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Licensed to still

They fought the law,and they won. Dominic Roskrow visits Drumchork Lodge
By Dominic Roskrow
Some time next year, after just less than nine years at Drumchork Lodge, John Clotworthy and Frances Oates will fulfil a dream.They will officially become distillers.Not just any old distillers, either: distillers in charge of Britain’s smallest legal distillery and the only one kept in a garage. Adistillery that will offer visitors the chance to distil their own whisky in as close to the old-fashioned way as it is possible to get.The importance of this might not be immediately obvious. But when you get to know the remote region which plays host to Drumchork, it takes on a new significance. The village of Aultbea is situated on the shore of Loch Ewe, north of Poolewe in the North-West of Scotland.This is astoundingly beautiful, but remote, rugged and under-populated terrain. There is little here beyond some farming and fishing. Certainly no distilleries.Down the way at Gairloch they talk of their local dram as Glen Ord, but that’s way away, back East close to Inverness. Across the water Talisker is produced on Skye.Nothing on this stretch of mainland though.Breath-taking as it may be to a tourist visiting on a bright late summer day, it’s a region where everything, from the economy to the elements, is a struggle.During the tourist months people travel here in droves: for the scenery, the tourist attractions (you’d be hard pushed to find more dramatic, endowed and diverse gardens than those of Inverewe) the hospitality, and perhaps most of all, the history. This is as close as you’ll ever get to the savagery of the Clearances because you sense that the community has never fully recovered.There would have been whisky aplenty here once upon a time: the Highland variety, produced clandestinely in croft farms across the region. The viciousness that tore the communities apart here can be sensed in every rocky inlet and up every grassy ben.That’s what brings in the tourists, particularly the Americans. They can connect with their ancestors here. Whisky has had a apart to play, and for the team of Drumchork Lodge the still gives them the opportunity to make the experience that much more real.“We have offered visitors the chance to experience life in the Highlands,” says John.“They ask if they can make whisky like their great great grandfathers used to make. That’s not been possible in the past but that’s what we’re hoping to do now.” The story of how Drumchork came to be the holder of a distilling licence is already becoming legendary, given that elements of it constitute a victory of the Highlander over the might of London government.The couple, determined to find a way to bring whisky production back to the region, found a loophole in the law that had outlawed small stills. The law, nearly 150 years old, it transpired applied to England Wales but had exempted depressed regions of Scotland.The battle to get the Government to concede this aberration involved local MP Charles Kennedy, and Treasury Minister John Healey.On the very day that the loophole was conceded it was shut, making John and Frances the owners of the only private distilling licence.The still replicates the small illicit stills of yesteryear. It comes apart so that ropes can be tied to the handles and its components lowered in to the loch, leaving just a big soup pan for the taxmen to find.Now te plan is to allow guests to clean the stills, cut peat, prepare the barley and then make whisky in true Highland tradition. A There is a storage warehouse, too. The idea is that the guest becomes the master distiller,” says John. “After perhaps five years they can come back with family and friends and bottle their whisky.” The return of legal distilling will be the cream on the cake for John and Frances, who came to Drumchork with a handful of malts and can now boast about 700 whiskies.“The sign says ‘more than 400’, which is true enough,” says John with a smile. “It’s just that now there’s considerably more.” They’ve been happy to extend their passion throughout the region, holding regular tasting evenings and giving instruction to other hoteliers in to building up a malt portfolio and extending their range.The result is a region endowed with impressive whisky bars, making it a somewhat unlikely but nevertheless worthwhile destination for the whisky buff.For John and Frances and the team at Drumchork, it’s how it should be.“We’re providing whisky at the coalface,” says John. “It all makes sense here, and we want everyone to enjoy it the way we do.”