The colourful characters who have shaped Highlands whisky

People | 02 Jun 2017 | Issue 144 | By Gavin Smith

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The Highlands region has produced more than its fair share of colourful and pioneering characters who have left enduring legacies in the Scotch whisky industry.

There are remarkable personalities, such as 'Captain Barclay' of Glenury Royal and influential figures like Alexander Matheson and Andrew Mackenzie from The Dalmore, while a number of Highland individuals helped shape the development of blended whisky during the 19th Century in a major way.

Local landowner and Member of Parliament, Captain Robert Barclay Allardice, universally known as 'Captain Barclay', was responsible for establishing Glenury Distillery just outside the east coast port of Stonehaven in 1825. In doing so, he was part of a far-sighted movement that saw the potential financial rewards for creating legal whisky-making operations, following the liberalising Excise Act of 1823.

Barclay had established a somewhat eccentric reputation before constructing Glenury Distillery, most notably by walking 1,000 miles in 1,000 consecutive hours for a wager of 1,000 guineas. This feat occurred at Newmarket in the summer of 1809, and took six weeks to accomplish. Barclay was also a personal friend of King William IV, leading to the distillery being granted the use of the 'Royal' prefix or suffix, only the second - after Brackla - to receive such an honour.

While Captain Barclay was developing sales of Glenury Royal single malt, north of Inverness, on the outskirts of the town of Alness, The Dalmore Distillery was founded in 1839 by Sir Alexander Matheson. Like Barclay, Matheson was a landowner and agricultural 'improver', but in his case he had made a fortune trading opium in the Far East, and his money bankrolled an ambitious programme of land purchase and the construction of The Dalmore.

Matheson leased his distillery to 24-year-old Andrew Mackenzie in 1867, and together they developed innovative overseas sales of The Dalmore single malt, with Matheson's international contacts proving invaluable in opening up export markets for The Dalmore, which, in 1870, became the first Scotch single malt to be exported to Australia.

Andrew Mackenzie also saw the virtue in ageing his whisky for longer than was usual at the time. Records show that as early as 1882, he was maturing his spirit for at least 12 years before selling it, while most rival distillers were offering their whisky at no more than half that age.

Even longer maturation was also practised, with whisky distilled in 1878 being transferred from new casks - termed 'Distillery Wood' - to 'Sherry Wood' in 1890, only to be allowed to age for a further 18 years before bottling as a 30-year-old.

By the time that Andrew Mackenzie was maturing his The Dalmore single malt for extended periods, the world of Scotch was undergoing a step change, with the extraordinary popularity of blended whisky spreading throughout the world during the second half of the 19th Century.

Highlanders were at the heart of this heady innovation, with the city of Perth rivalling Leith and Glasgow as one of Scotland's leading blending centres, being home to a number of household names.

The youthful Arthur Bell joined TH Sandeman's Perth wine and spirits business in 1840, and went on to set up in his own right some 11 years later from the same Kirkside premises, in partnership with James Roy. Using the expertise that he had gained previously while blending tea, Bell began to blend grain and malt whiskies with great success. By the time that Arthur Bell died in 1900, and his son Arthur Kinmont 'AK' Bell took over the firm, the blend was on sale in India, Australia and New Zealand, as well as enjoying strong trade across Europe.

At the same time, another Perth wine and spirits business provided the launchpad for Dewar's blended whisky, still the bestselling Scotch in the United States to this day. Brothers John and Tommy Dewar inherited their father's emporium, established in 1846, and while John tended to focus on administration, Tommy was renowned as one of the most flamboyant figures in the Scotch whisky industry.

One of the great entrepreneurs of the late Victorian blended Scotch whisky boom, 'Whisky Tom' sailed yachts and bred racehorses, but was also a hard-working and charismatic ambassador for the family whisky business, once visiting no fewer than 26 countries in two years to increase its network of agencies. During 1896-98 the Dewar brothers built Aberfeldy Distillery to supply malt for the increasingly popular Dewar's White Label blend.

The Famous Grouse has become one of the top ten blended Scotch whiskies in the world, and it too had its origins in a Perth wine and spirit merchants' premises, namely those of Matthew Gloag. The establishment was located on Atholl Street, and was originally run by Gloag's wife, Margaret, before he joined her in the business during 1834. He began to add whisky to the range of goods on offer, and his son, William, started to blend whisky after purchasing the firm on the death of his father in 1860.

1896 saw the adoption of the red grouse as the company's emblem, and its whisky was known as Gloag's Grouse brand. So popular did it prove, that in 1905 Gloag felt justified in adding the word 'famous' to the name.

In these days when international companies own many Scotch distilleries and whisky brands, and conformity is the name of the game, there is far less scope for personal innovation, individuality and downright eccentricity. Colourful pioneers are few and far between, but two figures closely associated with Highland distilleries do, however, spring to mind, namely The Dalmore's Richard Paterson and Glenmorangie's Dr Bill Lumsden.

Master blender Richard Paterson is the ultimate whisky extrovert, a man whose showmanship during presentations and masterclasses is only equalled by his depth of knowledge for the subject and his sheer passion. During his 50 years in the industry, Paterson has continued the Andrew Mackenzie model of maturing some of The Dalmore spirit for extended periods, producing a 62-year-old which sold for a then record price of £125,000 in 2011.

Paterson has also followed Mackenzie's practice of using sherry casks for maturation, but has additionally employed a variety of other cask types. So it is that The Dalmore 35 Years Old has been aged in Bourbon barrels, Matusalem sherry butts, and finally a Colheita port pipe, while The Dalmore Quintessence is uniquely finished in five varieties of Californian red wine casks.

As with Paterson, the 'cask is king' for Dr Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation for The Glenmorangie Company, and a man who presides over an extremely rigorous wood policy. He has developed some of the most celebrated wood finishes, and pushed the 'whisky envelope', most notably with Glenmorangie Signet.

The expression includes 20 per cent whisky made from 'chocolate' malt, matured for 10 years in a combination of former Bourbon and new oak casks and then blended with other Glenmorangie whiskies, some up to 35 years old. These come from a variety of cask types, including sherry and wine.

Lumsden is as much an individualist as Richard Paterson, happily embracing the 'mad scientist' label and the epithet 'The Willy Wonka of the Scotch whisky industry', as he searches for new ways of presenting Glenmorangie and its stablemate Ardbeg.

There is pioneering and innovative work among the new wave of Highland distilleries, too, albeit sometimes innovation of a retro kind. Brothers Phil and Simon Thompson have established Dornoch Distillery close to the family's Dornoch Castle Hotel in Sutherland, and all whisky produced will be organic and made from floor-malted 'heritage' barley varieties, while the pair of stills is direct-fired by gas. The Thompsons have an abiding interest in the style of whisky produced up to the 1960s, so aficionados can look forward to some backward-looking releases in the fullness of time.
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