A Noble view point (Sir Iain Noble)

A Noble view point (Sir Iain Noble)

In the first of a new series in which we talk to leading business figures, Richard Woodard talks to Sir Iain Noble

People | 21 Jul 2006 | Issue 57 | By Richard Woodard

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Maverick. Iconoclast. Rebel, even.Not words you readily associate with a Knight of the Realm and holder of the Order of the British Empire, but then Sir Iain Noble OBE doesn’t fit into conventional pigeon-holes.The owner of the Isle of Skye’s Pràban na Línne (The Gaelic Whisky Collection to Anglophones) doesn’t so much court controversy as marry it, set up home together and raise a large and unruly family.He was once widely condemned for confessing to be a ‘racialist’ (sic) because he didn’t want English incomers to erode Skye’s indigenous culture. While he now admits that this remark was “foolish,” he still feels outrage that the serious point he was making was lost in the media feeding frenzy that followed.For Sir Iain is passionate about many things – including whisky, of course – but none more so than the culture of the island which has been his home since 1972.“At that time the place was very run down, and almost everyone disappeared off to the mainland,” he recalls. “It was an appalling brain drain.” Inspired by a visit to the Faeroe Isles, where a strong local culture and economy worked hand-in-hand, Sir Iain set about trying to revive Skye, too. The founder of a merchant bank, he was able to help by investing in businesses such as knitwear and fish farming, not to mention whisky, but he had his eyes on another area too: the fastdisappearing Gaelic language.“Anywhere in the world where there is a dying language you always have a dying economy,” he says. “Obviously it’s connected with confidence, self-belief and so on.” His efforts have borne fruit, with more children now going into the Gaelic stream at the local school, although he confesses: “I would like it to be the language of the playground again, as it was until about 20 years ago.” Not just the language of the playground, but the language of the whisky label too.Pràban na Línne’s products, blend Té Bheag and malt Poit Dhubh, proudly sport Gaelic on the bottle – the source of one of the many run-ins Sir Iain has had with the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).“They’re saying that European rules say you can’t call your whisky Gaelic whisky, you have to call it Scotch. I’ve been having a very entertaining debate with them,” he says, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.“I say there is no Gaelic word for Scotch and we want to have Gaelic on the label. And nearly everybody on Skye says the taste improves with Gaelic on the label. After all, uisge is the best-known Gaelic word in the world.” To be fair, the SWA has said Sir Iain’s whiskies can be called Gaelic, as long as “Scotch” appears on the label in large letters.“And to be honest, in most of the world, people wouldn’t have a clue what Gaelic whisky was, so perhaps there’s no great harm in doing it,” he admits.Gaelic is also crucial to the new distillery Sir Iain plans to establish on Skye – currently still on the drawing board and probably in need of outside investment before it can come to fruition. His dream is that everyone working at Stal Thorabhaig – Toravaig Distillery – will speak Gaelic, but he tempers this with a little realism.“It will be hard to find people with the specific skills, but maybe on Islay? We’re going to try. I think it’s very important that Gaelic survives, but we wouldn’t want to put the survival of Gaelic against the job opportunities of a new distillery.” It’s likely to be a year or two at least before Toravaig is up and running, but even then, of course, it will be another three years before the first spirit to run off its stills can be called whisky. The frustration of this is not lost on Sir Iain, who believes that the reasons for the three-year rule are “outdated” and should be reviewed.His solution for Toravaig? To consider selling some of the new make spirit as British Plain Spirits – but under a Gaelic name, naturally.Poit Dhubh is – choosing my words carefully – a combination of single malts, or a vatted malt as has traditionally been called.Sir Iain’s hackles rise at the mention of the phrase ‘blended malt’ and the planned changes in terminology – and battle is joined again with the SWA.“Everyone who has any knowledge of whisky knows that a blended whisky is a mix of malts and grains,” he says. “So why confuse them? For some reason, it was decided that vatted malts couldn’t be used any more. But I don’t see why you shouldn’t just call it malt whisky. And if you want to call it single malt, that’s an upgrade.” The changes have an apparently irresistible momentum, although they are yet to become law.“But a parliament, if it’s a parliament, listens to public opinion, doesn’t it?” says Sir Iain. “I certainly will never support it, nor do I support the idea of restricting the whisky industry unnecessarily.” No indeed. He is in favour of permitting flavours to be added to Scotch – “It’s allowed in vodka, so why not?” – and is wary of anything which appears to play into the hands of the industry heavyweights.Not that he has a problem with the likes of Diageo and Pernod Ricard himself, claiming that Té Bheag outdoes their blends for flavour and malt content: “Some of the bestknown blends have gone further and further down the market as they’ve become bigger and bigger. I shouldn’t mention names, but some of them have sunk further and further.“That’s our role as a pin-prick in the industry. The beauty of a small company like ours is that we are nipping at the heels of the bigger companies that we call the industrial giants. We can leap around where they can only stumble.” Now in his 70s, Sir Iain’s days of leaping around may be over, but he hasn’t lost his sense of fun. For instance, he believes Skye’s ‘other distillery’ – Diageo’s Talisker – should sponsor Toravaig, as its presence will aid recruitment and cut costs on deliveries of malted barley.And he offers a barbed but affectionate assessment of why he enjoys the world of whisky so much: “It’s great fun, whisky, because everyone is bitter enemies, but they all have something in common – they’re like members of a club.”
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