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25 May 2021

From the NS archive: Whisky and sin

31 December 1960: I must be wary even to write about it or to join, however formally, in the ritual.

By Naomi Mitchison

In this piece published as 1960 became 1961, the Scottish novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison considered the “mystiques of whisky” and its association with New Year’s celebrations – as well as with sin and male drinkers. “In the curious social ambience that drifts round the thought of whisky, the association between sin and whisky, delight and whisky, devilment and whisky, is essentially a male thing, a secret against the woman.” Gladly that doesn’t stop Mitchison from exploring the Highland distilleries where the drink is made, noting the differences between Scottish and American whiskies, or from having a tipple herself – though the latter experience is rather harder to describe. “The taste is complex and extraordinarily difficult to define; metaphors break and blossom in the mind as one sips,” she observed.


One New Year’s Day I went up the Glen on my visits with a Chinese friend. At Dunkie’s house, Annabella was presiding over tea and bramble cordial; the men, in the other room, had a bottle – or two, or three, or even four – of the Hard Stuff. This I was duly offered and took, though I would have liked the bramble drink, which is by no means un-alcoholic, just as much. My Chinese friend said: “Yes, they are like old-fashioned Chinese peasants, the men with one thing, the women with the other. But why were you offered the men’s drink?”

“I suppose,” I said, “that I am an honorary man.”

That’s so, up to a point. As a county councillor, who is also a member of the NFU, I do count as a man, almost. But one must not presume. In the curious social ambience that drifts round the thought of whisky, the association between sin and whisky, delight and whisky, devilment and whisky, is essentially a male thing, a secret against the woman; though it is an extra pleasure to think of the maiden lassie smelling the stuff on the soft whisper or feeling the taste of it on the gently kissing lips. But I must be wary even to write about it or to join, however formally, in the ritual.

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Of course, when one is being officially a man, that’s different. I remember one Highland Panel group meeting which progressed up the Outer Islands drinking with the district councils while hearing their views. I don’t really care for the stuff in the middle of the morning, but “Ach, get away wi’ you!” they’d say, and pour me a double. Towards the fifth day our chairman was dispensing snuff all round; it was the only thing that kept our beads clear during the meetings. Perhaps the district councils didn’t want us too clear beaded? But no, I don’t think it was that, it was the mystique of Highland hospitality.

There are other mystiques about whisky. All this about the water which is used for steeping the grain until it is ready to sprout, and, still more important, for mixing with the dried and crushed grain in the mash tun to make the wort which is then fermented. Most of the Highland distilleries have their own special spring, water running off red granite through peat. I am all for keeping up this mystique, since distilling is an important Highland industry, and I would not like to see the Spey valley depopulated. But it does appear, in a nasty factual way, as if perfectly adequate malt whisky could be made with the use of comparatively ordinary water. But we don’t want to let the Americans know that.

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Then there are the cobwebs in the vat room. The wash is converted into alcohol – and all sorts of other things – by standard brewers’ yeasts, the full fermentation releasing so much carbon dioxide that an unwary sniff puts you on the floor. But after it has calmed down, there are phases of secondary fermentation, possibly from wild yeasts or something to do with bacteria which may be clinging to the walls and ceiling of the vat room. Or possibly may not. It did not seem to me that this theory found much favour with Miss Williamson, the manager of the great Laphroaig distillery in Islay. But then she’s a woman.

All the same, I would hate to think that it could all be done by completely scientific methods, in standard industrial conditions. Would it still be the Water of Life? Almost certainly. But would it sell? One looks with fascination at the advertisements in the New Yorker, flapping great curtains of mystique across the consumers’ eyes, bringing in the phoniest possible bits of Scottish history, usually figuring royalty, often tartans, but never overalls, gum boots, or the really mucky old caps which are typically Highland wear. There is also the general mystique about age, sometimes with the completely false idea that it makes any difference to whisky how long it is in the bottle. Maturing in the cask, yes, up to a point. But once bottled it is inert.

However, one must do nothing to spoil the legend, which penetrates even the blended whiskies and the empire of the Distillers’ Company – which deals with all sorts of things besides the Water of Life. I have never seen whisky being blended; indeed it’s time someone invited me, for my notion of it is a great swimming bath with the casks being tipped in and someone gravely tasting and then holding his hand up, saying: “That’s about right for White Horse!” Perhaps it isn’t like that at all, though I hope so.

But I have been to distilleries, although a bit guiltily, since one cannot visit without tasting, indeed tasting largely, and that way, surely, one is in touch with sin. Up in Strathspey, there are still distilleries which are outside the Distillers’ empire, fine stone buildings, with the Chinese pagoda shape of the roof above the kiln. There should be a little bell at each corner tinkling in the pale blue peat-smoke that trickles softly away after passing through and drying out the grains of sprouted barley thickly spread on the strange perforated floor, the rustling bed of Circe. I suppose it would be perfectly possible to lie there and die very gently in a carbon monoxide induced sleep, in the wonderful fragrance of corn and earth. I wonder if anyone does.

But the bells, like the thoughts of suicide, are frivolous. Those who visit the Grants of Glenfiddich and Belvennie must be dead serious. This is a family concern. There are other Grants in whisky, but not related except in so far as a Grant ancestor doubtless floated on the flood and was picked up by Noah. There are still two daughters of the founder, one of whom is actively on the board, elderly ladies by now, who were not too keen on the very necessary enlargements of office buildings, since they themselves had scrubbed the boards of the tiny original office. But, like the rest, they were ready to do anything for the firm. Other board members are the descendants of collaterals.

As compared with a modern brewery, at any rate a big one, distilleries look markedly old-fashioned. Where Guinness is all stainless steel, steam sterilising, glass, tiles and good factory lighting, a distillery sticks to the larchwood mash-tubs and wash-backs and the great copper stills, locally made, each one shaped slightly differently, each with a character of its own. Experience and intuition are more important here than gauges and gadgets. The light may well be obscured by those cobwebs, which, however, mustn’t be touched because they may harbour those wild bacteria, which may induce these wild yeasts to produce that secondary fermentation, which may make a difference to the taste.

As a matter of fact, I expect a lot of this is for the birds, just put on to impress the visitor, as it certainly does. But one is being built up towards the moment when one sits in the office and applies oneself to one’s dram of the pure malt, something very different from the blended whiskies, something which should never be diluted. And yet here I find I am adding a spoonful of water to my whisky, since it is just conceivable that this particular dram may be a wee bit over proof. The taste is complex and extraordinarily difficult to define; metaphors break and blossom in the mind as one sips. Yet, to be accurate, on the tongue-tip the taste has the definite sweetness of the diastase-altered starch of the barley grain, combined with a lively tingle on the nerve-ends.

But on the palate there is a separate front and back taste, lower and richer in tone, a dusky taste reminiscent of peat; perhaps the olfactory nerves are joining in. The tingle becomes a pleasurable and comforting warmth, due, no doubt, to a sudden local increase in circulation. But all these sensations ring with overtones like the non-existent bells of the smoke-wreathed pagodas. And then, the sudden accession of well-being!

There are other pure malts besides Glenfiddich. There is Talisker. There is the deep-toned Campbeltown whisky. It can still be got. It is the best. But it is not what will be offered at New Year and about then. For we start around New Year, and if the fishing has been good, and it looks not too bad this year, though one should be careful speaking about it, almost everyone has at least one bottle in his pocket and another at home. But most of it then will be the ordinary blends, sometimes curiously diluted with lemonade or port, which is thought to turn it into almost a temperance drink.

According to how prosperous we are feeling, drinking will go on for two, three or four days; if one is going round first-footing one will have whisky in one house, sherry or port in another, fierce ginger wine in a third. Luckily for me, I can still claim exemption through a recent bout of jaundice! The village looks more and more blear-eyed. Faces are red. Inhibitions are loosened. Quarrels are made up. Or start. We cannot bear to face the New Year without it, the year of work and sin and weariness and the terrible seriousness that afflicts Scotland. Besides, most of us have The Cold. And, as we spend so much of New Year greeting one another affectionately, whisky is no doubt a necessary prophylactic. And, if you look at it like that, I suppose it doesn’t matter what the stuff tastes like.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)