The Myths and Stories behind Scotland’s Whisky Powerhouses
"All distilleries have cats: well-loved felines who are employed as mousers to rid the place of pesky vermin."
With some Scottish distilleries dating as far back as the 1700s, there has been plenty of time for lots of interesting occurrences and stories to happen, and then be passed down, through the years that you may not always hear about on your visit.
First off, there is Glen Spey Distillery, a small and somewhat unknown little distillery, nestled in the hills of Speyside. The distillery, like many, was used to temporarily lodge soldiers during the Second World War and it was during this time that one such soldier met a tragic end. Whilst enjoying his surroundings, the unknown soldier was accidentally electrocuted, and died. It is said that his spirit still roams the grounds of Glen Spey every night, still wearing his uniform and carrying his rifle as if ready for battle. But not all ghosts come for haunting purposes. In fact, it would appear that a lot of ghosts who hang around distilleries are there for kindly purposes.
Take Glenrothes, not far from Glen Spey, for example. Founded in 1878, there is a lot of history here and with a cemetery just down the road, a spirit was bound to appear sooner or later. In 1894, Major James Grant, owner of Glen Grant Distillery, was on a hunting trip in Makalanga, Kenya when he came across a young boy who had been abandoned in the bush. The boy’s family could not be found and Grant was kind enough to take him in and bring him home to Scotland. Named Biawa, pronounced Bye-Way, he grew up in the village of Rothes, attending the local school and later working as Grant’s butler.
He became a familiar face around Rothes and when Grant died, the major’s will provided Biawa with a room at Glen Grant House, coal from the distillery and meals at the local hotel. He lived for several decades after the Major, passing away in 1972 after a short illness, but this was not the last time he was seen. After new stills were added to Glenrothes in 1980, Biawa was said to have been seen twice in the stillroom, both times on rough nights when the Highland wind would howl. The master distiller saw him calmly standing beside the new stills, his long white hair flowing, and knew immediately who it was. A paranormal expert was consulted, who was said to have communicated with Biawa; the ghost-hunter apparently expressed his concerns that the new stills needed to be moved, in case this affected Biawa’s spirit. The stills were moved, and the ghost of Biawa has not been seen since.
One of my favourite ‘behind the scenes’ stories, which features in my book The Great Drams of Scotland, is about HRH Prince Charles. As it happens, Laphroaig is Prince Charles’ favourite whisky, and he even bottles his own Laphroaig for charity events under his Highgrove brand. He awarded the distillery a Royal Warrant in 1994, but was a tad embarrassed doing so as he had piloted and crashed the plane in which he arrived into the peat bog earlier that day. The distillery tries to assure all who they tell that he had not yet sampled Laphroaig’s peaty goodness that day – but you have to wonder.
All distilleries have cats: well-loved and looked after felines who are employed as mousers to rid the place of pesky vermin. The Guinness World Record holding feline, Towser of the Glenturret Distillery, averaged three mouse kills a day during her life, which equates to around 28,899 kills. But Craigellachie’s cat had another use: this famous cat, who also features on their current packaging, hated the smell of spirit vapour, so would dart out of the still house whenever that vapour was present, thus alerting the stillmen as to when to turn the steam off.
Another great story whisky drinkers don’t always get to hear is how The Dalmore became eligible to use the royal stag on their brand communications and bottles. The distillery itself has one of the longest-standing stories in whisky, dating back to 1263 when Scotland was clan-based and ruled by King Alexander III, who was saved from near-certain death when a stag charged straight for him, by Colin of Kintail, who gave a shout of “cuidich ‘n’ righ” (“save the King!” in Gaelic) before plunging a spear straight into the stag’s forehead. In recognition of this act of bravery and quick thinking, King Alexander III granted Colin of Kintail a healthy amount of land, and crucially, the use of the 12-pointed stag within his clan’s crest – an honour typically reserved for royalty.
Fast-forward to 1867 and, after 28 years of ownership by Alexander Matheson, who deliberately placed The Dalmore to the north of Speyside to differentiate his product from the masses at the time, The Dalmore brand was under the control of the Mackenzie Brothers, who dutifully applied the royal 12-point stag to the packaging.
Each distillery will have its own legends and stories passed down through the generations, and they are highlights of any distillery tour you go on. I would thoroughly recommend a journey up north to discover some for yourself.
Greg Dillon is the UK’s number one whisky blogger at GreatDrams.com. His book Great Drams of Scotland: A Conversational Meander through the Rich History of Scotch Whisky and the Brands That Have Brought it to Life is out now (Red Door, £19.99).
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