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It’s all in the Language of Whisky, a history of crime, culture and community

LISTEN: David McNicoll dives deep into the rich history of Highland Perthshire’s distillery culture

Inver man, David McNicoll, is releasing a book which investigates the roots behind Scotland’s most iconic industry.

‘The language of Whisky’ explores just that, from the farms and fields where it all started, to the tap handles of New York, David McNicoll knows one’s whisky.

But it’s not just the blends and legal requirements that gives Scottish Whisky its name, it’s something that goes much further back to the community than that.

Mr McNicoll said: “Those distilleries are not randomly scattered across the country, there’s a historical reason for why and where they are.

“But at the end of the day, if a big, giant, company like Diageo could make it all in a big plant in Edinburgh, they would do that, and that means the distilleries have to be where they’ve always been.

“And that means they pick up the cultural and social history of the people in that area, where people could work at the distilleries generationally.”

For David McNicoll, the whisky goes beyond just the taste, but acts as a reflection on the local producer’s history and culture.

In Highland Perthshire’s case, local whisky tells the tale of taxation, double-dealing and social hierarchy, from centuries ago, all within the sip of fermented barley.

Mr McNicoll explained: “Those distilleries begin life, usually, as farm co-operatives, or individuals.

“So, if you were going to operate a small still in the hills, you needed a blacksmith to build your still for you, you needed to source that copper, you needed sourced of barley.

“Now that could be something you grew yourself or you bought it from a miller, and they’re was probably a maltster on hand as well, all of whom would pay rent to your landlord, and then the consumer would have been in your local market.

“So, when we talk about people like the illicit distillers, hiding away in the hills with their stills in a cave, actually it was a huge community effort.

“So, that was one of the big problems the government had in trying to get rid of illicit and illegal whisky making was every person could do everybody else’s job.

“Also, it was not in the landlord’s interests to have distillmen in jail because he was making whisky illegally, because that was rent paid in cash, also his barley had to be turned into something.

“It was all like money laundering, you could take pretty poor barley and convert it into whisky and sell it for actual cash money, and the landlord would make that back.

“The landlords were also the justice of the peace, so when you were caught by the exercise man you went up against your landlord and he would probably just give you a slap on the wrist.”

Then in 1784, the government drew ‘the Highland Line’ in the ‘Wash Act’, dividing the country north and south.

Scottish Whisky then became cheaper to produce since the exercise duty was now lower in the Highland’s, as opposed to the higher rates imposed south of the division.

The only restriction put in place barred Scottish Whisky from north of the line from being sold south of the line. A rule which was quickly exploited by those who stood to gain.

But that wasn’t the only time that the industry found itself caught up in a racket of one kind or the other.

Mr McNicoll added: “Edward Edradour comes along in the eighteen twenties and into the eighteen-thirties, and yet would not have survived if Edward Edradour had not been bought by the New York mafia.

“So, I think that people don’t realise that this beautiful distillery, sterling in the hills above Pitlochry, was, for fifty years, owned by the mob in Manhattan.”

More on this, the culture behind whisky, it’s heritage and where the industry is going can all be found in the book. Now David’s book can be best found on Amazon.

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