Never mind the barley?

Never mind the barley?

Michael Jackson goes Babbity
Michael Jackson

23 October 2004

Publication: Issue 43

It is hard to believe that anyone would feel sorry for politicians, but I do. Spending as much time on the road as any party hack, I know how easy it is to become disoriented: to say how happy you are to be in Inverurie when you are actually in Inveraray.Half the time, the reporters travelling with you to cover your tour are not sure where they are, either. An unusually conscientious journalist took the basic step of checking my cuttings in his newspaper's library. He noted that every interviewer had asked the obvious question: "What is your favourite beer/whisky?"My reply always stresses the right beer/whisky for the moment, and I insist on nominating at least 10 or a dozen. Certain classic beers appear in every list but I am also influenced by whatever is on my mind – and I always try to find a seriously good beer that is reasonably local.
Whisky, being far less widely produced, presents difficulties – for the moment.My heart sinks when an interviewer reminds me: "Mr. Jackson, in 1976, you wrote (blah, blah, blah ).” Ohmigod, what on earth did I say? Was I sober? Tired and emotional? Was I suffering from ‘Whisky Live in Glasgow’ syndrome, which can be caused by signing 75 books, with salutations in Armenian, Bantu or Croat?A further cause of this condition is the requirement to perform the following ritual eight times: walk round George Square, then climb five flights of stairs. Symptoms: inability to stay awake on hearing a single malt whisky described as a ‘brand’. Once branding has occurred, the sufferer may relapse into slumber however entertaining the speaker.A more serious outcome may be the inability to say "Babbity Bowsters". The latter may persist. For some years, Babbity Bowsters was a very useful multi-purpose answer to questions from readers or journalists.I found it efficacious when confronted with the following posers: Where can I find a decent pint in Glasgow? Where can I listen to live Scottish folk music? Where might I meet Jack ‘Voltaire’ MacLean, Charles ‘Miscellany’ MacLean, Dave ‘Braveheart’ Broom, Basil Brush?Perhaps I should have gone Babbity when Slow Magazine asked me to respond to a speech by Silvano Samaroli, an Italian commentator on single malts. He had (more in sorrow than anger) declared malt whisky to be dead (with the exception of Springbank and Highland Park).This conclusion seemed ridiculous, though his arguments were a mixed bag. One of the oddest was the implication that, within his lifetime, most distilleries had been on barley farms. In a knockabout response I pointed out that, as early as the 1700s, barley had been imported because Scotland had a poor harvest.My scorn was for Signor Samaroli's version of history. Had his suggestion been true, I would have shared his anger. Had estate-grown single malts existed during my writing life, I would have fought to maintain them.Perhaps Scotland cannot always be self-sufficient in barley for malting, but in recent years there have been some good harvests. Most of the top malt whiskies could afford to guarantee on the label that they were grown in Scotland. If a region and variety were indicated all the better.These thoughts have lingered long at the back of my mind, and they were summoned, quite suddenly, by a call from Peter John Meiklem, a news reporter on the Sunday Herald, Glasgow. He had discovered by chance that, while the word ‘Scotch’ on the label meant that the contents had been distilled and matured in the appropriate country, there was no regulation as to where the barley was grown.People in the industry had responded with the mantra that the variety of barley and location of the farm made no difference to flavour. What did I think to that argument, the reporter asked."Bollocks!" I pronounced, eloquently.

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