Food & Drink: Still crazy after all these years: Scotch was born, it seems, on 28 May 1494. Michael Jackson raises his tumbler to it

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Happy birthday, Scotch whisky - and many more of them. When we first met, in Edinburgh, I was 19. You said that you were 12 years old and your name was Glen Grant. I thought you were very grown-up for your age, and deliciously nutty.

Over the years, you have sweetly restored me after rare dalliances with exercise (such as a walk to a pub); tickled my palate with heather to sharpen my appetite; soothed my stomach with warmth after dinner; and smokily eased me into drowsiness before bed. In my youth, full of high spirits, I climbed a lamppost one Saturday and heard midnight strike.

With the decades came maturity. That is the way with Scotch. I have found you already complex and powerful at 18 and 25, at the 'chateau' of Macallan: mellow and profound at 50 at Glenfiddich. Whenever I wish to celebrate, you are the friend I turn to.

Your own years march to a different drummer. I am told that today is your 500th birthday. Half a millennium. No wonder you have such character.

I am English, but I have never shared my countrymen's belief that the Scots are obsessed with the bawbees. All the same, it seems apt that the rolls of the Scottish Exchequer give rise to today's celebration. They record that, in 1494, a friar called John Cor, at an abbey in Fife, purchased malt to make aqua vitae. That is the first written reference to spirits in Scotland, though I will wager their vapours rose in the glens and isles before then.

Aqua vitae, the water of life - the Latin lingers in the Nordic lands still. They say your forebears came via the Western Isles, perhaps across the Giant's Causeway from Ireland; before that as brandy, treading grapily through France and Spain; even earlier as the very knowledge of distillation, brought across the Straits of Gibraltar by the Moors.

There will be a celebratory pipe band marching round the whisky island of Islay today, and a ceilidh on Monday. Shall I celebrate with the seaweedy whiskies of Islay, or follow the band on the ferry to Jura, with its gentler flavours? There will also be bands in the Highlands today at Glenfiddich (in Dufftown), Glendronach (Huntly) and Glenturret (Crieff).

In the Lowlands today, I could watch fireworks at Dumbarton, and hope that none of the rockets lands on Ballantine's warehouses (whisky is so combustible that distillery fires have erupted throughout its colourful history).

I could see barley being malted at Benriach (Elgin), whisky being made at Laphroaig (Islay), and casks being coopered at Craigellachie, Glengoyne (near Glasgow) or Tormore (Advie).

If such magical places are too far for a day trip, there is no need to fret. Summer's ahead, and there are scores of distilleries to explore.

From Edinburgh, it is only 15 or 20 miles to the rolling countryside between the Lammermuir Hills and the coast, where, amid fields of barley, near Pencaitland, a glen suddenly reveals the farm and distillery where the grassy-tasting Glenkinchie is produced.

A garden of roses and delphiniums blooms in front of the cottagey office, and the brick- built distillery looks like a Borders woollen mill. Inside, a model 15 yards long and 6ft high shows how the distillery works; it was built for the 1924 Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

There is a sense of another time, a lost world, Brigadoon-ishly hiding between the hills, when one stumbles upon a distillery. They like to be near the mountain waters (and remote spots were especially favoured by the many that began illegally).

Inland from Perth, near Crieff, tiny Glenturret is one of several claimants to being the oldest distillery in Scotland, and some of its buildings date from the 1700s. Its output is small and much of its nutty-tasting whisky is sold to visitors. Like several distilleries, it has a restaurant.

Not far away, near Pitlochry, the distillery of Edradour is the smallest in Scotland. It sits behind a white picket fence, matching the bridge over a burn that tumbles from the mountains. In an old malting kiln, of traditional pagoda design, visitors are greeted with a glass of creamy Edradour whisky.

The practice of visiting distilleries for a tour and a wee dram may have been started by Queen Victoria when she first visited Balmoral. She was invited to see the nearby Lochnagar distillery, and arrived next day, unannounced, with Prince Albert and three children. Having sampled the whisky, she permitted the distillery to style itself 'royal'.

Lochnagar looks as though it expects a royal visit every day. Its buildings are frequently repointed to highlight the colours and shapes of the local stone from which they are built, the open beams kept in impeccable condition, the copper pipes and stills gleaming. A byre has been turned into a coffee shop and the distillery manager's wife looks after guests herself.

Such touches are not unusual, even though most of the distilleries are owned by large companies. The distilleries themselves are small, almost cottage industries. Personal and national pride - and diligence - are much in evidence.

On Speyside at Knockando, where the whisky is light and flowery, distillery manager Innes Shaw cultivates half a dozen varieties of heather, each flowering at a different time. He also keeps poultry, sheep and cattle on the land around the distillery, as well as refereeing local soccer.

When the manager of another distillery took me into town for lunch, we seemed to be stopped every few yards by proud citizens wishing to discuss his latest appearance with the local choir.

This weekend, I sing the praises of Scottish culture, especially of its greatest contribution to my pleasure. However - and whenever - I celebrate, I promise not to climb any lampposts.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments