservoir of water collected from a local burn, piped into the still house, then coursing down the outside of a still neck from a brass ring, being collected and then sent back to the reservoir. According to your hosts, the only other still to feature such a bizarre contraption is fellow Emperador/W&M stablemate Dalmore, which at least had the decency to hide its strange feature under a layer of copper. Temperature controls on the neck of a still are not unknown – Blackwater Distillery in Ireland has still what are effectively grappa stills, with internal temperature controls on the neck. But Fettercairn brandishes its steampunk water feature like a body modification, out there for all to see. 

Fettercairn had a stab at a solo career in the last few years – Old Fettercairn was a NAS bottling in the 1980s, and a 12-year-old single malt was released as ‘1824’. Fior and Fasque appeared ten years ago, opting for a more sleek and elegant look. But they also failed to set the world alight. Aside from these there were the usual peppering of indie bottlings, but it is only in the last 18 months that the distillery has been given a more complete offering. That said, there are gaps in the portfolio. The range jumps from a 12 year old to a 28 in the blink of an eye, then scales the giddy peaks of premiumisation with a 40 year old finished in an apostoles Sherry cask and a 50, finished in a tawny port pipe. These ring up at a challenging stg£3,000 and an eye-watering stg£10,000 respectively. But it is the space between the stg£50 12-year-old and the stg£500 28-year-old that needs to be filled – and Fettercairn has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, with warehouses on site filled with dusty casks just waiting to be discovered (even though the plundering of those same warehouses for blends is why the gap exists). 

So they have the past, they have the future, they have the plans, and crucially, they have the financial backing. But how do you get folks to sit up and take notice? How do you catch the attention of whisky lovers? How do you gain purchase in the crowded hearts of the malt masses? Well, you can invite a few of them round, which is where this moves from talking about whisky to talking about talking about whisky. Please join me now as I draw back the velvet drapes and invite you into the gold-gilt world of the influencer as I enjoy 36 hours of corporate seduction in a suprasternal notch of the Scottish highlands. 

Ah Nethermill House, a place trapped in time. While considerable amounts of money have been spent on the distillery visitors centre for their brand reawakening, the sizeable house adjacent to the facility itself is as yet untouched. It’s hard to put a year on exactly when it was last done up, but I would hazard a guess that it is somewhere in the late Seventies or early Eighties. As a result it is a glorious time capsule – bedrooms are done out in colour schemes, one is a pastel moss green, another is mauve, the kitchen has a serving hatch, and the loft has been converted into a games room, complete with snooker table. It is like the set of a BBC Play For Today, and as I waited for the rest of the guests to arrive I half expected Beverly Moss to sashay in and stick on some Demis Roussos. 

One by one the rest of the guests arrived, and this part of junkets is always the best – meeting people whose work you admire, who you have chatted with online, but there, in real life, and now you have to talk to them despite being socially awkward anywhere but the internet. Add to that the anxiety of having to eat in front of them, as we were all whisked off to the former maltings for a posh picnic. I hadn’t eaten since a sleepy airport muffin at 5am, so I tried to control myself and descend into full wolverine mode, but after realising that I couldn’t chat amiably and eat at the same time I just focussed on the latter, with my head down, like a rodent. 

After that we had a tour of the distillery itself with Stewart Walker. We strolled up the fields to visit the water source, had a ramble around the warehouse and tried some magnificent drams, and got to pick up some quality lore. One cask was bought decades ago by a Japanese couple with a view to opening it on their 40th wedding anniversary. They divorced on their 38th. The cask still sits there, now destined for their kids. Life comes at you fast, but in whiskey, it comes at you slow. 

In the afternoon we had a talk from David Farquhar of IGS Vertical Farm. It might seem like a random thing to happen on a drinks junket, but in many ways it isn’t – whisky is an agricultural product, after all. Farquhar talked us through what Intelligent Growth Solutions do – they build vertical farms, effectively tray upon tray of crops all tended to by robots, all with a unique digitally monitored ecosystem guided by the gloriously dystopian sounding ‘weather recipe’. Obviously the first question asked was – does this work for barley? My inner luddite was delighted to learn that no, it does not – it works primarily for physically smaller crops. It’s an interesting concept when you consider the debates around terroir – will crops from these floating farms have less soul than those from the soil? Maybe, but if you’re starving to death, you won’t really give a fuck about what soil types it grew in. 

Then we were off to Glen Dye, a series of beautiful old stone cottages which are run as holiday homes by descendants of the Gladstones. There we dined some more, drank some more, and at some point I collapsed into bed, for the following day we were to earn our keep. 

What made this trip interesting was that the brand, whilst fully formed, is still in a relative infancy, so it was a rare treat to take part in a focus group. We were talked through plans for the brand, for bottlings within that 12-20 gap, and just terms and phrases within the industry – is small batch meaningless, how rare is rare, that sort of thing. I just sat there quietly, as I genuinely don’t know much about whisky, especially compared to the folks in that room – I am Jedward to their Schoenberg. 

After that it was more amazing food, and off to the airport. It was a whirlwind 36 hours, but one that I have thought of often in the last few weeks as isolation and quarantine took hold. As an Irish whiskey lover, one my takehomes from the trip (apart from an insanely generous swagbag) was this: There are distilleries like Fettercairn all over Scotland, with mountains of excellent mature stock, so many that they sometimes struggle to find their voice in the market, a spot on the supermarket shelf or a place in our hearts. Irish whiskey has a long way to go to catch up; the power of the industry, the ability to hire PR firms, marketing experts, specialists in whisky comms and branding to help create these remarkable events, these remarkable identities for products. There is a massive industry in Scotland based around all this, and that is what we need to look towards – a fully functioning whisky ecosystem that creates and sustains jobs across the sector. In the meantime, feel free to live vicariously through these ten million photos I took:

Author: Bill Linnane

Bylines in the Irish Independent, Irish Examiner, Irish Tatler Man, Evening Echo, and Distilled. Proud owner of the award-defying TripleDistilled.Blog, Ireland's Least Successful Blog™.

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