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The Water of Life

No other industry is more deeply entrenched in Scotland than the production of whisky. It is a market worth millions and the number of distilleries is steadily growing.

Once upon a time, a mystery exasperated Scottish whisky makers: they filled wooden casks with whisky and sealed them with heavy lids. But years later, when they wanted to drink their liquid gold, part of it had disappeared. After some long and serious cursing about the black magic, they concluded that the angels had obviously taken their share of the whisky and christened the loss “The Angels’ Share”. Today, the producers know that part of the alcohol evaporates during the maturation, and they are happy when the angels help themselves to the casks. Whisky means legends.

Fotos: Roddy MacKay

Liquid trademark

No other industry is more closely tied to Scotland than the production of whisky. “Uisge Beatha” is Gaelic for whisky, of which the literal translation is “water of life”. In the Scottish Highlands it is the drink of choice for wedding toasts. And when a child is born a cask of whisky is purchased and the birth year engraved, the first sip taken from it 18 years later with the offspring in whose honour the cask was bought. Whisky stands for a whole nation.

Barley –which is made into malt through the malting process- and water are the elementary ingredients which the currently 125 licenced Scottish distilleries make into whisky. The number of distilleries has been increasing for years. The art of distilling has become a business worth millions. Whisky is no longer just produced in Scotland, on which soil a growing number of international companies are taking over distilleries as well. Whisky means money.

The wild lads are coming

It’s a cold morning and strong winds are blowing the fresh sea air from the nearby coast inland to Dornoch, the county capital of Sutherland. Simon Thompson rubs his hands together and pulls the zip on his overcoat right up to his chin. He is standing in the small distillery which he set up with his brother Phil in a 135-year-old former fire station. The seed capital was collected via crowdfunding, and the brothers were granted a distilling licence last November. Steam rises from the copper-coloured pot stills in which the whisky is distilled. The air is filled with the aroma of malt. “This distillery is a dream come true for us,” the whisky producer explains. “We will be successful. Because our main priority is to be independent!” Not having any investors to potentially interfere gives them the freedom to create their own recipes.

From whisky fan to whisky expert

These self-proclaimed whisky geeks consider it an honour to produce Scotland’s national beverage. The brothers’ parents run the Dornoch Castle Hotel. Simon developed his passion for whisky behind the bar of the hotel. From his very first glass he was fascinated how even just a few drops warmed his throat and how the full-bodied taste unfolded in his mouth within a matter of seconds. “Whisky had me there and then,” Simon adds. The distiller turned his passion into his vocation and taught himself the necessary know-how. While studying political science and philosophy, he visited antique shops in search of old recipe books. Then he studied the recipes’ ingredients and developed a passion for whiskies from the 1960s.

The brothers follow the 1960s model to produce their whisky: “In those days, quality took centre stage. Nowadays, the world has too much bad whisky, which is being sold for too much money,” he says. For the brothers, it is about the soul of the whisky, and not about producing quickly in large quantities. Simon checks the temperature display of one of the pot stills. He knows that their distillery cannot compare with the big players in Scotland. But he could not work any other way: “If I had to justify my expenditure to an investor, the investor would probably just shake his head.”

Maturation: unknown

Simon does not know how long their whisky will be left to mature in the casks. The minimum maturation for Scottish whisky is three years. The brothers want to go beyond that: “Perhaps we will let the whisky mature for seven years, or ten, or even longer perhaps. It’ll be ready when it’s ready.” Whisky means trusting your gut feeling.

An old hand with new ideas

Situated roughly ten miles further west is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries: whisky has been produced in the Balblair Distillery near the village of Edderton as far back as 1790 - albeit with interruptions. Today, the distillery belongs to the Inver House Distillers, a subsidiary of Thai Beverages, which is Thailand’s largest beverage manufacturer. The distillery, which is a listed building, is managed by John MacDonald who has held that position for eleven years. He worked his way up the career ladder in the world-renowned Glenmorangie Distillery before switching to Balblair where he still personally checks every single cask that leaves the premises. MacDonald strides across the distillery courtyard with a firm step. Its red chimney stands out against the barren hills of the Northern Highlands, which encase the distillery like a rampart.

Identity with a seat abroad

The Scotsman is not concerned that the Scottish distilleries are losing their identity because of foreign ownership. “We have been producing whisky in our country for centuries. That experience is part of our identity.” The ingredients are unique, the manager adds, his waistcoat visible under his jacket. According to MacDonald, the water in Scotland is very soft. He opens the door to a storage building and casts an inspecting glance at the casks. “Whisky was stored here before motor vehicles were invented. Something with such a long tradition cannot be likened to other products on the market.” MacDonald is happy that, 200 years down the line, Balblair is still producing whisky. “The investment made by Thai Beverages was fantastic for us. We can offer secure jobs and fully focus on producing whisky.” Whisky means collaboration.

Sticking to traditions

On the calm Isle of Raasay, which can only be reached by way of a small ferry from the Isle of Skye, whisky is still being distilled the traditional way. It is drizzling. The clouds hang so low above the sea they almost touch the moss-green hills. Alasdair Day, who is wearing a jacket with the distillery logo on it, laughs and says: “A truly Scottish place for making our national beverage.”

When the co-founder of Raasay Distillery inherited his great-grandfather’s recipe book, his life changed. Fascinated by the neatly recorded blends, he decided to open a distillery with a business partner. Like many of his fellow Scotsmen, he started drinking whisky at a very young age. As he got older, he acquired a real taste for it, and his passion for it grew. “The whisky business is tough. It takes a great deal of skill to establish oneself as a new, independent brand,” he explains. Day is also breaking new ground in terms of production and marketing. In future, he would like all the whisky ingredients to be sourced from the Isle of Raasay. “We still need to work out how to get the barley to grow on such an exposed island,” he says. What is more, Day offers exclusive membership opportunities. Once the rooms has been completed, anyone who signs up will have the chance to stay overnight right next to the distillery. Whisky means innovation.

There’s a turn in the weather. The sun fights its way through the layer of clouds and casts fine rays of sunshine on Raasay. According to a Scottish saying, all Scots go to heaven, having already paid their admission fee with the “Angels’ Share”. Whisky means life.

Authors‘ tip

Though just a short walk from the town centre of Inverness, the Ness Islands will open up a new world to visitors: narrow paths meander across the islands past flowers, bushes and high fir trees. At sunset, strings of lights transform an excursion into a fairy tale adventure.

Text: Manuela Enggist