Fettercairn and the Howe of the Mearns
The Howe of the Mearns is a low-slung valley that runs north-east from Brechin on the east coast of Scotland. Its prairie fields are cragged over by the granite Cairngorm mountains and criss-crossed by thrumming ice-cold burns, running spring water to the sea. It’s an area of only a few dozen square miles, and is virtually unheard of in most whisky circles. But a closer look reveals much to fascinate and reward the whisky enthusiast, as Alistair Heather reports both in words and video
In April I locked down in the Howe of the Mearns with two good pals. Restrictions meant we couldn’t stray more than five miles from our base, so we got to know every neuk and cranny of our wee radial world.
Walks on farm tracks amongst the spring barley, cycling to pick up a few essentials in the ancient stone villages of Auchenblae and Fettercairn, evenings cheered with a couple of warming glasses from the SMWS delivery service. The Mearns boasts a beautifully sophisticated dram in the Fettercairn.
We were lucky enough to bump into the native Mearnsian distillery manager Stewart Walker in the village, and he passionately explained what makes that dram so unique. Josh, one of my lockdown buddies, is a filmmaker – so we captured Stewart’s enthusiasm.
Fettercairn’s cooling ring is remarkable. That distinctive cascade of cool clean water chilling the hot copper of the still is unique.
Stewart describes alchemy: taking some of the finest spring water on earth and through an experimental, steampunky process, bringing forth a fine, delicate spirit.
It seems like a moment of harmony between human craft and nature. Nosing the dram reveals an incredible lightness, a fruit-infused spring zephyr of an aroma. That is surely the inheritance of this ingenious engineering innovation, and of that gorgeous water.
LAND OF BARLEY
The contribution of the Howe of the Mearns to whisky doesn’t end at the distillery doors or at the source of the spring that feeds the stills. The dram also demands that the majority of the undulating lands beyond are thickly planted with waving grains.
The barley of the Mearns – that we watched turn from a sharp spring green to crisp mature brown as lockdown dragged by – is destined for distilleries. As time stood static for many of us, the farmers of the Mearns barely seemed to register the change. Their year’s work ploughed on outside, as they prepared their vast crop for the maltings. Often our lockdown walks were punctuated with impromptu chats with farmers, as they got breathers by vast Lamborghini or John Deere tractors.
“Aye aye!” runs the local greeting. We’d be regaled with some funny story, a farm drama or a damning indictment of the weather, treated as friends and confidantes rather than the strangers we were. The unflappable humour of the area kept our spirits up, and we pieced together new insights into a lesser-known part of the whisky journey.
As soon as we were able, we got the cameras along to the fields of a Mearns farmer, Allan ‘Fermer’ Innes, to share the story of this unsung but spectacular place, with its warm, funny, expert folk.
When we spoke to him, we hoped to learn about his role in making whisky. But he was just as keen to talk about the role of the spirit in his area: its centrality to life, to parties, weddings, funerals and fitba’ matches, and how it was the formal sealant on employment contracts not so long ago.
The fields, the water, the whisky and the folk all exist in a circle, as he explained.
I wrote in a previous edition of Unfiltered about how listening to the Scots language voices opens up new avenues of discovery for the whisky drinker.
These guys, Stewart and Fermer, are two such voices, with wisdom rooted in their craft and culture. The Howe o’ the Mearns might be unheralded, but it’s well worth your closer attention.