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:

Edinburgh, festival, Dublin, ruin

Indo col 69

The Scottish art historian Murdo Macdonald describes Edinburgh as a city that forces you to think about what a city should be. It is an extraordinary place – on one side sits Edinburgh’s Old Town, the Athens of the north, which looks like it was picked up by a vengeful god and flung down the side of a volcano. Its medieval street plan and reformation-era buildings give the feeling of being trapped in an MC Escher etching, as its streets double back and loop across each other, a city upon a city, a baroque game of snakes and ladders. Edinburgh is, as native son Robert Louis Stevenson said, what Paris ought to be. I’ve spent the best part of two decades visiting the city, trying to solve the puzzle that is the Old Town; this is partly thanks to its labyrinthine layout, partly due to its beauty, and partly due to being hammered, because Edinburgh is both a city of thinkers and a city of drinkers. Once a year these two worlds collide as the city’s Dionysian festival of festivals erupts into life.

Walking the Royal Mile – the Old Town’s main thoroughfare – during the festival is an incredible experience, as every would-be starlet, comedian and artist tries to get you to attend their festival show. Up and down the Mile flybills float on the wind, stages are set up for impromptu performances, and every two steps you are confronted with someone else’s dreams of stardom – would you like to see a Disney themed burlesque show? Would you like to see a troupe of stand-up comedians who used to be secondary school teachers? Would you like to see a kids’ musical about Brexit? The Royal Mile has them all: Singers who can’t sing, actors who can’t act, unfunny comedians and all the other stars of tomorrow, watched over by the sour bronze gaze of Adam Smith, the original Inequality Bae.

Of course, to get to the city this year I had to confront another city that forces you to think about what a city should be – Dublin. Our odyssey to Dublin Airport was hampered by roadworks on the M7, but the real treat was seeing the M50 in inaction, lane upon lane of unmoving traffic as far as the eye could see. The time I spent living in Dublin was pre-boom and bust, having upped sticks and moved back to the actual sticks in 2003, so it is a rare occasion that I get to see just how coagulated the city becomes at rush hour. It was so bad that I asked the bus driver if there was an accident; no, he replied, it’s the M50, in much the same as if he was saying forget it Jack, it’s Chinatown. There have been times when I have wondered if I should have stayed in the city, but each time I return I am convinced I did the right thing by leaving; Dublin feels like it is slowly smothering itself. Beyond all the questions about what gives a city soul, or the fact that the city brings to mind Joan Didion’s description of New York – a city of the very rich and the very poor – Dublin feels broken.

Clearly there are similar problems in other cities – any Cork person will tell you about the horror of the Jack Lynch Tunnel at rush hour, being trapped like the rabbits of Watership Down as their warren was collapsed in on them, going thairn at the Dunkettle Interchange. Edinburgh, despite its remarkable beauty, is also far from perfect, but it was once far worse, and it took a six-story tenement building collapsing in 1751 to focus energies on how to improve the city. At that stage the Old Town was the town in its entirety, and it was in reaction to its poverty and decay that a plan was created to build the New Town, a visionary document which noted: “Wealth is only to be obtained by trade and commerce, and these are only carried on to advantage in populous cities. There also we find the chief objects of pleasure and ambition, and there consequently all those will flock whose circumstances can afford it.” The New Town, built in seven stages, is mostly Georgian and neoclassical in style, and has a remarkable blend of form and function – beautiful buildings, wide open thoroughfares, and a sense of cohesion that any urban space would rival. Edinburgh as a whole has the usual urban problems – poverty, homelessness, rising property prices, rocketing rents, congestion – but it still allows you to see what a city could be, while our capital makes you realise what a city needs to become, and to ask just how bad it needs to get before action is taken to address it.

The Moebius

Shift work is inhuman. There is something utterly unnatural about being awake all night. There are some who thrive on shift work, but they are a minority – most of us do it for the money, or because it suits our homelife, but very few do it because they like it. I only did nine months shift work in my life and I nearly lost my mind. Part of it was my age – I was in my forties and had four small kids, so the combination of little sleep by day and a shift pattern that was all over the place, meant I had to get out. I can still remember the odd feeling of being at my desk in the wee hours. You’d look at the clock – it’s 3.15am. You’d look at it an hour later – it’s 3.25am. Time becomes a pliable entity as your exhausted mind starts to play games with you – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop. Half the time I wasn’t even sure if I was still awake, and would forget entire conversations, or imagine they were dreams. But at least I wasn’t alone in there – in an emergency department, you are never alone.

I like the idea of distilleries that can practically run themselves. Many of the modern ones do – as one distiller pointed out to me, machines make the best whiskey, and humans are really surplus to requirements for modern operations like Dalmunach. But there are older distilleries that spearheaded this drive to remove the human element from distilling.  Sat on the slopes of the Ben Rinnes range, the wonderfully named Allt-A-Bhainne was built by Seagrams in 1975 to create malt for blends, primarily for Chivas Regal, but it does appear in indie bottlings from time to time.

I was in a mini-bus with a group of German whisky retailers as we tooled past the strangely modernist building. They, being massive whisky nerds, asked the driver to turn around so we could go back and have a look around. And so we did.

 

The distillery is quite modern in comparison to some of the chocolate-box scenes at places like Strathisla. Allt-A-Bhainne has no warehouses, and it rattles out 4.5 million litres of spirit per year. Water comes from the Ben Rinnes, and the distillery’s name translates from Gaelic as Burn Of Milk. While bhainne has the same meaning in both Irish and Scots, the way we would pronounce the name of this distillery is different – ollt-err-vane seems to be the common way over there, while we would go with alt-a-vonya.

The similarities between the languages were the sole reason I bought this bottling of Allt-A-Bhainne a year or two ago, but I felt more inclined to open it after being to the distillery. It was a curious place – nobody was around, and those vents are like something from an old sci-fi B-movie, when set and prop designers thought that angular aluminium would be all we would ever need in the future.

So Allt-A-Bhainne has an ancient name, retro-futuristic design and one poor operator stuck on shift in that one big room where everything happens. My bottle came from Douglas Laing’s excellent Provenance range. Distilled in 2008 and aged in refill hogshead, this was bottled in 2015 at 46% and is non-chill filtered. No pressure in reviewing this one, as it was cheap as chips – 40 euro from Master Of Malt. 

Nose: Sulphur. Sulphur to the point that I actually thought it might be the glass (it wasn’t). It has all those ester notes – nail polish remover, must, bananas, white pepper, an astringent blue cheese note that isn’t entirely unpleasant. Like Sex Panther, it stings the nostrils – although not in a good way.

Palate: After the general brimstone of the nose I was ready for something unpleasant, but this is pretty uneventful. I can see how this would provide balance in a blend, but something tells me I would prefer to be drinking its counterpoint rather than this. There’s a little caramel, a little bit of the aspartame sweetness of a Creme Egg, and a lot of fuck-all.

Finish: Mercifully brief.

I seem to live my dramming life in a state of almost constant disappointment. So many whiskeys I have tried recently have just let me down – but at least this one was a cheap punt and worth a shot. It’s hard to know why this bottling isn’t as impressive as I had hoped – maybe I should just spend another ten or twenty euro and get something with more weight.

I loved A’Bunadh – now completely out of my price range – and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, so perhaps I do just need something bolder than this also-ran. I was keen to try it due to its odd name, interesting design and the fact that the distillery has no bottlings of its own, only under indie labels. Now I can see why. I’m not angry, just disappointed, which is why I am washing away the taste with a drop of the sourced seven-year-old single malt bottled by the recently completed Boann distillery. Bourbon aged, sherry finished, this is nothing new, or shocking, or weird, but is just a nice whiskey. I also love the sourced seven from Glendalough. I assume both seven year olds come from the same source (Bushmills?), as they both have a similar citrus note, although it’s worth remembering that this is coming from someone who had operations on his sinuses as a kid and thus has the olfactory capacity of Selma Bouvier. 

The Whistler Blue Note – for that is what Boann are calling this – is rich and creamy, lots of coffee, toffee, hints of aniseed, that citrus, a little Oxo cube on the nose, and a lot of smooth warmth, as opposed to the ugly heat from the Allt-A-Bhainne. It’s a reminder that while we don’t have the variety of distilleries here, and all our older stock comes from three places, at least those three places generally made – and make – great whiskey. That said, I do look forward to a dystopian day down the road when we have our own version of Allt-A-Bhainne – an odd, lonely distillery that produces odd spirit that exists purely to make other elements in a blend look better. 

Dunville’s, distilleries, Speyside, patience

Indo col 54:

St Malachy’s Church in Belfast is a survivor. Built in 1841 in what Sir John Betjeman once described as ‘a cheerful gothic’ style, it had its windows blown in by a German bomb during the Second World War, whilst also having the remaining windows sucked out when another bomb hit the nearby gasworks, causing a massive vacuum. Some of the windows were then filled in with concrete, which ultimately damaged the surrounding brickwork, and eventually more than 80,000 handmade bricks had to be replaced. Apart from all those woes, the church also had to deal with some especially pedantic neighbours.

St Malachy’s is home to the largest and possibly loudest bell in Belfast – its din was so great  that it started to bother the Dunville family, who owned the nearby Royal Irish Distillery. They claimed that the noise from the bell was disturbing the whiskey they had maturing in their warehouses, and managed to create enough of a headache for church bosses that they actually agreed to cover the bell in felt to help muffle the sound. Perhaps picking a fight with the church wasn’t the best idea for Dunvilles, as they went into voluntary liquidation in 1936, despite the fact that they were still in profit at the time. Many of the old Irish distilleries ended like this – brought down by a combination of bad timing, bad luck and the misfortune of having the canniest rivals they possibly could – the Scots. For almost a century, our Celtic neighbours have ruled the whisky world, and now we are in resurgence we have a lot of old scores to settle.

By now you will have heard that there is a whiskey boom here. All over the country distilleries are popping up, Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirits category in the world, and we are screaming back into the consciousness of drinkers like a rocket from the crypt. People are starting to talk about whiskey tourism, with industry body the Irish Whiskey Association even going so far as to say that they envision Ireland being a world leader in whiskey tourism by 2030. This is, of course, wonderful; everyone likes good news, especially when it involves the Irish doing well. However, it may take a little longer than 12 years to beat the Scots at whisky tourism, and all we have to do to realise this is to look across the Straits of Moyle to our old distilling rivals.

Scotland has two major whisky festivals – Feis Ile on the island of Islay, the location where Irish monks made the terrible mistake of teaching the Scots how to distill, and the Spirit Of Speyside, held in the true whisky heartland above the Cairngorm mountain range. While Islay has fewer than ten distilleries, Speyside has more than 50, many of them household names – The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Balvenie and Glenfiddich being some of the best known. They are the brands that permeate the consciousness of the average consumer. They have been in existence for up to a century or more, and have made their way into popular culture via cinema, art, and music. During the Speyside festival these titans of whisky and dozens more throw open their doors to their adoring public, and thousands flock from all over the UK, the US and Europe to be there. This, in a nutshell, is whisky tourism – people going to a place purely for the whisky, a sacred pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their favourite drink. It takes generations for a whisky brand to build up this sort of fanbase, because whisky is all about time. It takes three years for spirit to age in a cask before it can legally be called whiskey, but it takes far longer to become an icon. A ten year old single malt is considered to be entry level, and you will need considerably older stock than that to lure in significant numbers of tourists.

So this is where we are lacking – our new distilleries are going to be waiting for a decade or more before their stock starts to really make an impact on the global whiskey scene. Combine this with the fact that, outside of Dublin, we really don’t have any clusters of distilleries like they do in Speyside or Islay, where fans can walk, cycle, or simply stagger from distillery to distillery. If whiskey tourism is to work in Ireland, it will need more than just distillery visits, and that’s where we can learn from the Speyside festival.

I’ve been to the festival twice, in 2015 and this year, and it is an excellent illustration of how whisky tourism should work. Distillery visits and the drink itself may be the bedrock, but the festival is more about Scottish culture than anything. There were nature walks, ceilidhs, formal dances, incredible food, and treks into the mountains on amphibian Argocats. I went to talks on geology, a water tasting session, a distillery tour where we munched on malted barley, and more fine food than I should have eaten. There was breathtaking scenery, beautiful architecture, wonderful people and memories that will last a lifetime. This wasn’t a booze cruise – it was about losing yourself in heritage, history and tradition (whilst drinking some of the world’s greatest single malts, obviously).

We may not have mature distilleries that hark back two centuries, but we have all the other elements ready to go. In fact, Alan Winchester, the legendary master distiller of The Glenlivet – the person who told me about Dunvilles versus the bell of St Malachy’s – was singing the praises of the startling beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way, a route that is now peppered with whiskey tourism attractions. Seeing what the Spirit Of Speyside has to offer is a lesson in how whisky tourism should be done – rather than claiming we are going to beat the Scots, we should be learning from them and working with them. If a tourist is coming from Canada to visit Scottish distilleries, it’s a mere hop, skip and a jump to Ireland, where whisky fans can visit iconic distilleries like Bushmills and relative newcomers like the innovative Echlinville Distillery, who resurrected the old Dunville brands, rebuilding a link to our lost distilling heritage.

Irish whiskey’s return to the world stage will be as much about respect as it is about sales and economics – the great bell of St Malachy’s still rings three times a day, a reminder that when it comes to spirit matters – both liquid and divine – faith, devotion and a decent measure of humility are key to salvation.