The Defence Threat Reduction Agency, a shadowy American organisation set up during the Cold War to monitor covert anti-American activities, has, it emerged at the weekend, been concentrating rather intently on the quiet Hebridean island of Islay. In particular, it has been watching the comings and goings at the Bruichladdich distillery.
I was startled; it is barely a month since I was on Islay and indeed returned with a bottle of 46 proof, 15-year-old Bruichladdich single malt. Now it emerges that the distilling process at Bruichladdich (pronounced "brook-laddie") is uncannily similar to the techniques used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.
While surfing the internet, agents based just outside Washington DC - their mission "to safeguard the US and its allies from weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high explosives)" - came across the Bruichladdich's webcam - its mission, to demonstrate old-fashioned distillation methods to whisky enthusiasts across the world. They immediately suspected sinister deeds.
We don't know how long this misunderstanding lasted, nor why anyone at the agency thought that bomb-makers might install a webcam showing themselves hard at work. Nor do we know whether agents were dispatched to Islay to see at closer quarters the suspected weapons being made.
Had they been, they would have found very little but a few distillieries, a few tiny fishing villages, a lot of sheep and a golf course - which I suppose might have got them excited, given reports that Osama bin Laden is holed up in a remote bunker somewhere. The error was subsequently admitted, but a DTRA spokesman offered no apology. As is becoming increasingly clear, 11 September means never having to say you're sorry.
"The United States is part of the Chemical Weapons Convention," the spokesman earnestly said. "And as such we are committed to the process of destroying chemical weapons. That includes monitoring and visiting commercial facilities where they would be able to make chemical weapons." The difference between distilling a good whisky and turning out a potent chemical weapon, added Ursula Stearns of the DTRA, requires "just a small tweak".
All of which begs some frankly alarming questions. What might have happened, for example, if wee Moira McDougall on the Bruichladdich production line had accidentally made the precise small tweak to which Ms Stearns refers, perhaps while distracted by her colleague Lizzie McTaggart's celebrated impression of Rab C Nesbitt? I could have brought my bottle of single malt home to the Welsh Marches, opened it to pour my father-in-law a dram, and wiped out half of Herefordshire.
"Bloody hell," I can imagine my father-in-law saying, as the smoke finally cleared to reveal an apocalypse of small fires and bent girders. "That's powerful stuff."
Still, there is consolation in the thought that a small tweak can go both ways, and that beetle-browed technicians in a bomb factory in the East End of London might admire their handiwork, gleefully anticipating the terrible destruction about to be unleashed, only to realise they have inadvertently produced a decent malt whisky.
In the meantime, now that I think back to my few days on Islay, certain things fall into place. To our great surprise we kept sighting Lord Robertson, the secretary-general of Nato, and assumed he must have a holiday home somewhere on the island, but perhaps he was there at the behest of the Americans, keeping an eye on Bruichladdich. He didn't look as though he was on terrorist-catching duty, in fact when we saw him he was wearing Pringle knitwear slightly too small for him. But perhaps that was merely to deflect suspicion; almost everyone on Islay wears Pringle knitwear slightly too small for them.
I am prepared to write off the whole surreal episode as comedy. Certainly, with a few small tweaks, as it were, the story could inspire an irresistible film; Mission Impossible meets Whisky Galore with a bit of Austin Powers thrown in.
On which subject, my children have just greatly enjoyed the James Bond spoof Johnny English, starring Rowan Atkinson as an inept spy. The agent who heaped suspicion on the Bruichladdich distillery would be a good subject for that film's wonderful strapline: "He knows no danger ... he knows no fear ... he knows nothing".
But as a pretentious whisky writer might say of Bruichladdich's 15-year-old single malt, there are profoundly serious undertones beneath the surface frivolity. If counter-terrorism resources are being ploughed into keeping watch over an obscure Scottish distillery, what is the chance that activities at a bomb factory in the East End of London, or New York, are being overlooked? Pretty high, I'd say.
It is heartening, in a way, that the grim old business of chemical and biological weapons can yield some humour; less heartening that this extraordinary business offers proof, at least as strong as a good malt whiskey, that the world's security is not in remotely safe hands. But then we knew that anyway. The most effective way to forget about it is to get enjoyably hammered, and as it happens I have just the means. Better still, I can detonate it in less than 45 minutes.Reuse content