What’s in a name
It’s a scenario familiar to most of us: you’re looking at a bar stocked with ranks of gleaming whisky bottles vying for your attention, the barman awaits your order, a single bead of cold sweat forms on your brow as you struggle to make a decision. An unfamiliar bottle catches your eye, with a Gaelic tongue-twister of a name – Caol Ila, Auchentoshan, Bunnahabhain, Tomintoul – do you opt for a dram of the familiar, or risk ridicule by mangling your pronunciation? That’s the question Richard Croasdale asked in this feature from 2015*
‘How to say it’ is a problem not only for the whisky explorer, but also for the distilleries hoping to come out on top every time we go to the bar. Gaelic names are an immensely important part of many distilleries’ heritage, but can deter the uninitiated.
Joanne Brown, brand ambassador for Bruichladdich, says mispronunciation is quite common, even among professional bartenders: “Travelling the world, delivering training and generally promoting the brand, it’s quite common to find even professional bartenders are often reluctant to be the first to try saying the name,” she says.
Their reticence is quite understandable. The first hurdle is the ‘Brui’, which is simply pronounced ‘Broo’ (the ‘i’ is completely silent), then comes the ever-popular ‘ch’, which is pronounced using the same guttural rasp as ‘loch’ – what linguists call a voiceless velar fricative. The ‘lad’ is relatively straightforward, but that final ‘ich’ presents a curveball; rather than a second fricative, this is simply an ‘ie’ sound, giving ‘Brooch-laddie’. But does this minefield of a name deter people at the bar? Not so, according to Joanne.
“I think people are intrigued by a Gaelic name, and it adds credibility to a whisky,” she continues. “We understand why people might be nervous about trying to pronounce it though, which is one of the reasons we gave our core bottling its distinctive blue wrap – whisky lovers can easily point it out and ask about it, without ever having to pronounce the name. Even its name ‘The Classic Laddie’ is a pointer to the correct pronunciation.”
Another Gaelic-derived whisky ripe for mispronunciation is anCnoc. When the Knockdhu distillery began marketing its own single malt in the 1980s, it was decided a new brand should be created, to avoid confusion with the already-established Knockando. An Cnoc (is it was originally called) was later shortened to anCnoc, to give the brand a more contemporary feel.
But if a distillery is creating a new brand for its whisky, why risk choosing a name that is so difficult to decipher? “It all comes back to authenticity and the heritage of the brand,” explains anCnoc brand manager Stephanie Allison. “In terms of the bottle design and the wider brand, we’re quite contemporary, but – as much as we wanted to avoid confusion with another whisky – it was important that we still embrace the distillery’s Gaelic heritage. There is a certain provenance that comes with having a Gaelic name, and that attracts whisky lovers.”
Interestingly, the name ‘anCnoc’ arguably has a greater claim to authenticity than Knockdhu itself, as Professor Boyd Robertson, an expert in Gaelic language and culture at the University of the Highlands and Islands, explains.
“AnCnoc is an interesting case,” he says. “‘Cnoc’, meaning hillock, is the true Gaelic form of ‘knock’, which in linguistic terms is what we call a bastardisation. So, whatever its reasons, the Knockdhu distillery chose what is arguably a more ‘authentic’ name for its whisky.”
Like Bruichladdich, anCnoc recognises the potential difficulty its name may create at the bar, and has taken a direct approach to saving whisky lovers’ blushes. “We’ve included phonetic pronunciation under the brand name on both the bottle and the retail box, as well as on the landing page of our website and most other communications,” says Stephanie.
A BADGE OF HONOUR
With its stridently traditional bottle design, Bunnahabhain (which translates as ‘mouth of the river’) is another Gaelic-derived whisky brand that takes great pride in its heritage. According to (then) global brand ambassador Kirstie McCallum, pronunciation has never been a handicap when it comes to attracting new fans – indeed, obscurity almost seems to be a badge of honour among followers of the venerable Islay distillery.
“People are really starting to get the hang of Bunnahabhain, although our new releases can be a bit complicated at first,” admits Kirstie. “Our limited edition malt Ceòbanach, pronounced ‘kyaw-bin-och’, has been affectionately renamed a few times, but our fans always get the hang of it. A slightly tricky name is part and parcel of being a traditional Scotch whisky, and we’re proud to display our heritage.”
RANGE OF ACCENTS
Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain are both good examples of how difficult it can be to deduce the correct pronunciation of individual distillery names based on a consistent set of rules, as Professor Boyd Robertson explains.
“Within Gaeldom, you get a range of accents, from Lewis to Islay to Strathspey, as well as variations in the lexicon itself,” he says “It’s just like you have in English, with dialects from Cockney to Aberdonian. The Islay dialect, for example, is closer to Irish Gaelic forms, as the islands were historically closely linked.
“For example, the second element of Bunnahabhain – the ‘abhain’ bit – I would pronounce as "awain", not giving the full value to the ‘bh’. On Islay however, they do give the full value to the bh, so it is "avain". So if that distillery had been on the mainland, the ‘official’ pronunciation might be quite different.”
But, as whisky lovers, just how serious a faux pas is it to mispronounce a whisky? According to Boyd, such questions ultimately come back to how far you want to take the idea of ‘authenticity’. He says: “A lot of distilleries, and the whiskies they produce, are named after a specific place – often a village, or even a landmark – whose name is in turn derived from Gaelic. I say ‘derived’, because Scotland is littered with place names that have been abbreviated, Anglicised or otherwise bastardised from their original form. Much of this came from English-speaking cartographers, who didn’t have access to the language, so recorded Gaelic place names phonetically. ‘Cnoc’ became ‘knock’, ‘Teigh’ became ‘Tay’ and so on. So these names are certainly Gaelic in origin, but few are true to their original form.
“Gaelic today is a complex picture – but all the more enriching for it. Taking all of this into account, there’s definitely no shame in pronouncing a whisky name in a way other than the accepted ‘correct’ form. It certainly shouldn’t put you off trying something new!”
*Job titles were correct as of time of writing in 2015 but may have changed