Scotland brought to life

Scotland brought to life

To celebrate the launch of Scotland and its Whiskies, written by Michael Jackson with photography by Harry Cory Wright, we bring you an exclusive abridged preview of this definitive photographic exploration of malt whisky country.

History | 16 Jun 2001 | Issue 16 | By Michael Jackson

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As the ferry approaches the rocky shore, three great Gaelic names declaim their presence: Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig. They rise from the water’s edge to the rooftops. On a bright day, the sun highlights the stark black type painted on the whitewashed outer walls of each of these famous distilleries. On a stormy day, the tides hurl not only salt but also seaweed against the walls. The atomized spray of brine and iodine fills the atmosphere, permeates the earth and occupies much of the territory, penetrating most powerfully here in the south, where the land quickly rises into a plateau of peat bog. The island once produced salt commercially by dehydration, but that was never its great gift to the world. Not naked salt.Islay – variously pronounced ee-luh (by Gaelic speakers), eye-luh (by most Scots) and occasionally eye-lay – is by far the greatest whisky island. It is only 25 miles (40 km) long and 15 miles (24 km) wide with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants, but it has six operating distilleries, a seventh in working order, an eighth that survives only in the bottle, and fragments of more. Yet another distillery is on the adjoining island of Jura. Two of the distilleries have their own small maltings, burning the local peat. A third, much larger, freestanding maltings uses the same fuel, and to varying extents provides a supply or supplement to every distillery on the island. The three maltings dig from three different peat bogs on the island, each imparting a slightly different taste to the whisky.Scotland has two-thirds of the bog-land in Britain. The peat’s principal component is sphagnum moss, but it includes a rich diversity of other plants and it has been forming for up to 10,000 years. In the Western Isles, especially Islay, the peat is rich in bog myrtle (Myrica gale), which has a sweet, cypress-like aroma and bitter flavour. Bog myrtle was one of the flavourings used in beer before the hop plant was adopted, and clearly influences the aroma of the island’s peat and whisky.No other island has more than two distilleries (and only Orkney has two, one making its own peated malt). Islay thus has far more whiskies than any other island. Moreover these include the majority of Scotland’s most intense-tasting malts. Other coasts and islands have salty whiskies, other moorlands and mountains offer peat. Islay combines the two with unsurpassed weight, then exceeds either with a further element – the island’s coast of seaweed, with its vegetal, medicinal aromas and flavours. Few drinks anywhere in the world have flavours as distinctive as a salty-peat Islay malt.The island’s weather and topography perfect the hydrological cycle, creating a natural system for the production of whisky. As the sea offers up its vapours, the rains immediately find summits of 500 metres (6,560 ft), then seep through quartzite rock in the east, limestone in the north, slate in the middle of the island and ironstone in the west. Whatever mineral flavours are acquired on this trajectory, and as the waters gush from the springs, are then overlaid as the resultant streams wash over the peat bogs. This peaty, salty, seaweedy water first influences the whisky when it is used to steep the grains as part of the malting procedure. The peat itself later exerts a second influence when it is employed as fuel to kiln the malt. When this is happening, each of the Islay maltings being on the coast, the smoke of the burning peat and the kilning barley blends with the sea air. The atmosphere is filled with yet more aromas, as through anchovy paste had been spread thickly on freshly-toasted, grainy, thick-cut brown bread. More of the island water adds to the alchemy of earth, wind and fire when it is mixed with the malt in the infusion mash. Finally, the casks of whisky breathe the smoky, peaty, seaweedy, briny atmosphere as they sleep in those coastal warehouses.All of the working distilleries are at the water’s edge. The three mentioned are the most exposed to the sea. One spring day, Ardbeg opened a reception centre for visitors. The following Christmas, the place looked as if it had been shelled. The walls had been penetrated by flying tiles; the rooftop of a malt barn opposite had been swept off by the wind. Anyone who lives in an easily-described place wearies of its stereotype, but the people of Islay should not complain too hard about “storm-tossed island”.Wherever in the world one travels, the sea journey offers the greatest sense of arrival: the very edge of the new land gradually coming into view, people in silhouette waiting for the moment at which to wave a greeting.On midwinter mornings the short crossing from the north-east of Ireland begins in the dark, allowing the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig to rise with the dawn. The island, a dormant volcanic spike less than a mile wide, but 927ft (338m) high, serves as a greeting to Scotland. It may be a somewhat metaphorical salute, but it seems to excite even the passengers whose absence has been no more than a shopping trip to Belfast. It also caught the attention of such romantic poets as Wordsworth and Keats. The sea journey, in smaller, more perilous craft, was made by Celtic tribes called the Scotti about 1,500 years ago. They were by no means the first inhabitants of this land across the water, but they contributed its name. Some historians accord Irish Celtic origin to earlier settlers, the Picts, but that is uncertain. Even before them, Neolithic people of yet less certain origin brewed barley and oats on another of the Scottish islands (Rum), and left behind fragments of pot vessels bearing traces of this early beer.Legend has an Irish giant using rocks in the sea as stepping stones so that he could come and show later inhabitants how to distil their brew into whisky. No one knows when either country first distilled, but documentary evidence comes late: the 1200s in Ireland and the 1400s
in Scotland.People have never ceased to cross back and forth between Ireland and Scotland. Wherever they come from, those arriving in Scotland today may be in search of lochs and mountains, music and literature, or their own origins. Or of Scotland’s spirit. The water of life exerts a
powerful pull, which some of us are unable to resist. My travelling companion was a Northern Irish Protestant, Raymond Armstrong. Like the majority of his community, he is of Scottish origin. My Irish-Scottish friend was fighting a battle to reopen a distillery that had been closed.It was January 25th, a notable day in the Scottish year. We were on our way to a dinner to commemorate the birth in 1759 of Robert Burns,
Scotland’s national poet. Burns wrote of love in a field of barley; personalised the grain as John Barleycorn, giving his blood; and pronounced that whisky and freedom went together. His respect for the common man made him an icon in the old Communist world, yet he is also
celebrated in the most conservative corners of the Scottish diaspora.One of Burns’ poems famously apologises to a mouse: “I’m truly sorry man’s dominion has broken nature’s social union.” Quoting this poem, Armstrong told me that he had once failed an animal. When he was eight years old his father had given him three sheep. While grazing, one of them fell into a flax pit and died. “I felt that I had been a catastrophic failure. I have never again allowed myself to fail in anything I have tried to achieve. I will not fail with the distillery.” As he made his pledge, the ferry docked at the small seaside town and port of Stranraer, in the district of Galloway.
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