'A Sense of Place': Discovering Scotch whisky 'bioregionalism' with Dave Broom

'A Sense of Place': Discovering Scotch whisky 'bioregionalism' with Dave Broom

Acclaimed whisky writer Dave Broom is using his latest book to explore the concept of ‘bioregionalism’ in Scotch whisky, taking a deep dive into its environmental, historical, and social contexts

Interview | 21 Dec 2022 | Issue 188 | By Felipe Schrieberg

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When I last saw him during a press trip in Dublin, award-winning whisky writer and author Dave Broom managed to convey both annoyance and pride when I congratulated him on his new book A Sense of Place, complaining that his publisher made him tone down the amount of Gaelic poetry featured in its pages but that he was happy enough with the book in its final form. Far from a straightforward guide to Scotch whisky, in his latest book Broom draws on history, archaeology, sociology, biology, forestry, ecology and indeed poetry to answer the following question: what is bioregionalism and how does it apply to Scotch whisky?

In figuring out the answer, we get to see Broom’s best qualities as a writer and whisky thinker shine through – few can match his ability to blend together critical thinking, insight and industry knowledge while giving the resulting mix a romantic twist. Here, he illustrates how a new generation of whisky makers in Scotland are thinking about the production of the water of life, how it impacts the communities they live in, and what that means for flavour.

Though bioregionalism as a concept first emerged in the 1970s, Broom traces the ideas behind it to Scottish biologist and sociologist Patrick Geddes, and in his book defines it as “an ongoing interaction between work, place and folk, and the ways in which this triad intertwined. It’s a holistic view, sensitive to landscape and economic possibilities applicable to urban or rural settings.”

Whisky author and commentator Dave Broom

Bioregionalism is not a very marketable word to analyse how a distillery makes whisky, though. When I interviewed him, Broom prefers to refer to it as ‘place’ instead, comparing it to another idea that’s been in vogue in the whisky world during the last couple years: “It just seemed to make more sense as an interpretation of whisky making than ‘terroir’, which mainly seems to talk about grain variety. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing to do, because grain has flavour, and then you can look at soil conditions, and other things. But it really focuses on the field itself, while bioregionalism covers all of that as well as the culture of the people living within the specific area, and other factors can also be considered.”

One of those factors that plays a big role is the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. Rich Scottish landowners evicted whole communities across rural areas of Scotland and the Hebrides, mostly redeveloping the land for sheep grazing. Not many communities, particularly on the west coast of Scotland, have managed to re-establish themselves since – some that are now successfully doing so feature new whisky distilleries, their construction driven by the growing market for single malt. Broom illustrates how Nc’nean, the Raasay Distillery, Ardnamurchan and others have become not just a source of economic but also social capital for the remote rural communities they’re based in.

“Building a distillery like these is like dropping a pebble into a pool, and the resulting ripples help create or recreate a community. All of a sudden you’ve got careers, you’ve got shops opening up, you got more tourism,” he explains. “The benefits keep coming. Annabel Thomas [Nc’nean’s founder] pointed out to me that it means the primary school stays open and it means that the doctor’s surgery stays open and it’s this social aspect, this community aspect of distilling, which I think was to some extent lost or obscured in the 20th century when blends were more important.”

The owners and companies behind these distilleries are not just thinking about production, but also their role in the communities they’re based in and their environmental footprint, and it informs how they develop their businesses.

It’s not just small producers in the book – Broom explores Scottish forests with Whyte and Mackay’s blender and whisky maker Gregg Glass, who is using more Scottish oak for maturation while driving a wider replanting campaign of thousands of oak trees at the Fasque estate, where Whyte and Mackay’s Fettercairn distillery is based. Glass is working with local sawmills and Fasque’s enormous forestry nursery, connecting them to Speyside Cooperage to create special casks for whisky. In Speyside, Broom visits the impressive archives created by the Gordon family (who own William Grant & Sons with the Grant family), charting how they were making whisky in the 19th century through to Glenfiddich, the pioneer of single malt from the 1960s and onwards. The company’s long history and continuous ownership by the Gordons has determined how the company is run and the values it’s still built on.

I asked Broom how this book compares to his previous country-wide exploration of whisky, 2017’s The Way of Whisky. “The Way of Whisky was looking at what makes Japanese whisky Japanese. The theory I tested there was that there’s a parallel between Japanese whisky with the approach to traditional crafts in Japan,” he said.

“This is more people focused. I always wanted to talk about community and the role of people within whisky in these communities. Working on this book, what surprised me was the deep thinking which lies behind this idea of place…it was realising that there’s this completely forgotten history of Scotch whisky that isn’t a business history, it’s a social history and that kind of changed the thinking behind the book. It changed the way I was thinking about whisky.”

This approach helps identify a new chapter in the history of Scotch that the industry is now in, where the whisky maker’s art is defined by sustainability and creativity. The technology, business principles and science of whisky have now been well covered and the knowledge and equipment made accessible for many to use.

New whisky makers are applying those lessons in holistic ways while established companies are re-examining how they should approach production. Nc’nean’s whisky is made entirely out of organic barley. Glass’s well-received Scottish oak experiments have plenty of unusual tropical notes. Harris Distillery is helping economically revitalise the island it calls home.

Broom’s success in A Sense of Place is charting this radical new shift. “I didn’t want to write a book about every facility in Scotland. I didn’t want to have lots of tasting notes. I felt that there was another story to tell, another way to see where the Scotch whisky industry was at the moment,” he reflects. “It ended up being this taking of a temperature of an industry in the process of pretty significant evolution.”
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