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How Scotland got crafty with beer and fooled the English with gin

It's not all about whisky north of the border.

Clash of the tartans: English cider at the Highland games in Tomintoul, north-east Scotland. Photo: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Clash of the tartans: English cider at the Highland games in Tomintoul, north-east Scotland. Photo: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Everyone south of the border appears to be terribly worried about the Scots – which makes a nice change – and about their oil, which we prefer to call our oil. Yet that is not, you will be surprised to discover, the northern liquid that interests me. Oh, it’s great stuff, terribly useful, but there’s no getting around this: you can’t drink it, although there are probably a couple of North Sea oilmen who have tried.

New figures show deaths from drinking in Scotland have declined sharply in the past decade, but they’re still ahead of those for England (although these are rising, so watch this space). The Scots have long been champion drinkers: like any sensible country with delicious water and terrible weather, they found creative ways to keep the latter from freezing the former. The best known is uisge beatha, the water of life, pronounced “ooskebay” or, more usually, whisky.

This wonderful stuff has been a combustible matter since at least 1713, when the first campaign to separate Scotland from England – a mere six years after the Act of Union – was provoked by attempts to tax malt equally north and south of the border. Furious Scottish peers pointed out that this tax was intended to pay for the English war of the Spanish succession, which had just ended, and which the act exempted Scotland from subsidising. The Scots stayed largely because of a secret agreement not to apply the tax.

So, a precedent was set: England would make rules and Scotland, with a contemptuous flick of its skirts, would jig round them. The differences between the countries have worked in Scotland’s favour more often than you might think, sometimes for very peculiar reasons. Anomalies – such as stricter rules on drinking – would somehow wind up ensuring longer licensing hours in Scotland and a more relaxed attitude to café drinking.

But then Scotland is a land of anomalies – of shipyards (now rusting) and crags, of rebellious lefties and rigid Presbyterians. They may make bad commercial blends – but they also create wondrous single malts, where cold, bright river water has been softened and warmed with malted barley and oak ageing into a lightly peaty or deeply spicy liquor, as aromatic as it is alcoholic – and it is plenty alcoholic.

Lagavulin and Talisker, my nectars of choice, are both definitely worth seceding over. And yes, Tennent’s Lager is Scottish – but so is BrewDog, the high-alcohol craft beer company that has so successfully repurposed the trademarked Scottish qualities of orneriness and hard drinking that it is overtaking trendy parts of London with wittily named and fiendishly alcoholic brews such as Hello My Name is Sonja (8 per cent), Clown King (12 per cent) and Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32 per cent. Yes, really). The Scots have always been good wordsmiths and marketeers, despite a reputation for taciturnity, which probably arose only because no one south of the border could understand the clever things they were saying. But that’s England’s problem: there are nearly 800,000 Scots elsewhere in the UK and we wouldn’t manage too well without them.

Yes, sorry, folks; it isn’t the Scots who are dependent. We whip out the tonic or the bitters and water our superiority complex with London dry gins such as Tanqueray or Gordon’s, or trendy boutique gins such as Hendrick’s – but the latter is Scottish (its cocktail recipes include a Separatist Gimlet) while both of the former are made by Diageo in Fife: London dry gin is a style, not a location.

Historically, the Scots have had plenty of reasons to drink (if bare knees in a Highland winter isn’t excuse enough to rip the seal on a bottle of strong liquor, I don’t know what is) but surely the best one of all was being colonised by a race of obfuscating drunks.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food