By Tom Morton

In a Northern glass

Tom Morton, BBC broadcaster and writer gives us his view of the whisky world from the Shetland archipelago
It sits, half-empty (or half full, depending on one’s point of view), in one of the kitchen cupboards, ready for visitors judged unworthy of anything better, any sore muscles in need of embrocation, the disinfection of wounds and the cleaning of surgical implements. It is a litre bottle of Zetland North Sea whisky, for the moment, and probably for a long time to come, Shetland’s only semi-native dram. Courtesy of a distillery and blending operation near Loch Lomond, and a backstreet Lerwick shop called Brucefield Stores. It is very possibly the worst blended whisky in the world. Though having said that, it is quite effective for emergency tooth-polishing, if hazardous to cheap brushes.

Brucefield Stores sells litres of Zetland for around the £12 mark, but most bottles go, via the shop’s associate company, G & B Anderson, duty-free to visiting Scandinavian yachtsmen, foreign fishermen and other seafaring folk. For the princely sum of £3.50. Yes, for a single pub measure price you can have a litre of thrapple-scouring whisky, as long as you’re just passing through. Like the whisky. Similarly priced Zetland brandy, and vodka is also available.

Few islanders buy the stuff, it should be said, though Brucefield is a haven for folk seeking out certain obscure British sherries. This is a wealthy archipelago, on the whole, thanks to 30 years of oil, and a relatively buoyant economy survives (despite recent setbacks) based on fishing, fish farming and in the future, renewable energy and Total’s massive North Sea gas processing project. Two supermarkets, (Tesco and the Co-op, which also has a branch near the giant Sullom Voe oil terminal) the most northerly in the UK at 190 miles north of Aberdeen, provide the usual range of mass market malts and other libations. As elsewhere in the UK, a sizeable influx of workers (welcomed by the 22,000 population) means there are shelving areas stacked with Polish goods, including of course, Tyskie beer. This is nothing new. During the great Klondyking booms of the 70s and 80s, when fleets of Eastern European factory ships flocked to these waters to transship fish, large quantities of Polish drink (notably, for some reason, plum brandy) as well as ‘Marlboroski’ cigarettes, came into the islands. And there were other, less official visitors. I remember, in 1987, finding a lone bottle of Gammel Dansk tucked away in a country shop on the island of Yell, apparently traded by the skipper of a passing trawler.

Shetland’s three main islands are Mainland, Yell, and Unst, the northernmost outpost of the UK and home to the only brewery, the appropriately named Valhalla, where husband and wife team Sonny and Sylvia Priest produce some superb beers, including Island Bere, made from locally grown bere meal, a pale ale named for a local ghost, White Wife, Sjolmet Stout and Auld Rock, a traditional ‘heavy’. Old Scatness, also made using bere, imitates the ancient drinks consumed by the residents of the archaeological site from which gave the ale its name, and Simmer Dim, the local name for the midsummer midnight sun, when it barely gets dark, is, appropriately, a tangy light.

There is no distillery on Unst, though there nearly was. No distillery in Shetland. That is a sad and salutary tale, the story of Blackwood, a company, that, for many local folk, appropriated Shetland goodwill and the islands’ viking imagery to market a range of drinks (still available, despite the liquidation of Blackwood, and the Vintage Dry Gin is excellent) made and bottled outwith the islands. Promises that a distillery would be built, first on Mainland, then on Unst, came to naught.

But we are of course, able to access through the internet all the sweets of being, all the wonders of the distiller’s art. Gone are the days when, allegedly, the local cash and carry allowed Fair Isle a single bottle of Lagavulin each year. The St Magnus Bay Hotel has a fine range of rare and expensive malts, and it happens to be my local. Paul and Andrea, the owners, are thinking mounting a whisky festival. I may just attend.