Acting the part

Acting the part

It was only amatter of time before Monarch of the Glen discovered whisky. Gavin Smith reports.

People | 28 Dec 2003 | Issue 36 | By Gavin Smith

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The scene: A Highland distillery close to the River Spey. The action: The distillery owner walks down the steps from the boardroom at the conclusion of a meeting, followed by a number of tweedy men. So far, so traditional. But the owner is a beautiful young blonde dressed in a stylish cream trouser suit. No, this isn’t another of those not altogether salubrious dreams I have.This is real life. Of sorts.
For the Speyside distillery, located just across the River Spey from the Inverness-shire village of Kingussie, has been transformed into the fictional Lagganmore distillery, and is serving as a film set for the fifth series of the BBC Scotland television drama series Monarch of the Glen.The last series of Monarch regularly attracted 8.5m viewers in the United Kingdom and was sold to 24 countries around the world, including the United States of America, Canada and Australia, which means that this is an invaluable shop window for the Scotch whisky industry.According to Monarch of the Glen producer Stephen Garwood, “the show is very much about Scotland and we are always trying to make stories relevant to Scotland. It’s a fact that whisky is a primary source of interest in this country. “We’d never seen a distillery on Monarch before, and apart from anything else it makes a fantastic backdrop to the action.“We wanted to feature a local business, and we all came to the conclusion that it would be great to do a distillery story. “Early on, we sent the writer along to have a look at the Speyside distillery, and he thought it was fantastic. “He did a lot of research on the processes of whisky making, which shows in the storyline, and it evolved from that.“It has to be good for the Scotch whisky industry – everyone watching will be aware of the reverence with which characters
view the whisky, and there are scenes of them in the tasting room and so on.”Location manager Duncan Muggoch points out that the fictional Lagganmore Single Malt has featured obliquely in several past episodes of Monarch of the Glen, including one where a runaway cask caused chaos in Glenbogle House.“Finally the scriptwriters decided to take it a stage further and feature the actual Lagganmore distillery,”says Muggoch. “The storyline is that the old distillery owner dies, and his daughter, played by Sarah Stewart, comes back from London where she has been working.The story is based on the fact that she brings with her some fancy ideas about altering and modernising the distillery. This is classic territory for the programme and inevitably it raises the temperature with the villagers.“A clash with the old guard ensues. For one thing, working practices are very out of date – there are something like 15 to 20 people working at the distillery, when in reality at Speyside there is the manager and three shift operators.

“I came across the Speyside distillery when we were filming nearby. Immediately I knew it was the right place. “We recognise that whisky is a massive icon of Scottishness, so it makes a lot of sense for it to feature in Monarch.”Speyside was perfect in scale for the purposes of the story, suitably traditional in appearance, and beautifully situated. When it came to ‘dressing’ the distillery for filming, few changes were required in order to transform it into Lagganmore. Internally, some wooden panelling was added to the ‘open-plan’ production area in order to suggest greater antiquity, and a corner of the building was turned into a mini-warehouse, with the whisky casks stencilled ‘Lagganmore’. In reality, all the spirit produced at Speyside is tankered away on a weekly basis to Speyside Distillers Co.’s bottling, blending and warehousing facilities at Rutherglen, near Glasgow, where spirit is matured in a mix of ex-bourbon hogsheads and former sherry butts. In addition to its new role as a film star, the Speyside distillery has several other claims to fame.For one, it must surely merit a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the length of time it took to build. Construction work began in 1962, and the first spirit did not flow until 1990. Secondly, despite its name, the Speyside distillery is not classified as a Speyside, but as a Highland single malt, which seems rather absurd, considering that the river is just a few hundred yards from the site.Ricky Christie is head of sales for the Speyside Distillers Co, and in 2000 he and his four business partners bought the company from its Swiss owners, Scowis, who, in turn, had purchased it from the Christie family back in the 1980s. The original Speyside Distillery & Bonding Company was founded in 1955 by Ricky’s father, George Christie, a wartime naval officer who later worked with whisky broker Gus Paterson, father of Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard.“It was supposed to be a stop-gap job while he was waiting to become a merchant navy captain,”explains Ricky. “But he found he was doing well and making so much more money brokering than he would have made in the merchant navy that he stayed in the industry.”In 1958 George Christie took over the former Knox’s Brewery at Cambus, and converted it into a distillery, producing both pot still single malt, called Strathmore, and patent still spirit, marketed as North of Scotland Grain Whisky.The company sold grain spirit to several large blending companies, but closed the distillery in the early 1980s when the ‘whisky loch’ was at its fullest, and business was very slow. “From 1982 until 1990 we had no distillery, but we were active brokers and still had plenty of whisky stocks,”notes Ricky Christie.The Christie family’s first connection with the Kingussie area came in 1958, when George Christie purchased Old Milton House and the land on which the distillery now stands by the River Tromie.It was only after owning the property for a decade that Christie found out that Old Milton used to be the home of John MacPherson Grant, managing director of the original Speyside distillery in Kingussie village, which operated from 1895 until 1911. Ricky Christie recalls that when his father bought the house, the telegraph wires which had connected it to the long demolished distillery were still in place.George Christie liked the idea of restoring distilling to the district.During the mid-1960s, he contracted local stonemason Alex Fairlie to construct the new distillery in unobtrusive, traditional style. Ricky Christie recalls that his father referred to the slowly developing distillery as ‘the implement shed’ in order to counter any public curiosity.Work proceeded at a leisurely pace, and it was not until late on 12th December 1990 that the fully-equipped distillery was ready to make whisky. Ricky remembers that his father was too nervous to be involved in the first distillation, and left it to his son, who was forced in the face of blizzards and freezing temperatures to break the ice on the mill lade in order to obtain water for the condensers. Finally, spirit began to flow. “It was a magical night,” he recalls. The Speyside distillery operates with the pair of small stills from which Ricky coaxed spirit on that winter’s night, and has an annual output of around 600,000 litres of spirit, making Speyside Distillers Co. one of the smallest independent whisky producers in Scotland.Asked about the effects of the distillery’s new-found film star status, Ricky Christie expresses the hope that once people have seen it on their television screens, tasteful marketing opportunities might arise, perhaps featuring a Lagganmore expression of the single malt. Another possibility involves incorporating part of the episode in which the distillery features in a company promotional video. He also points out that his company owns the ‘Old Monarch’ brand name, so it is not inconceivable that this may reappear at some future date.At present, the Speyside distillery is one of the most difficult to locate in all of Scotland. It lies down a long descending driveway behind an anonymous farm gate, out of sight of the ‘B’road which runs to the east of the Spey. Its owners have never set their stall out to invite the public in.Now, however, all that might have to change. Talking to members of the Monarch crew, the word is that ‘Boglies’, as fans of the series set in fictional Glenbogle are known, are particularly persistent when it comes to winkling out the real-life locations used for filming. Despite all of this, Ricky Christie does not expect to find bus parties of foreign tourists waiting on the distillery doorstep.But he can’t help a chuckle when he thinks of the likely reaction of his father, now aged 84 and still living in Old Milton House, to such a scenario.Christie Snr is not known to favour the all singing, all dancing visitor centre approach, but Ricky says that he was happy enough to allow the filming to take place, knowing it could only help to raise the profile of the distillery he created and its single malt around the world.

It reflects a shift of attitude, one that the Monarch makers would relate to.In Iowa and Queensland they’re probably booking their coach seats at this very moment… A bond has developed between the Speyside distillery and Monarch of the Glen, with Ricky Christie noting that “Andy Shand, our manager, has been selling bucketfuls of Speyside to the Monarch crew – they do seem to have come to think of it as their local whisky”. The popular actress Susan Hampshire plays Molly MacDonald, the matriarch of Glenbogle, and she says that “two years running as a present I gave all the cast a bottle of whisky from the Speyside distillery. They did special labels and everything for us”.Susan came to Monarch with a string of television hits such as The Forsyte Saga, The Pallisers and The Grand to her credit, as well as a distinguished theatre career, and has enjoyed a love affair with Scotland and things Scottish since spending several childhood years in Wick.She has found herself spending up to seven and a half months per year based in a Newtonmore bed and breakfast establishment during filming of Monarch. Susan has been married since 1981 to theatrical impresario Eddie Kulukundis, who has enjoyed a long association with the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. According to the actress, “my husband has always been a great lover of Glenmorangie – wherever he went people had a glass for him as he didn’t drink champagne. “I only drink whisky maybe once a month, but my sister, who is several years older than me, is exceedingly healthy on a glass of whisky every day. She may have more – I’m not there to check!”She giggles at the idea of a headline “whisky keeps you healthy says Susan.” “In moderation, of course”, she stresses, with a broad smile. “Whisky with lemon, honey and hot water is always the first thing I go for if I’m ill – literally the first, and I recommend that to everyone I know. “My father only ever drank whisky – and whenever I smell whisky it always evokes memories of him. We filmed at Dalwhinnie distillery for Monarch once, and as soon as I got a whiff of the place it made me think immediately of my father.“When I drink whisky I like single malts. I enjoy a whisky which is special, which hits you by the smell. I wouldn’t buy a supermarket whisky. At home we usually have Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich, but my idea of a perfect whisky is one you can drink neat by the fire when it is cold outside – an Islay or something else very peaty”.
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