WHISKY VALLEY

LESLIE F. HANNON August 12 1961

WHISKY VALLEY

LESLIE F. HANNON August 12 1961

WHISKY VALLEY

BY LESLIE F. HANNON Macleans Overseas Editor

The Scotch Canadians and other Sassenachs drink is a bland tipple that would barely pass as whisky in the fabled valley where Scotsmen brew (but don’t necessarily drink) the great, s t ) uig h t whis kies

Six AND A HALF MILLION bottles of Scotch whisky will course down C anadian throats this year. Most of it will be savored by men who will pay from $5.15 to $10.75 for a bottle, because they're convinced there's nothing quite like real Scotch. They'll insist on their favorite brand, expound on its distinctive bouquet and flavor, be offhandedly expert about how long it aged in the wood, glance quizzically at its color against the light, and consume it—either straight, or w'ith exactly so much water, or just a splash of soda — with the air of an Aztec priest at the climax of some mystic rite.

This cheerful and harmless hokum will doubtless survive the news that not one Canadian in a thousand has ever tasted true Scotch. II our average w'hisky toper were offered a shot of real Highland spirit, he wouldn't like it. Chances are he couldn't name a single brand. And the same goes for the rest of the world — including much of Scotland.

1 spent a couple of weeks in the Highlands late this spring getting my facts for this fearless exposé. At least. 1 think I got the tacts. I soon discovered as 1 drove trom cl ist i I lory to distillery along the lovely valley of the Spey that the facts about Scotch whisky arc almost inextricably tangled with legend, with traditional tales, and a bramble of hoary superstition. Moreover, the Scots are notoriously good hosts.

In a granite pub in Charlestown of Aberlour. a one-street community that proudly remembers Bonnie Prince ( harlie in its mouthful of a name (the residents, thankfully, call it "the l.our”). I began my researches in the company of a group of ruddy men who not only make the true Scotch but could convince a stone idol of its unique merilx.

The true Scotch is malt whisky — the single malts, as they call them. Of the thirty million proof gallons of Scotch consumed around the world last year, less than one percent was drunk as single malt. It is produced from malted (that is, partly germinated) barley, dried over a smoky peat fire, fermented with yeast, then boiled in two copper pot-stills. The method hasn't changed for centuries. The liquor is heavy in body and taste and has a kick like a kangaroos.

The whisky that Canadians call Scotch is much lighter, milder stuff. There arc some three thousand brands and just about all of them are blends of around sixty percent grain spirits, dashes of up to forty different malt whiskies, and enough distilled water to bring the contents down to thirty under proof. The grain spirit is produced by a comparatively modern, humdrum process — the patent, or Coffey, still — which malt distillers scorn. "You put grain in one end and spirit comes out the other." Literally, grain spirit costs a few pence a bottle to make and the larger layouts can produce more than 100.000 gallons a week. An average malt distillery produces only six to seven thousand gallons a week in a nine-month distilling season. Currently, Scotland has 101 distilleries—92 malt and 9 grain.

In the bar at the Lour, I backed up a step and then said, quite clearly, that many Canadians prefer rye to C ONTINUED ON FAGF. 44

In 1973 Glenlivet Scotch made yesterday will be ready. Few will drink it

WHISKY VALLEY

Scotch and what’s the difference anyway? George Barkes, of Glenfiddich, choked on his drink but Archie Scott, of the Distillers’ C ompany Limited, said with hardly a quaver that rye is a fine drink — for those who like it. The difference? Well, of course, rye is made from rye. not barley. by the patent-still method. ... No peat smoke. And, alas, the Spey water runs only from the Monadhliath Mountains to the Moray Firth. I mentioned that when Earl Alexander of Tunis was governorgeneral of Canada he helped start a mild vogue for Irish whisky. Well, the Irish have the peat all right but they use "a w-ider range of cereals”, they distill three times and, usually, don’t blend. Someone asked me if 1 had ever tried bourbon. I said "yes," faintly. George Barkes said: “They make it from corn.” There was a minute’s silence in the bar.

Charlestown of Aberlour stands at the centre of a triangle formed by the tiny stone towns of Rothes. Dufftown and Ballindalloch. This is the heart of the Strathspey, Scotland’s whisky valley. All but a dozen of the malt distilleries are on the Spey, or on the burns that flow into it. Dufftown alone has seven. Here, the real Scotch is a way of life. It is history, weaving in and out of the tragedy of the Jacobite rebellion and, further back, to the mists of time — as the romanticists would have it It plays a serious role in Celtic nationalism: "Freedom and whisky gang taegither," wrote Robert Burns nearly two hundred years ago.

in the written record, the earliest reference is in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494 when a certain Friar Cor received some barley “wherewith to make aquas itae." The Latin term for “water of life" was widely used as synonymous with the Gaelic "uisge beatha."

The Scottish defeat at Culloden in 1746 opened the Highlands to the English taxgatherers. and by 1784 the tax on Scotch was four shillings a gallon. The Highlanders greeted the English tax with open defiance.

In the early nineteenth century, the excisemen — known then and now as "gaugers” — went in armed groups into the glens. Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, the liveliest historian of Scotch, says there were more than two hundred illicit stills in the Tomintoul area alone. "The smugglers. sturdy, determined and embittered In injustice, loaded their whisky on hill ponies and led them by secret tracks across the mountains to the rich markets of the Lowlands."

The Duke of Gordon started Scotch on the road to respectability 140 years ago when he told the House of Lords that nothing would stop the Highlander from making his malt. He suggested that if the government would license stills and cut the duty, he and the other major Scottish landowners would try to curb the smuggling. His advice was taken. The duty was halved and a £10 license fee established for stills holding forty gallons or more.

Even so, for a dozen years diehard moonshiners fought the gaugers.

The whisky outlaws menaced any distiller who took out the English license. One of their pet hates was George Smith, of Glenlivet. The pure water of the Livet, nearby peat, handy barley fields and difficult access had long made the glen of the Uvet a stronghold of illicit distilling. Encouraged by the Duke of Gordon. Smith built a new distillery and took out the

first license in the district. His former friends now regarded him as the worst of blacklegs. He was abused in the street and at church; his whisky convoys were sometimes hijacked; his distillery was under constant threat of arson.

Smith wore two heavy pistols in his belt at all times. Once, in an inn at Cock Bridge, Smith noticed a group of brawny fellows eyeing him intently. He slowly drew a pistol, shattered the top divot of peat on the fire with one shot, and was left in peace.

The head start George Smith won helped him build a reputation for his malt whisky that it has never lost. Alone among liquors today it is dignified with the article "the." A bottle of The Glenlivet, a single malt, matured twelve years in sherry casks, is a rarity. When its fame began to spread, other distilleries began to cash in on the name until the short Livet was known sarcastically as the longest glen in Scotland.

John Gordon Smith, a lawyer son of the founder, took the matter to court and won half a victory. His whisky alone could be labeled The Glenlivet; all others could, at best, connect the magic word by hyphen to their own brand names. Half a dozen still do so.

On a sunny hillside in the glen today, close to the original site, sixteen bonded warehouses hold one and a half million gallons of The Glenlivet — every drop of it spoken for. Less than five percent will eventually be bottled as a single malt; the rest goes as premium "fillings” to the blenders. In 1973 the casks holding the whisky made yesterday will roll out into the sunshine for the first time. I asked Robert Arthur, the Aberdonian manager, if he was sure Scotch would still be popular more than a decade hence. He grinned broadly. The idea, obviously, had never occurred to him.

Three or four years before the Smiths decided to go straight, another Scot called John Walker put his meagre savings into a grocery business on King Street in Kilmarnock. On the side, he blended and sold a small quantity of the whiskies that filtered down to the Lowland textile town. This was the humble beginning of one of the great names in whisky.

By chance, eating roast pheasant at the Gordon Arms Hotel in the Speyside village of Fochabers, I met Stewart Paton, a 62-year-old great-grandson of the original Johnnie Walker. Until that moment, 1 could easily have been persuaded that the sprightly gent in the red jacket was simply an adman’s dream.

I would have been half right, at that. The huge and shaggy Paton — he’s sixsix in his Shetland socks — told me that the "born 1820" slogan and the famous unchanging ad weren't created until 1908. The dour old licensed grocer of Kilmarnock must have spun in his grave at the jaunty likeness his grandsons — and artist Tom Brown — gave him.

In 1925. along with most of the other widely known blend brand names. Walker's merged into the huge Distillers’ Company, which now controls sixty percent of all Scotch production and the lion's share of other forms of U. K. alcohol production. A competitor, Hiram Walker and Sons (Scotland) Ltd., is a wholly owned subsidiary of Hiram Walker-Gooderham & Worts Ltd. of Canada. It owns six malt distilleries and the biggest grain distillery in Scotland. Tom Scott, the managing director of the Scottish Walker’s, is also a director of the Canadian parent. This sometimes puts him in a cleft stick. The Scotch industry as a whole is in a deep hassle with the Canadian government and the provincial liquor boards. It claims that imported Scotch gets discriminatory treatment at the customs shed. The Scots also

claim that the most important of the provincial liquor boards in Canada—Ontario and Quebec, anyway—add a greater profit markup on Scotch than on Canadian whisky, resulting in Scotch drinkers having to pay an average of seventy cents more for a bottle. Whatever the reason, sales of Scotch in Canada fell by more than 100.000 proof gallons during the five years from 1955 to 1960.

But Scotch production has almost quadrupled. in all. compared with prewar years, although several distillers think it's time to take rein. Britons now drink only a quarter of the Scotch drunk in the world compared with two-thirds twenty years ago, probably because there's a duty of nearly $30 a proof gallon (that's eight bottles at the normal 70 proof.)

In the bar of Stewart Paton’s 244-yearold coaching inn at Fochabers, I watched the gillies clumping in when the fishing light failed on the nearby Spey. To a man, they ordered beer. I asked the gillies to have a nip. Did they all call for The Glenlivet—an extra six-pence a measure? No. They all called for blends—the Scotches that line the mirror behind any Canadian bar.

What happens, then, to the "real Scotch.’’ the output of the ninety-two malt distilleries? What kind of men make it. and what kind of men drink it? Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart—he's now 73—has been a lifelong devotee of the malt. “I drink it whenever I can find it. But I realize it is the nectar of the young and the strong, that it goes best with long tramps over hill and moor, and that it is ill-suited to the man who sits all day on an office-stool.” How docs he take his malt? He quotes an ancient Highland saying: “There are two things a Highlander likes naked, and one is malt w'hisky.” If water is thought necessary, he suggests it as a chaser.

George Barkes. mayor of Dufftown and manager of the famed Grant distilleries in that serene little town, is perhaps the best storyteller in whisky valley. His favorite concerns a certain old distiller w'ho would have no truck with newfangled machinery. His incoming barley was hauled up to the storage loft, one bag at a time, by a simple rope-and-wheel arrangement. The carter fastened the hempen rope around a bag, two men up in the loft took the strain, then walked across the loft floor pulling the rope. One day. the old rope broke. The bag that was being raised plummeted down, breaking the back of the hapless carter below. Death by misadventure was the verdict at the inquest: it was suggested that the distiller should use a wire rope in future. "Never!” shouted the purpling Highlander. "It would change the character of my whisky.”

Ted Allan, the 38-year-old manager of Benrinnes, is typical of the modern jet-age distiller. While bowing to no one in the character of his spirit, he welcomes expert advice and keeps his floors scrubbed. Allan's father was a malt distiller: two of his brothers manage distilleries for the Distillers' Company.

Distillery men could easily be among the most tempted workmen on earth, but temptation is lessened at least by the system known as dramming: The men line up for a slug of new whisky with tin mugs. Curiously enough, today’s whisky can taste better than, say, two-year-old stuff. Whisky is legally Scotch at three years; most connoisseurs insist that it's undrinkable under seven years; after fifteen, it's likely to be hopelessly woody unless it has been switched to fresh casks. Glen Grant, an uncolored malt, is sinfully good and sinfully expensive at twenty-one years. Scotch does not improve in the bottle.

For all its bloody history of clan warfare and harsh justice — "witches” were drowned in the Spey pools and the lairds could hang a man from a tree—tiiw valley today is a scene of bucolic bliss. To a motorist dropping into it on the A9, after the bleak crossing of the Grampians, its serenity is almost startling. Fine Aberdeen Angus herds browse behind low stone walls; blackface sheep are piebald smudges against the mauve of the heather. The occasional golden eagle sweeps over the glens. Deer move proudly in the roadside pines.

About the only way you can get an argument going in all this contentment is by doubting a Highlander’s ability to tell one . .¿isky from another. Even among bottlea-day men. taste is a notorious liar. The blenders who at times mix portions of forty different malts with their bulk grain spirit trust only the nose. And even the experts can be fooled.

A favorite story in Grantown-on-Spey concerns a local doctor and a hotel proprietor who visited a nearby distillery and were invited by the manager to take their pick of a rów of unlabeled bottles. The doctor chose one at random and was given a dram. The other man went carefully along the whole row, rubbing a little whisky on his hands and taking prolonged sniffs. Between bottles he wiped his hands carefully with a linen handkerchief. Finally he made his choice.

The manager complimented him on his technique and guessed that he must be a good judge of malt whisky. ”1 ought to be. after all my experience," the veteran hotelier said, enjoying his drink. “But." the distiller said quietly, “the doctor here is a better judge. He's drinking my best fifteen-year-old. You’ve got some of the stuff I made up last night for the farmers’ shoot." if