Why Scotch Whisky Has A Golden Future
Lindores Abbey Distillery, Fife, Scotland. Photograph courtesy of Lindores Abbey Distillery
“O Whisky! Soul o’ plays and pranks! Accept a bardie’s gratfu’ thanks!” wrote Mr Robert Burns in 1785. You don’t need to speak Lowland Scots to get the gist; whisky makes life more fun. Scotland’s national poet was born 260 years ago on the 25th of this month, and as people gather across the world for an evening of carousing, singing and eating minced sheep innards, Mr Burns is more celebrated than ever. Drinking, specifically whisky, was a recurring theme in the poet’s oeuvre, which is the reason we’ll be raising a glass to his memory this Friday (that, and because it goes so well with haggis). Ergo, Mr Burns would probably be delighted to learn that his beloved Scotch whisky industry is in fine health, with new distilleries opening in every corner of the country.
Back in the 18th century when Mr Burns was doing his rhyming and revelling, whisky was often made in illicit stills on heathery hillsides to escape the tariffs of the exciseman until changes in the law and improvements in technology allowed its popularity to spread. In the 20th century, clever branding that drew on the romance of the Scottish Highlands promoted the idea of idiosyncratic single malts – unblended whiskies that carried in their golden depths the essence of their homeland. The biggest names, such as Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich and Glenlivet (see a trend?) sell millions of cases each year.
But of the 200 or so companies engaged in whisky-making in the 1800s, that number had more than halved by the 1980s. Mergers and changes in drinking habits saw many distilleries mothballed. Now, however, driven by an interest in craftsmanship and provenance, the trend is reversing. New micro-distilleries are fusing tradition and innovation to create whiskies that make you sit up and notice. So, this Burns Night, you could be toasting the Bard of Ayrshire with a dram of Strathearn’s rich single cask 44 (founded in 2013) or the X 10-year-old single malt from Abhainn Dearg, a distillery in the Outer Hebrides that was established in 2008.
Whisky Bar at The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh. Photograph courtesy of The Balmoral
Mr Cameron Ewen, senior whisky ambassador at Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel (which stocks bottles from each whisky region among its 500-plus collection), finds that introducing customers to lesser-known names is becoming easier. “I’m seeing a trend towards flavour-led decisions when it comes to selecting a dram,” he says. “Most visitors are keen to hear about what’s new. There’ll always be the old favourites, which are part of the history of Scotch, but it’s the new distilleries that are influencing the future.” One of his new favourites is the floral and sweet inaugural 1770 single malt by Glasgow Distillery, bottled in 2018 just four years after the distillery was founded. “It was full of flavour,” he says, “probably due to virgin oak casks being used.”
A pertinent law for prospective producers is the specification that spirit must be matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks before sale, meaning that in warehouses all over Scotland there are barrels currently mellowing and maturing until they can truly be called Scotch. There are now many startup companies in the whisky business, including behemoth craft brewer BrewDog’s LoneWolf in Aberdeen and the Falkirk Distillery, which will soon produce the famously easy-going and smooth malt of the Lowlands. So, this Burns Night, pass on the big old Glen-prefixed brands and remember that venerability isn’t everything; the man himself died aged only 37 and some of the most exciting new whiskies in Scotland have packed a lot into their short lives, too.
Damn fine drams
Five of the finest new Scotch distilleries to look out for:
Lindores Abbey, Fife (founded 2017)
Records show distilling took place on this site in 1494; the born-again enterprise uses water from the same well for its whisky.
Clydeside, Glasgow (founded 2017)
A revival of an old distillery in the heart of Scotland’s city of industry, which will be releasing its first bottles in 2020.
Ncn’ean, Argyll (founded 2017)
On the wild and beautiful west coast of the Highlands, Ncn’ean is creating organic whisky with pioneering sustainable methods.
Toulvaddie, Ross (founded 2017)
The first distillery helmed by a woman in 200 years, Ms Heather Nelson’s Toulvaddie is making small-batch whisky the old-fashioned way.
Port of Leith, Edinburgh (founded 2018)
Bringing whisky production back to the capital is this innovative project in the docks, set to be Scotland's first vertical distillery.