Island of dreams

19 September, 2014

Can Scottish single malt meet the commercial demands of the marketing men but still be true to its traditions? Dominic Roskrow asks Islay’s whisky makers what they think

Scene one: We’re in a smart jewellers’ shop in Mayfair, London. There are about 40 of us all smartly dressed and drinking champagne – not whisky – and we’re admiring a single bottle of Islay whisky which is suspended in a glass floodlit cabinet. 

It’s all a little uncomfortable. These aren’t the normal motley crew of the drinks media but cool and confident dudes from men’s lifestyle magazines or from slick public relations companies in south west London. The men all speak loudly, the PRs all have double-barrelled surnames and are called Sam.

The bottle is on display because it’s on a whirlwind tour from New York to Shanghai via London, Paris and Berlin. It will eventually return to New York where it is hoped to fetch for tens of thousands of pounds at auction. It’s for charity, but even so. And later in the evening a 5cl sample of the whisky will be the subject of a Dutch auction where my £39.99 will not be successful. A bid just under £1000 is. 

Scene two: We’re sitting on the seawall outside Bowmore Distillery, sipping Bowmore and looking out towards Bruichladdich across Loch Indaal. It’s sunny but windy, and sunlight is flitting off the waves in the choppy loch. It’s hard to imagine feeling more vital. 

Earlier we’d walked down to the sea at Ardbeg to the south of the island and watched sea birds above the rocky crags offshore. There’s nothing to spoil the view here – no telegraph poles, no wind farms, no industry, just the unspoilt view that would have greeted the Lords of the Isles when they called this home, or the Vikings when they arrived on one of their many forays.

“It all seems a long way from London,” my companion says. And I think of that night in Mayfair and chuckle. It most surely is, I think. It most surely is.

Amused and bemused

There is something amusing and bemusing about the fact that the two worlds outlined above can ever meet or are intrinsically linked to each other. And certainly the hardy and hard-working folk of what is dubbed ‘the whisky isle’ see the funny side of the glamour and gloss that now dominates the world of scotch whisky.

But there’s a less funny side, too. Whisper it quietly, but people are starting to question whether the soul of scotch whisky is being lost among all the packaging. And, with the tide well and truly in for scotch and demand greater than ever, whether at least some players are cutting corners to cash in. 

They point to the proliferation of whiskies which no longer carry an age statement, some of which are clearly too young, too bland, and/or too expensive.

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