Why isn’t whisky champagne, I found myself asking the other night. My husband and I were up late-ish, following long hard working days involving difficult meetings and difficult conversations and were having a dram together to put the worst of it to rest.
What a drink is a single malt.
Nothing like it for soothing the soul. Opening up the heart.
As the writer Neil Gunn said, taking a dram with someone is to leave the banalities of the world behind and go into “the big room”.
That’s a lovely idea. So metaphysical and yet so simple. A splash of Laphroaig or Highland Park or any of the whiskies we love in the bottom of a glass, along with a drop of water – best taken from the spring near our house in Sutherland, but a bit of tap water will also do – and that’s it. Straightforward and yet also gorgeously complicated.
A sip of a single malt gives you a walk, is how I always think of it, a lovely long walk across the places of its provenance. There you go along the Spey or up over a beach in Caithness…Or you’re in the Hebrides or in Orkney, coming down near the golden sands of Tain or back towards familiar hills in from Brora… On we can go, walking our way through Scotland, taking in the moors and straths and water and skies and mountains…The place where the whisky was made comes back to us in the glass in our hand.
But alas, this particular night we weren’t in Scotland at all. We were nowhere near.
Why? Because we were drinking a Japanese whisky that my husband had been persuaded to try by the guy who was doing a promotion in the off-licence near his work.
“Give it a go,” he’d said. “Honestly. These Japanese whiskies are just as good. Truth to tell,” he added, “they’re getting better and better.”
This whisky we had in our glasses, then, “Product of Nikka Pure Malt” – “Peaty and Salty” it said on the label – had won all the big awards and was on track to clear up in the international whisky sales market. We had a sip. We had another. And yes, it was good. It was doing all the right things… But something was missing. It was Scotland.
At this point, and it may have been the first time this has fully occurred to me, I suddenly “got” the whole made-in-Scotland thing.
Up until that moment, I think, I’d always found the Saltires stuck on slabs of beef and scarves and soap kind of annoying, actually. It was all a bit too hard sell, like the retailers were trying too hard to flog us the idea that stuff made in Scotland is really, really good. From my own perspective, I’ve never doubted that so didn’t need to be told it.
The minute my Hunter boots, for example, stopped being a small family business from Dumfries and got made over by some ghastly hedge fund and then made in China for Kate Moss and the Glastonbury set they became rubbish. The pair I’d owned for 30 years did have “Made in Scotland” on them, it’s true, in tiny writing under the word Hunter, but I’d never thought about it.
I’d be wearing those boots still if I hadn’t put a nail through the heel which I had literally walked down to a slipper-like thinness. And then the next pair I got with no “Made in Scotland” on them sprang a leak after two months because they weren’t and went straight into the bin.
I’d never thought about these kinds of things in this kind of order before, but sitting there, nursing our Japanese “drams” – could I even call them that? – I suddenly saw what the old Nationalists have been banging on about, with all their talk of Scot-LAND. Because it’s good, the stuff we make, it’s really, really good and we don’t make nearly enough of the fact.
So here’s the thing then, why doesn’t Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of them stop talking about this and actually do something about it?
Which is where my question came in.
Why isn’t whisky champagne? In other words, what I am trying to get at here, is why can’t we be like the French are with one of their national drinks with ours? Why can’t whisky – spelled that particular way, not as whiskey, or scotch, but as our whisky – only be whisky if it’s come from the place where it’s always been made? The Highlands and Islands and Lowlands of Scotland. You’re not allowed to call any sparkling wine that’s not been made in Champagne, champagne.
So why should you be able to call a malt that’s been made in Osaka a whisky?
Suddenly, in a rush, I thought: that’s the national project, right there. Forget about separatism and political independence and cutting off all the subsidies from Westminster. Just focus on protecting the things we do and owning them, somehow.
In a way that’s effective, I mean. Practical. Not some emotional idea of Scot-LAND and how special and different we are but making a simple sensible step towards looking after ourselves by protecting our distilleries – and, by extension, a whole swathe of our particular Scottish produce and manufactured goods – by creating brands and patents around them.
Why should glamorous Brora cashmere not have to be made in Brora?
You see, there’s another example. And there are many, many more. Boots and shoes and “Highland Tweed”. I was over in the wonderful Sutherland Sporting Tweed Company in Lairg talking with owners Iain and Narida Offor in their beautiful wood-panelled shop about this very thing. A conversation that began with the lucky find of a pair of Made in Scotland Hunter Boots, the last pair perhaps in the Kingdom, that I swiftly put on and purchased.
“It’s important that we can say a Highland tweed jacket is from the Highlands” Narida said, of the family business she took over from her parents and whose children, featuring in the photos in the shop window, will no doubt do the same. And it’s sad that for most jackets that you buy in Scotland that’s just not the case.
So yes, trademark, trademark, trademark. Protectionism and being like the French, a culture that has always taken pride in what they do and we know because they have the laws to prove it.
Let’s be properly careful about, look after, the things we do. There’s the outline of my politics from here on in. That way the rest of the world can copy us to their heart’s content, they can even clean up if they want to at international food and drinks awards, but just as champagne can only come from France, whisky can only come from Scotland. And that’s whisky – W-H-I-S-K-Y.