A sense of place

Whisky writer Dave Broom is back with a new work exploring the story of Scotland’s whisky history, the spirit’s importance within the country’s culture and the diverse landscapes that it comes from. Mads Schmoll sat down with Dave at The Vaults to find out more


MS: Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

DB: It’s a companion volume to a title I wrote about five years ago, The Way of Whisky, a journey around Japanese whisky. It was looking at the parallels between the mindset of Japanese traditional craftsmen and the mindset of their whisky makers. I wanted to apply the same principles to Scotland, but with a different angle. So this is a look at landscape, community, a sense of belonging, forgotten whisky history and sustainability. A lot of people talk about terroir these days and I think that’s too narrow a scope. Place allows you to talk about culture and allows you to talk about people and how whisky has played a role within those specific spots within the country.

MS: Did you want to tackle the ongoing debate about the role of terroir in the world of Scotch?

DB: I want to try and move away from that phrase because I think there’s a much wider discussion. Terroir for me works within wine, but I think you try to force the issue when you’re talking about it with whisky, with a crop that’s only grown once a year, as against vines, which might be sitting in the soil for 100, 200 years. It’s a very clear demarcation between whisky terroir and wine terms and wine itself. I think terroir also takes human beings out of the equation.

Terroir is looking purely at physical features, the geography, geology, climate. But the human influence has been written out of terroir, whereas if you look at it from place, or this idea of bio-regionalism – a concept started by the amazing, Patrick Geddes – the reaction to conditions is actually part and parcel of this thing called ‘Place’. It goes beyond terroir.

Whisky writer Dave Broom

A cooper at Speyside Cooperage

MS: There are a lot of new distilleries in Scotland and a lot of old distilleries that are coming back to life. What are your thoughts on the state of the Scotch whisky scene and what that means in terms of sustainability in the future?

DB: We’re at an exciting time within whisky, not just Scotch, but within wider whisky. Scotch is just part of a global phenomenon of amazing whiskies getting made around the world. The ways in which the discussion about whisky has taken place over the past, 20 odd years, it’s been a very binary kind of argument. It was big versus small. It was blends versus malt. It was large companies against smaller independent companies. That’s slightly simplistic. If you look at the way in which the Scotch whisky industry was set up, it was the last one standing after Prohibition. America had to rebuild its whisky industry and then the Second World War came along.

Ireland had been written out of the equation because of Irish independence and the loss of the Empire market. Canada simply provided lovely brown liquid for the Americans. Scotch took over the world as a result of that good fortune. And the industry as a whole shifted because distilleries had to provide fillings for blends. You can understand why issues about yield and efficiency and the distilling model began to build. That was the way you made whisky, because that was answering the demand of the market.

There’s now a huge degree of opportunity for the new distiller who has to look at ways in which they can cut through an incredibly busy, cluttered category, to make themselves heard, to distil in a new way. It’s this kind of rebirth of Scotch in many ways. You’re beginning to see these chains and relationships which had been fractured because of this commoditised system, which had been put in place, beginning to be re-established. And that’s hugely exciting.

MS: What did you want to do differently with this publication?

DB: I was working with an amazing photographer friend called Christina Kernohan. There are no photos of people with noses in glasses. I really hate that. There are no tasting notes. It is almost easier to say what isn’t in the book. So it’s not a tour or description of every single distillery in Scotland. It’s not a list of tasting notes. It’s not your normal whisky book.

We’re all very prone to seeing whisky within its own little world. It exists on its own and it has its own rules. I’m not talking Scotch Whisky Association rules, but it has its own rules. It’s a cultural product. Whisky is about Edinburgh. It’s about landscape. It’s about geology. It’s about Scottish culture. It’s about Gaelic poetry. It’s about all of these different things that aren’t really talked about, but as soon as you begin digging into it, you can see how whisky has influenced history or how it’s been talked about and sung about over all these years.

MS: We also hear from whisky makers, but also musicians, writers and poets, amongst others. How important is this element of community and what impact does it have on the story?

DB: It’s vitally important to move this idea of culture forward and of local culture and why that is important. In the northeast, when I’m taking in Brora for example, it’d be daft not to include Neil Gunn and his writing. Not just because he was involved in whisky and wrote a book about whisky, but because he had this deeper understanding, about people and place and the peculiarities of that particular environment and the Clearances. It was vital to have that.

It’s quite hard to get records of whisky before the 19th century. But if you look hard enough, if you look in literature and if you look in poetry, you’ll find them. And those references will be talking about how people were drinking it and what it meant to them and why.

And it just shows, for me, how deeply embedded whisky has always been in Scottish culture. You can’t separate it from us. It’s from this country, it’s from us.

“If you look hard enough, if you look in literature and if you look in poetry, you’ll find them. And those references will be talking about how people were drinking it and what it meant to them and why”

MS: Any favourite moments or stories from your journey?

DB: Quite a few! Up in Orkney, we went to see Nick Card, who’s the head of the dig at Ness of Brodgar, which is conceivably the largest neolithic settlement in Northern Europe. He was bringing out artifacts from 5,000 years ago. When you’re writing a book like this, you’re testing out a theory, and you do have a great deal of self-doubt as you move through it thinking, ‘Is this working? Are these kinds of theories true or am I just mad?’ And I saw that, and I thought, well, that’s it. If people take the trouble to create art, then they belong somewhere. And here’s this sense of place, carved in stone. So that was the kind of shiver-down-the-spine one.

MS: Was there something specific that you set out to capture with Christina?

DB: She’d seen the Japanese book and I wanted it to be similar in look and that fits perfectly with the way that Christina works. Portraits, just natural light, close-ups, lots of hands, lots of eyes, lots of expressions, no great distillery shots, details rather than shots of stills. Something that is visual while allowing the photography to give a sense of a road trip. It’s almost subtle colour coding. I never told her what to do. She knows what to do. She’s an amazing photographer. But it was great working with her because she got the idea, and she contributed as well.

A Sense of Place is published by Mitchell Beazley (£40) on 29 September and will be available at all good bookshops with an audiobook and special edition with prints in the works