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New book explores how whisky has affected our culture and communities

New book explores how whisky has affected our culture and communities <i>(Image: Dave Broom)</i>

New book explores how whisky has affected our culture and communities (Image: Dave Broom)

What does place mean to whisky? As grain, peat and barrels move around the country, does it really matter where our national drink is produced? In turn, what does whisky mean to the communities where it’s made? In his new book, A Sense of Place: A Journey Around Scotland’s Whisky, Scottish drinks writer Dave Broom goes on the road to find out. His journey takes him from Neolithic Orkney, criss-crossing the country and on many a CalMac ferry, as he speaks to distillers, blenders, farmers, barrel-makers – as well as archaeologists, perfumers and boat makers.

HeraldScotland:

HeraldScotland:

“I’ve wanted to write this book for about 10 years,” Dave tells me. “I think because I like making connections. I like looking at spirits as part of life, part of culture. You find links you hadn’t thought of before.”

A Sense of Place is not a whisky tasting guide or a compendium of distilleries; there are plenty of those and many written by Dave. Instead, he says: “I wanted to look at what whisky has meant to Scotland and what it means now: whisky as a cultural force in Scotland and this wider idea of place.”

There are two storytellers at work in this handsome volume. Christina Kernohan’s beautiful photographs of the places and people featured in the book add texture and vibrancy to the stories: a window into the distilleries and lives of the craftspeople.

“The photos are an integral part of the story” says Dave, “We didn’t want any noses in glasses or just shots of stills. We don’t want this to be your standard whisky book.”

Travelling with him through the history of whisky, the complexities of modern Scotland are woven through the narrative. Sustainability is a major thread, with barley, peat, soil health and new grains and yeasts all frequent topics of conversation, and a variety of approaches being trialled.

He says: “This idea of one size fits all isn’t true. The environmental solutions for Ardnamurchan and Nc’Nean won’t be the same for Johnnie Walker or Chivas, but the momentum is there. The utilisation of peat is getting better and there’s a huge amount being done behind the scenes to manage that. But these questions need to be asked.”

Another key issue is how we keep and attract people to rural communities and industries when there is a shortage of housing. It’s a real struggle across much of rural Scotland where many feel the balance has tipped too far in favour of short-term holiday lets. “It’s a major social issue, not just for whisky,” says Dave. “We’re almost back to the days of distilleries building houses. Rewilding is valid and interesting and important, but so is repopulation, and whisky can be part of that discussion.”

Whisky can’t solve a housing crisis (if only) but in many areas it’s having a hugely beneficial impact. Norman Gillies is the manager at the new distillery on Raasay. He tells Dave: “It has completely changed what is possible on Raasay. The distillery has meant people have returned; others have come to live. There is a reason to stay, scope to progress.” Of an island population of 170, the distillery now employs 30 people.

Dave says: “It’s hugely exciting to see that ripple effect the distillery has in the community. You need to build a visitor centre then places to eat and the hotel is busier. Then you have a community in a much more sustainable place. Whisky isn’t just this thing in a bottle; it’s a fundamental and integral part of the community.”

When exploring whisky-producing communities Dave regularly finds himself considering the writings of renowned Scottish sociologist and town-planner Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932). As Dave writes: “His philosophy was based around an ongoing interaction between work, place and folk, and the ways in which this triad intertwined.” It was Geddes who coined the phrase “think global, act local” and the impacts of a truly global spirit on rural Scottish communities brings this home.

Dave didn’t set out to take the temperature of the whisky industry but has succeeded in doing so. “I’m delighted it happened now,” he says. “10 years ago it would have been a very different book.”

“We’re in the era of creativity,” Emma Walker, master blender at Johnnie Walker told Dave and he agrees. An industry that once marketed itself firmly with ideas of tradition and longevity is now sharing more about innovation and experimentation. “Under the surface whisky has always been dynamic, it just wasn’t being talked about in that way,” he says.

HeraldScotland:

HeraldScotland:

Along with improvements in sustainability, and new distilleries, “there is this huge creativity and a generational shift”, Dave notes. “Younger people are coming in with new ideas, whisky is being made around the world and distillers are talking to each other and getting ideas. I think 21st Century whisky is in a very exciting place.” It’s a global product but distillers continue to ask, “How does this reflect where I am and how does it benefit the community?” says Dave.

Dave Broom’s whisky odyssey is in many ways a story of Scotland and the questions we face: how to make a living while looking after the land for the next generation, how to balance tourism and local communities; and how to keep tradition, culture and history alive, while continuing to innovate as a progressive outward-looking nation. Like a good dram, it’s complex, and Dave makes an excellent guide.

A Sense of Place: A Journey around Scotland’s Whisky by Dave Broom is published by Mitchell Beazley, www.octopusbooks.co.uk

 

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