We have another special guest post this week from David McNicoll, longtime Brainery teacher and author of the recent book, The Language of Whisky, published by Wheatfield Press. Read on for a preview of the book!
Whisky is a global language, found in every nook and cranny from Montreal to Moscow, from Auckland to Aberdeen and comes in many shapes and sizes including American Bourbon, Canadian Rye, Japanese, Irish and of course Scotch Single Malts. There just about as many books on the subject as there are bottles on the shelf and they range from the informative and entertaining to the downright dire. There are some that read like a story of discovery while others focus on individual distilleries and their history; and there’s a whole slew of publications dedicated to opinions and tasting notes. I’ve never been a big fan of those, as each and every individual has a different experience of the tastes and flavours of whisky and marks out of 100 of whatever can be misleading. The Language of Whisky, published in 2020 takes the whisky narrative and presents it in a whole new light, a very different perspective that blends Scotland’s history, cultural heritage and national drink and takes us through the looking glass to the world of our ancestors and how they lived. This is a tale of meteoric success, of farmers and sometimes pure luck and using the medium of language paints a picture of what Scotland looked like in the past through the very meaning of the whiskies themselves. It’s a fascinating journey and one that aught to be enjoyed with glass in hand.
A thousand years ago there were six languages in common currency in the country we now call Scotland: English, Gaelic, British (Welsh), Norse, Pictish (Celtic tongue akin to Welsh) and Latin. Today, there are two native tongues left in Gaelic, with around 50,000 native speakers mostly on the islands and the ubiquitous English. Gaelic is one of the few surviving Celtic languages along with Breton and Welsh and it clings on for survival against centuries of inroads by English, but it has left an indelible mark on our landscape as most of the hills, rivers, farms and settlements across Scotland are Gaelic in origin. To the south and west the British language of Strathclyde was probably spoken until the 13th century in pockets, but even here there are places such as Glasgow that retain traces. The Northeast and the fertile eastern Lowlands were once dominated by the enigmatic Pictish tribes. They left no written evidence, but lots of intricate carved stones with hidden meaning, but from place names we can infer to which branch of the Celtic tree they belonged and towns such as Aberdeen and Pittenweem preserve remnants of this long lost language. English is the relative newcomer – beginning its dominance in the southeast around 1000AD around Edinburgh and marching relentlessly north and east from there. Most distillery names out with the old English-speaking heartlands are older than its arrival, and therefore few, such as Highland Park or Deanston have Anglo-Saxon elements. Lastly, in the north and west the language and place names have a very strong Norse bent and influence, especially on the Isle of Lewis and of course the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland: two archipelagos that were still part of the Norwegian realm as late as 1472. Distilleries like Isle of Harris and Brora have Norse, Viking influence. The geographical spread making up our linguistic heritage is then overlaid by the spread of the distilleries themselves, and where they are found they tend to reflect this.
The distilleries themselves are not evenly scattered across the country but tend to be clustered in areas such as Easter Ross near Inverness, along the tributaries of the River Spey in the east and on the Island of Islay in the Hebrides. This is a product of climate, geography and local historical factors such as proximity to market, good transport links and a benevolent landowner. In addition, areas that combined these elements also tended to be good for making illegal whisky in the past, and this time-honed knowledge would in due course filter through to the commercial producers in those areas too.
To make good whisky you need a good source of clean cold water and a plentiful supply of barley (in past times, oats and even rye often substituted barley – with mixed results), and it’s where the two combine that the distilleries tend to group. And this is very much the central theme of the Language of Whisky and the core of linking the whiskies we are familiar with the past. Whisky making is traditionally a by-product of agriculture, so it makes sense that many of them are old farm names or related to the farming year – such as Balvenie (Bethan’s Farm) or Lagavuillin (the Mill in the Hollow). Some have a religious background perhaps reflecting the evangelical work done by Dark Age Celtic priests, like St Fillan (Macallan – Plains of St Fillan) or like St Magdalene for a medieval hospital that once sat on the same site. Others, such as Oban, Port Ellen and Scapa demonstrate the importance of the sea, especially for island malts who relied on boat traffic to take their product to market, while others still take us back to a more warlike time especially in the Highlands – Dalwhinnie (Field of the Champion) or Tullibardine (Hill of Warning). In all it’s an eclectic and colourful tapestry with each thread woven into the story of the people, their land and their time.
The final section of the book aims to blow away a lot of the pretentiousness that can surround and often spoil the drinking and enjoyment of whisky, a sort of secret-society style of snobbishness which rarely prevails in other drinks and claims to make experts and aficionados, and is rather elitist in its approach to what is at heart a drink of the people, and one of friendship and company. It’s just as glass of brown juice after all, you’re not examining the Mona Lisa. There are technical terms that all have roots in the way the land was worked and how we described process, even if we couldn’t actually see what was going on, as in the role of yeast in fermentation, or the organic chemistry at work in a dark oak cask amid thousands sleeping in a warehouse. There are also terms to describe where the flavours come from and how to enhance the experience. But, at the end of the day it’s your experience and no-one else’s; a personal covenant. So, enjoy. The Language of Whisky is a great accompaniment to a Scotch, and tells a grand story full of twists, turns and interesting characters and above all, a chance to glimpse a little of a Scotland as our fathers saw it.