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Single Malt's Success

Giles MacDonough
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

There is a popular image of Scotland displayed in 1,000 calendars. It shows the Highlands ringed by soft-green mountains with heather in full autumnal flower and herds of deer on the hill. But there is more to the Scottish landscape, and each panorama along the journey through its Highlands and Lowlands, seashores an,] islands, spells out part of the puzzle for one of the region's most prominent exports: single malt Scotch.

The windswept islands to the west and north are thickly coated with peat and crisscrossed by trickling brooks, or "burns," as the Scots call them, and they are so exposed that they are practically treeless. North of Loch Ness, Scotland's landscape is almost lunar; settlements have hugged the coast and only deer, rabbits and hares live on the plateau. To the east the landscape is tamer: on Speyside there are tight valleys or glens running down the fast-moving river. In the South, the land is sleek and the hills soft.

Go any farther and you reach England. That's where the whisky trail finally peters out. But along the way, you wilt have passed the great names of single malt whisky: the Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Aberlour, the Macallan, Laphroaig, Cardhu, Knockando, Glenmorangie, and a host of much smaller others such as Lagavulin, Oban, Bowmore as well as the ever-difficult-to-find Ardbeg. These grand names are the modern-day descendants of an industry that, according to available documentary and archeological evidence, started half a millennium ago. The entire industry celebrates its 500th anniversary in 1994.

For much of the past five centuries, these different Scottish regions have given character to the whiskies produced in them. Wallace Milroy, whose Malt Whisky Alamanach is one of the most popular guides on the subject, believes in studying the role of regional influences on whisky. He sorts Scotland out into the Lowlands, east and northern Highlands, Speyside Islands, Campbeltown and Islay. Milroy, however, would be the first to agree that there are no hard-and-fast rules about how you make your whisky: "Jura is an example. It is a Highland malt, even though it is made on an island." In that the same contradictory style, the heavily peated Clynelish made on the northeastern coast is "more an island whisky" with its "smoky, peaty character."

Of all the whisky-producing regions, the Lowlands have suffered most from closures since the Second World War. If you take the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, you pass the derelict shell of the St. Magdalene distillery in Linlithgow. Farther down the line at Falkirk was Rosebank, a triple-distilled whisky that used to come from here and which many considered a benchmark Lowland malt. Last year United Distillers closed it down. The Bells' "brand ambassador, Gordon Bell, explains that the sheer ugliness of the town itself contributed to the shutdown: it is no longer easy to market a malt if tourists won't visit the distillery. Bladnoch in Wigtownshire used to be the most-southern distillery in Scotland, but United Distillers closed it last year, too.

The light, malty Lowland style was what made those whiskies dispensable when it came to blending, Belt says, because if the whisky does not have sufficient personality, it is unlikely to do well. He says that there had been an attempt to sell off one of the Lowland distilleries, but at the last moment, the buyers failed to come up with the cash. Not so long ago Japanese firms acquired both Tomatin on Speyside and Ben Nevis in the western Highlands.

Asked whether other "white knights" could be found to keep the stilts going, Tim Hailey of Invergordon Distillers answers that this is "not very viable." The closest example he could think of is the French giant Perliod-Ricard's purchase of Campbell Distillers, which owns both Abertour and Edradour. "You've got to be able to sell whisky for blending," he says. It might be possible to market a malt whisky on a particular market, but Hailey points out, whisky brokers wilt have supplies of it and "you would have to purchase that back in cash" to protect Your brand image.

A faint whiff of hay and a refreshing lightness are the characteristics attributed to the Lowland malts, but to say they are light doesn't mean they lack character. United Distilters' flagship Lowland malt is Glenkinchie near Edinburgh, which has a seductive, nutty aroma. Auchcntoshan on the outskirts of Glasgow would be on every whisky lover's list of great malts. Yet there is definitely a stigma attached to the Lowlands. For example, Bell thought that Deanston near Callalider was really a Lowland malt, but the label marks it as a Highland: it sells better that way.

The Mull of Kiatyre is neither in the Lowlands nor the Highlands. It is a long finger of land that points to the Antrim coast of Ireland. A century ago, there were as many as 32 distilleries here and the place enjoyed a similar status to Speyside. Now just three malts are made. The best of them is probably Springbank, a whisky that has a habit of coming out on top at blind tastings. The distillery manager, John McDougall, is a tight-lipped Scot. I asked him what was special about Springbank, to which he answered, "strictly traditional methods of production." He defined the whisky as "a sweet-salty, slightly peaty product with a long lingering aftertaste."

There are enormous variations in taste among the Highland malts. Those nearest to the sea often have a more emphatic character; a touch of brine underpins their aromas. 0ban is rare for being smack in the middle of a seaside town that doubles as the gateway to the western Isles. The whisky is fruity and floral at the same time. As Milroy points our, Clynelish is actually phenolic. Its stills lie alongside the hulk of the mothballed Brora Distillery, which used to make superb whiskies.

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