Sunday, 3 October 2010

UNSPEAKABLY SCOTS THING - THE AMBER BEAD

The smell, the colour, the taste, the atmosphere...all of them need to be just so for the connoisseur to fully appreciate the ‘amber bead’, Robert Burns’s term for Scotland’s most famous drink, whisky. I would never describe myself as a connoisseur in this sense (and I have often been told, usually by elderly gents, that whisky is wasted on a woman), but I am happy to share a wee dram of an evening as the nights draw in and autumnal chills steal through the air.

Whisky has been on my mind as well as in my throat this week. Despite the current recession it is slightly surprising to find that we still seem able to produce a hot seller in this country, so much so that the biggest distillery in Scotland for 30 years has just opened.

There is frequent criticism that we in the UK didn’t seem to be producing anything any more...where are our manufacturers, what do we make, where are our skills and expertise going if we can’t produce products, and if manufacturing costs in developing countries are so much cheaper, what is the point of trying to make anything anyway? This is a call often heard in a wealthy country like Norway too, and yet, from time to time, the unstoppable spirit of enterprise raises its head and, despite the odds, makes something wonderful....something that people want to buy.

Take whisky. There are strict international laws governing the status of Scotland’s most iconic product. To be called ‘Scotch’, whisky has to have been distilled in Scotland, matured for a minimum of three years and one day, and to have been matured in oak casks. The new distillery has opened at a cost of £40 million, and with 18 years before its casks can be opened and the contents sold, somebody somewhere within these recession-hit borders is an optimist.

So, in the spirit of ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, I have been considering the figures. It turns out that the UK as a whole makes £99 per second in export revenues from whisky. This is big business, with over 2,500 different brands. Last year whisky made £3 billion in exports, one quarter of the UK export sales from food and drink. Apparently, what with whisky being perceived as a ‘lifestyle’ product, the growing middle-classes of China, Korea and South Africa are lapping it up. (India is a weaker market due to current high duties). What is more, whisky has an ability to cope with a variety of economic climates....in hard times it offers comfort and solace, in good times it provides an accompaniment to a celebratory toast.

And it has been so for several hundred years. Since the early 14th century, the term ‘aqua vitae’ (water of life) has been applied to distilled drinks, no doubt a linguistic relic from days of the Roman Empire, and one which exists in Norway to this day (‘aquavit’ being the favourite choice for toast-giving moments). In Scotland, the term was translated from Latin to Gaelic...’usque baugh’, or 'uisge beatha’, and from there to the English ‘whisky’. It is known that King James IV of Scotland was a keen whisky drinker. After Scotland merged with England in the Act of Union in 1707, the taxes on whisky rose dramatically, but consumers were hooked, so production continued to grow.

Even the names, particularly when added to the actual consuming of a dram, can bring a shaft of comfort to many a Scot ....Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Laphroaig, The Macallan, Springbank or Talisker....the very names themselves inspire a nostalgic longing for the hills and glens, and permit an unleashed wallowing in sentiment, a favourite occupation for many a Celt.

For those who can’t stand the taste, I have an alternative offering. Seek out Compton Mackenzie’s novel ‘Whisky Galore’, a tale based on a real incident...in 1941 , the SS Politician was shipwrecked off the isle of Eriskay. The islanders attempted to carry her cargo, bottles of whisky, ashore under the noses of the Home Guard. The novel was followed by a film of the same name made in 1949 by Ealing Studios, and was to be known as one of Britain’s most successful comedies.

Enjoy and slainte mhath.

No comments:

Post a Comment