Some Scotch Notes

I’m back home and catching up on the backlog of work at my day job. But I wanted to share some notes I had written down in at the end of last week.

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The sheer volume of whisky being made in Scotland is staggering …if you pardon the phrase. In Ireland there are four whiskey distilleries. In the United States there are 8. Canada has . Scotland has ninety working distilleries and a few more that are mothballed that can be opened with minimal effort. Tours are available at many of the locations, including the Speyside Cooperage, which shows people how to make casks, for crying out loud. If pressed, I’m sure that there are farms out here that will show you how to grow barley, and companies that will show you how they make the bottles.

Whisky is sold nearly everywhere, and there are a multitude of shops throughout all of Scotland which would make a collector burst into tears upon viewing. Bottles of the spirit can be found everywhere from the displays at the tourist shops to the local news stands. For someone who arrives in this region from a country that rigidly controls sales and distribution of “hard” liquors, this place is a bit of a shock.

But there also seems to be a bit of a melancholy hidden beneath all of this. Many of the people we met talked about how the true characters of the industry, personified by the likes of Dennis Malcolm, are slowly vanishing from the scene with no one coming up to replace them. The personal touch that these people bring the industry is instead being superseded by huge conglomerates who make decisions not based on hands on experience and personal tastes, but rather marketing reports and an eye on the bottom line. The best example of this is Diageo’s line of Scotches, a total of six, with each situated in a specific region of Scotland. Prefer a lighter whisky? There’s Glenkinchie available for you. Prefer a peatier malt? Well looky there, they have Talisker.

This corporatization of the Scotch Whiskey industry is a double edged sword. Yes, the companies of Diageo, Pernod Ricard and the like can supply the marketing dollars that will help sell these brands world wide, but many of these companies bring with them a sanitizing effect to the business, either taming or wiping away the individuality of whatever distillery they own.

Will this hurt Scotch in the long term? It’s difficult to say, because the whisky industry is a notoriously difficult industry to predict even in the best of circumstances. But if they are going to market the heritage of whatever distillery they own, they have to make that heritage mean something…anything. Independence, which is at the core of most everything the Scots seem to touch, is an especially important aspect to the Scotch whisky industry. To package and market independant-themed heritages is a cynical act which comes with great risk to those institutions that are not independent minded.