About eight years ago I spent a short time in a temp job working for the whisky company Macdonald and Muir, which is now known as Glenmorangie PLC. At the time, the company was still based in Leith. Their main industrial plant occupied pretty much one whole side of Constitution Street between the Shore and the part of Leith docks that has now been turned into the very fashionable Ocean Terminal. The factory held three or four bonded warehouses (“bonds”), administrative offices, a bottling plant, a small cooperage, and an enormous vatting and blending operation. Most of their output was blended Scotch whisky rather than single malt, primarily the Highland Queen and Bailie Nicol Jarvie brands.
Most of the job involved enumeration: counting barrels as they were trundled into and out of storage, weighing the barrels on enormous industrial scales to see how much was still left in them, checking the volume of spirit pumped into and out of the tanker trucks that transported the stuff, and double-checking as the vat men took dips and measured the strength of the spirit. One of the great things about this job was that hardly any of these tasks took place in an office. I had to wander around the whole plant, from bond to bond, to wherever the latest counting operation had to be performed. It involved a lot of standing around and chatting while whisky was being pumped or poured into the huge wooden vats. I learned an awful lot about whisky production.
But the very best part of it was…the smell.
Whisky barrels are not spirit-tight. Over time, a certain percentage escapes into the air. As casks are emptied into the blending vats, a certain amount is lost on the floors. Also, taking dips from casks for nosing or measuring the strength of the whisky is not exactly a tidy, clinical process. It splashes and spills. And while the drops and splatters evaporate away, the peaty, flowery aroma of the whisky stays behind. It soaks into stone and wood, softening and mellowing as it does so, and it permeates the whole fabric of the bond. There is nothing quite like walking into a bond first thing in the morning, and being enveloped by the sweet aroma of decades-old whisky. I adored it.
But the taste? That’s a different matter. I love the smell of coffee, but I’ve never learned to like the drink itself. Even though I grew to love the smell of whisky in the morning, I could never abide by the harsh burn of the actual spirit in my mouth. Until recently, that is.
As I was reading Iain Banks’s new book, Raw Spirit, I was heartily affected by his enthusiasm for our national drink. A good few years had passed since I’d last tried a dram, so I figured it was time to give it another try. A fortnight ago we were out to dinner at No. 3 Royal Terrace with my parents. After a rather splendid steak, I ordered a glass of Highland Park to round off the meal. I nosed the glass with some apprehension because Abi and my parents–knowing how much I’ve disliked whisky in the past–were all watching me intently to see what I thought. I took a sip, let it wash around in my mouth a bit, and drank it down.
“Hmm,” I said. “That’s actually quite nice.”
Hence the “A Very Whisky Christmas” title of this post. As soon as it was known in my family that I liked whisky, my Christmas present fate was sealed. I now have a nice selection of malt whisky books with notes on all the distilleries, tasting notes for the spirits themselves, and a tidy little collection of single malt miniatures.
Can’t say that I mind, you understand.