This fourth edition of Scotch Missed: The Original Guide to the Lost Distilleries of Scotland has an encouraging start, in that even the introduction is a good read. So many books are killed off by a dull intro. But the intro makes it clear that this is not just the history of whisky distilleries, but industrial, economic, and social histories too.
Townsend states plainly that he won’t describe the whisky making process in detail; but he does show how it was written about in Victorian times, quoting the florid prose of a 19th century commentator. Indeed, there isn’t much difference now, just fewer people, greater efficiency, and better ingredient research — and computers.
The narrative of the book is that many distilleries which started up in the 19th and 20th centuries closed as the conditions of the times simply couldn’t bear the numbers in operation. But there is a lot more on the journey. There was some natural wastage due to poor management or product not suited to consumer tastes, and there were other reasons: increased taxes, wars, reduced pub opening hours, temperance movements, and closures of local industries which affected a distillery’s operation. One such was Campbeltown where the exhaustion of the local colliery meant no more cheap fuel.
The author points out much the same happened in the 1980’s and draws parallel with the hi-tech industries which rose and plummeted. Some distilleries which closed around the 1980’s never returned to production. The recession from 2007/08 onwards didn’t have the same effect but, like the 19th century, with new distilleries appearing like mushrooms, it will be interesting to see what happens if we such face problems again.
The Victorian times were awash with great developments, we are reminded: the railways, industrial use of steam, mass production of glass bottles, Coffey stills for grain whisky distillation. And we can’t forget the import – unwitting? – into France of the phylloxera louse. Whoever was responsible for that is owed a great debt by the Scotch whisky industry.
Beyond the introduction, the first few chapters look back at how things were, the move from farm distilling into larger concerns and the move into the Golden Age of the 19th century, then decline from just before World War I to the end of Prohibition in the U.S., and the peaks and troughs that have since followed, with a note of hope for the future with newly built and planned distilleries.
Some distilleries, we discover, were razed to the ground, their foundations now buried under housing developments or yet another supermarket. Some were redeveloped into housing or offices. The most poignant moments, for me, were learning of parts of old distilleries like Gerston II, still standing in the countryside like sentinel doorways to a ghostly past.
The story is told with sympathy and an eye for the difficulties of those who owned and worked in them but also with some subtle flashes of humor. The picture drawn by the tale of Banff distillery catching fire after being strafed by German fighter planes, and the resultant drunken local wildlife is one you won’t forget.
The writing does not follow modern day whisky regions but smaller geographical units covering The North; Speyside and the North East; The East Coast and Tayside; Central and Lothian; Fife; Edinburgh; The South and Borders; Glasgow; Strathclyde and the West of Scotland; West Highlands, Islands and Islay, then Campbeltown, in that order. Campbeltown suffered particularly badly. It was an area of over 30 distilleries which now has only 3. The list given for that region is so much longer than the others and all the worse for being one of the smallest areas.
The format is charming, concise pen sketches of brave beginnings and, often, sad, sudden ends or slow decline, not to mention the “musical chairs” ownership as premises transferred from company to company over the years. Each sketch is as fact-packed as possible but never leaden in style and tone. At the end is a useful index and helpful maps to plot the places you have been reading about. The illustrations too are well chosen, a mix of photographs, drawings, cartoons and advertising posters. It’s worth some time just to sit and flick through the pictures.
Behind these stern Victorian exteriors were hope, passion, inventiveness, social conscience (for some) but also perhaps greed and maybe even betrayal. Who knows? Some distillery closures are, quite simply, a mystery with not enough information available, leaving you wanting to know more.
Near the start the author invites us to sit down, dram in hand to relive the dramas of distilling days past and I cannot think of a more enticing invitation as we move into autumn. This is a book you can read in order in one go, from start to end – very tempting – or simply dip in, region by region. He says at one point that further information would require an encyclopaedic length. If he ever decides to write that, I’ll look forward to it.
Scotch Missed, from The Angels’ Share (Neil Wilson Publishing), is available in the U.S. at $29.99 from Interlink Books; it is also on Amazon.