The time and changes of Scotch

This #InternationalWomensDay, we’re proud to work in an industry that empowers all people, of all genders, to be the best they can and adapt to the ever-changing and forward-thinking world that is Scotch whisky. Enjoy this wee blog by our very own Julie Trevisan-Hunter, telling a few tales of renewal, adaptation and confidence that helped shaped Scotch whisky into what we know it as today.

The history of Scotch whisky is peppered with stories of change, adaptation, creativity, and above all strength of character.  In the face of many adversities, individuals and companies have taken stock, pulled together and set a new course for survival followed ultimately by global success.  This is the case, I’m sure, with many industries, but there is one thing, that makes the world of Scotch somewhat different: an unavoidable long-term perspective.

Let’s start with the fundamental reason – Scotch’s fourth ingredient.  Following the alchemy between golden barley, pure Scottish spring water and vigorous yeast, follows time.  Time is what imbues Scotch with the very essence of the locale in which it is produced.  As the casks slumber, sometimes for decades, they breath in the local air; sea-salty from the crashing west coast waves, heather-honied from the Highland mountains, floral and fruity from the gentle Speyside glens.  To become Scotch whisky the spirit must mature in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years and one day, of course most whiskies mature for far longer; ten, twenty or event fifty years changing in character day by day as time ticks by. 

During this time, the custodianship of the casks moves from father to daughter, uncle to nephew, grandfather to son to granddaughter and everything in between. Generations of families take more pride in their work than ever experienced in any other industry.

So you can see why planning for the long term, riding the storm and adapting to the times is ingrained in whisky making.  It’s an inspiring and much needed perspective in these times to action, reaction and change on a daily basis when little seems predictable and the future looks uncertain.  So this is the aspect of Scotch that we’d like to use to tell a few tales from its history and its people.

Let’s start at the beginning in 1494 when in Lindores Abbey in the Kingdom of Fife Friar John Corr procured “eight bolls of malt wherewith to make aqua vitae”.  The monastic production of whisky had come to Scotland with Christianity and had its roots in use for medicinal and preserving purposes.  Having lain in ruins for centuries a new distillery is now thriving, not yet old enough to bottle Scotch whisky, their exhaustive search of ancient records and experiments with naturally occurring historic yeasts have led to the creation of a new aquavitae, whist the owners patiently wait for the maturing spirit to become Scotch.  In the past decade new distilleries have sprung up all over Scotland, a renaissance of whisky making.  Adding to the already well established 100+ distilleries, within the past ten years no less than 20 distilleries have been built ranging from the huge, bold, architectural feats of the large distillers companies to the craft, boutique, micro versions set up by lifelong enthusiasts, crowd funding or small cohorts of distilling experts getting together to make a lifelong dream come true.

This spirit (pardon the pun) of entrepreneurship is nothing new to Scotch.  The industrial revolution saw advances in distilling and an entirely new way of distilling Scotch whisky with the creation of Scotch Grain Whisky.  It was also the advent of steam ships crossing the Atlantic at greater speed than ever before allowing an uninvited and most unwelcome guest to make its way from the Americas to Europe.   Phylloxera vastatrix, the unwelcome aphid, decimated the European wines and consequently the provision of the greatly popular brandy.  This was an opportunity for Scotch to take brandy’s place, but it had to become more consistent and softer in character; enter a host of Victorian independent merchants, expert in blending tea for their shops who quickly turned their expert noses to whisky and the creation of the new Blended Scotch Whiskies, mixing the traditional single malts with the newly invented grain whisky.  Renewal, adaptation and confidence to take Scotch whisky to the world heralded the beginnings of Scotch’s global success.

To really see the resilience and adaptability of Scotch you must travel the country and dissect with your own eyes the history of each unique distillery.  The buildings and the architecture of each site take little translation to understand how they have grown over the centuries.  The peaks and troughs are written into the stones of the buildings.  It is rare to find a site that it not a collection of buildings both old and new, adapted and planned, crumbling and pristine.  Deanston in the Highlands started life as a cotton mill and has the most unusual bonded warehouse I have ever seen.  Tullibardine and Glen Moray made a less surprising transition from old brewery sites.  Balvenie is amongst many distilleries built around the original farmhouse and cottages where excess barley from a good year’s harvest was too much to sell or store and made the perfect product to barter and pay rent, once transformed into whisky.  No need to worry about storing your barley and avoiding rot if you turn it into whisky, and the longer you keep it the better it gets!

The industry has never been immune to global shocks, but there is a perspective that comes with experience, with having been around for a while, with knowing that our forebearers coped with equal adversity.  There is a sense of calm that follows when you look to the future not just tomorrow, or next month or even next year.  The whisky made today will be enjoyed in a decade and that thought of looking back ten years past and forward ten years hence puts things in perspective.  Whisky has always been about time, for us sometimes time flies and we don’t know where it has gone, yet sometimes the hands of the clock barely seem to move, but a cask of whisky breathes in Scotland’s character year after year with the promise of a perfect amber dram at the end of a patient wait.

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