Opinion: Why we must preserve whisky history

Opinion: Why we must preserve whisky history

Applauding those who safeguard whisky's history – whether through oral, literary, or visual methods

Thoughts from... 26 Jan 2024 | By Christopher Coates

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I’ve written previously (Editor’s Word, Issue #184) about my growing concern that the whisky industry is on the cusp of losing multi-generational institutional knowledge. Thus, I’m immeasurably pleased when I see an effort being made to record oral history, preserve artefacts, and share these gems with the public.

 

At a grassroots level, I treasure scans of old distillery photographs and adverts posted to Facebook groups, and I salute those taking the time to do this. However, these groups’ decentralised nature is both their strength and weakness. Images flood in from numerous sources, but in random order and often without much context. Worst of all, it can be hard to find an image posted weeks ago, especially if you can’t remember to which group it was published or by whom. I would love to see the emergence of a centralised, not-for-profit, digitised archive of out-of-copyright whisky images – a resource that would be of use to distillers, publishers, historians, and enthusiasts alike.

 

Thankfully, there are some formal projects preserving whisky knowledge that I encourage you to seek out and enjoy. The Whisky Legends podcast is an in-depth interview with Tim Morrison, chairman of Clydeside Distillery and A.D. Rattray, and former director of Morrison Bowmore Distillers. Hosted by Tim’s grandson, Andrew Maxwell, the series is a deep dive into the history of one of Scotch whisky’s most prominent families. Packed with amusing anecdotes and insights, it’s free to stream online.

 

On YouTube, Arthur Motley and Dave Broom’s channel, The Liquid Antiquarian, delves into a wide variety of topics spanning the production and social history of whisky and other spirits. Published occasionally and often streamed live, the videos are exceptionally well researched and stem from genuine curiosity, while benefiting from the knowledge of two of the industry’s most well-versed and respected leaders.

 

In print, Une Brève Mais Intense Histoire du Whisky Français by Matthieu Acar is a spectacular tome that records the past 40 years of French whisky history, from 1983–2023. Made possible by La Maison du Whisky, I was stunned by the sheer scale, detail, and depth of this undertaking. Even with my passable French reading skills, I found myself immediately drawn in (though unwavering Anglophones will still enjoy the excellent photography and detailed technical illustrations).

 

Then there’s On the Production Methods of Pot Still Whisky, the translated report of a 25-year-old Masataka Taketsuru. Written in 1920 during his time working at Hazelburn Distillery in Campbeltown, it was taken back to his employers in Japan and became the foundation stone of the Japanese whisky industry. Translated by Ruth Anne Herd, with technical editing by Prof Alan G. Wolstenholme, its words, charts, and sketches are a fascinating and detailed snapshot of Campbeltown distilling at the time.

 

Finally, independent bottler James Eadie must be applauded for creating two huge reference books, with the support of retailer Royal Mile Whiskies. The Distilleries of Great Britain and Ireland, 1922–1929 republishes a seven-year series of articles from the Wine & Spirit Trade Record that profiled 124 distilleries. (Think of it as the spiritual successor to Alfred Barnard’s famous 1887 treatise.) Next came The Distillation of Whisky, 1927–1931, a reproduction of works in two trade publications (one being the Record) throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, which delve into the practical manufacture of whisky at that time.

 

Such is the scale and scope of these two books, I suspect it will be some time until the wider whisky world feels the full impact of James Eadie’s contribution, which has made available texts that were hitherto scattered across multiple volumes and very hard to lay one’s hands on. The project’s crowning achievement is the agreement by six distilleries to distil spirits inspired by some of the practices outlined in the articles.

 

I’m inspired by these contributions to the body of whisky knowledge and those who’ve dedicated their time and money to preserving and sharing what they’ve learned with the world. 

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