Scotch Mist

Scotch Mist

What is it with whisky and clichéd images of Scotland? Richard Jones starts the fightback…

News | 25 Sep 2003 | Issue 33 | By Richard Jones

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In a previous life I had the dubious pleasure of judging the monthly Scotch malt whisky competition for a national supermarket chain.The competition required entrants to buy a bottle of the featured malt, answer a simple question about the distillery and then complete a tie-breaker in less than 15 words along the lines of: “My ideal occasion for drinking x malt whisky would be ...”With depressing regularity the tie-breakers could be divided into two: the minority (otherwise known as the winners) from professional or hobby competition players whose answers would sparkle with wit and originality; then the majority (from the genuine whisky drinkers), whose attempts at poetry or prose would invariably contain one or all of the following: “in front of a roaring log fire”, “after a brisk walk through the
glens”, “peat/heather/tartan/kilt” or, horror upon horrors, “anytime, because x malt whisky can turn any occasion into a celebration”.The lesson I learnt from judging this competition was simple: avoid clichés and, in particular, Scotch whisky clichés, like the plague…After my moment of epiphany, I drew a line in the sand. I vowed to rage a battle royal against the curse of the cliché.Like a man on a mission I would fight to the bitter end to rid the whisky industry from what Merriam-Webster defines as, “a hackneyed theme, characterisation or situation”, or what a visitor to Steven Morgon Friedman’s Cliché Finder website www.westegg.com/cliche calls, “an analogy characterised by its overuse. It may be true (‘fat as a pig’), no longer relevant (‘work like a dog’) or inscrutable (‘right as rain’), but it has been overused to the point that its sole function is to mark its user as a lazy thinker.”I decided that the whisky cliché was a crime too serious to be swept under the carpet. It was time to climb on my high horse, rattle a few cages and really set the cat amongst the pigeons.My first port of call took me to the Aberdeenshire village of Old Meldrum in the Scottish Highlands. This is the home of the Glen Garioch Distillery.I’ve always been a big fan of its fragrant and elegant whisky but there, via the superhighways of the internet, at www.morrisonbowmore.co.uk/glen, I was confronted by a textbook example of a cliché that the people at Bruichladdich tactfully describe as, “the tartan and bagpipes, faux heritage, where the eagle soars, monarch of the glen bollocks”.As the website downloaded before my eyes, nothing could have prepared me for the vision that lay ahead.First, a seemingly innocuous racing green background; next, a superimposed layer of dark green checks; and then, hold on to your mouse, a series of golden threads criss-crossing the screen. Ye gods, it was, it is, it’s tartan!There was barely time to recover from this affront to contemporary design before I was greeted by another truly terrifying image. Behold, the Monarch of the Glen! A portrait of a stag, imperious amidst the heather in true Sir Edwin Landseer style, an oil painting that was last seen adorning a tin of shortbread in an ‘I .Nessie’ tourist shop.As I probed gingerly around the remainder of the Glen Garioch website, the havoc reeked by the disease became clear. Even to my untrained eye, the symptoms of the illness were plain to see: not only had the tartan and imagery spread to the label and packaging of the whisky, but the virus had even infected a number of the fonts.Of particular concern was a typeface, seemingly produced by a scribe in the middle ages, which had been dusted off from the museum to spell out ‘Single Malt’ in ‘Glen Garioch Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky’.Despite an overwhelming urge to hack into the Glen Garioch server and drag its antiquated appearance kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, I recognised this was no isolated cliché outbreak. Courageously, and with blatant disregard for my own personal originality, I
pressed on.The next destination on my whistle-stop tour took me to Glenfarclas, the family owned distillery in Ballindalloch, Speyside.As I clicked on www.glenfarclas.co.uk, my eyes were immediately drawn, like flies to muck, to the sight of a cut-glass tumbler resting on a polished mahogany desk.Not a full-blown cliché in itself, but still a worrying sign.Unfortunately no sooner had I glanced at the content of the website, than I immediately identified a new and potentially more virulent strain of the disease.The dreaded linguistic virus or Floridus cliché, named, in keeping with botanical convention, from the Latin meaning ‘rich in flowers or flowery’.If you’ve never encountered the Floridus virus before, then try this bunch of pansies for starters: “Glenfarclas is as natural and perfect as the day it leaves its Highland home – its flavour captured and suspended in time until the delightful moment of truth when the cork is removed and
that autumn sun is released.”Or if you’re still not convinced, what about this from The Glenfarclas Review Autumn/Winter 2001/2, “The heather clad slopes of Ben Rinnes, in the heart of Speyside, resounded with lively Scottish tunes”.Now that the new mutation of the virus was out of the closet, I started to stumble across fresh examples of its symptoms everywhere I went.There I was, innocently drooling over the tasting notes of Dalmore 21 year-old at www.dalmoredistillery.co.uk, only to discover that it included the following: “the hand of time has moulded and nurtured this noble spirit to reveal a classic array of rare and attractive nuances.”And, even though I enjoy Dalmore 30 year-old as much as the next person, I would struggle to regard it as, “a memorable experience never to be forgotten but constantly re-lived.”At Laphroaig I was informed that no one knows the full history of the distillery because it is, in its purple prose, “lost in the mists of time”.Continuing this educational theme, I learnt at www.vintagemaltwhisky.com that ‘Finlaggan’ was originally the name of a stronghold on Islay from where the Lord of the Isles ruled Scotland, but today, “it is a malt whisky that legends are made of.”Nowhere, it appeared, was completely safe from the curse of the cliché. Even Glenfiddich, a producer I would usually uphold as a bastion of good taste with campaigns such as the ‘Stag in the Street’ series, was not immune.Much as I like the way the distillery combines heritage with the modern age in its marketing, if it really is the independent spirit, then why do I have to, “feel the spring of peat ‘neath my feet” when I take a virtual distillery tour at www.glenfiddich.com?At the end of the day, you might say, do whisky clichés really matter? They may be an irritating rash on the face of the industry, but even the most pessimistic prognosis wouldn’t claim the disease was terminal. Should you judge a book by its cover? Surely if you enjoy drinking a particular whisky, who cares if it’s wrapped in trappings of tartan, heather and bagpipes?Well, beginning the case for the defence, it doesn’t have to be this way. You only need to look at the likes of The Macallan, Bruichladdich, Ardbeg or Bowmore if you want to see the modern face of Scotch whisky at its best.Great distilleries in their own right and all of them using their Scottish identity and history in a positive, contemporary way.In the Ardbeg Visitors’ Centre on Islay, they even talk about actively avoiding ‘touristy clichés’ and how, “you won’t find tins of shortbread covered in pipers,” and, ”you’re more likely to hear Tracy Chapman playing than traditional Scottish folk music.”Of course nobody’s perfect. Many of the distilleries mentioned here will have their own well-founded reasons for using such imagery or language in their marketing.And even we’re not above it. Head to the website www.whisky-world.com and click on the whisky store, where you’ll discover, “The world’s wee-est kilt”. Tartan kilt cannies no less, designed to keep “your drink cool while making it look great!”.What do they say about people in glass houses and throwing stones?
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