Malts, Ministers and Misunderstandings

Whisky editor John Bruce meets Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, golfer and enjoyer of single malts

Alex Salmond (right)For this month’s article I have secured dispensation from the editor for a slight change of approach as events have provided me with a fine opportunity to gain some political insights into the success story of Scottish malt whisky. In December, the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, and an extensive delegation visited mainland China and Hong Kong as part of an initiative to showcase and market Scottish luxury goods. Having recently secured favoured status, Scottish imports to China have grown significantly and promise to grow further. An example is provided by seafood and the statistic that, since Scottish salmon became available in China for the first time in January 2011, direct imports have totalled £16 million.

The story is similar with whisky, with China granting Scottish whisky “Geographic Indication of Origin” status in 2010. Chinese imports of it rose 24 per cent that year, a trend that is set to continue. This last statistic gave rise to the first of the misunderstandings referred to in the title as Mr Salmond addressed a lunch meeting in Shenzhen and somewhat tongue in cheek suggested that China’s growing demand for malt whisky might lead to it running out. Three mainland newspapers reported this as fact.

My good fortune in both having a publisher who allows my meanderings and a fine friend who runs the Scottish Development Agency in Hong Kong secured for me the rare privilege of an interview with "Wee Eck". Suitably warned by the SDA people to remain on subject and not talk about golf but only about Scottish luxury exports, I had prepared thoroughly for a full 10 minutes before being ushered into the First Minister’s presence along with a real journalist from a catering publication. I immediately forgot my extensive list of three core questions and despite the somewhat intimidating large entourage and the strategically obvious voice recorder the interview swiftly became a friendly conversation interspersed with the delivery of the “Scotland exports luxury products” message of the First Minister.
The second misunderstanding came about as the First Minister was describing his visit to China and the retailer that aims to purchase over £20 million worth of malt whisky annually and distribute it through a network of stores in China. The retailer was described as “Spirit of Empire” which I remarked sounded somewhat politically insensitive, although the First Minister then suggested that it would be the empire of Kublai rather than Victoria. In fact, as one of his staff informed us, it was much more straightforward as the retailer actually had no “of” in its title.

Having avoided one diplomatic incident, I then asked Mr Salmond about his favourite malt whiskies, fully expecting that political sensitivities would lead to a non-committal endorsement of the product generally and offered him “Speyside or Islay?” as an easy get out. He stated a preference for Speyside but also volunteered a personal link with Glenglassaugh distillery, which he had helped to reopen in 2008, and a liking for Talisker, from the only distillery on the Isle of Skye and Glenkinchie, a lowland malt from close to Edinburgh.

Each and every one of these deserves its own review, although I have not sampled anything yet from Glenglassaugh and only rarely Glenkinchie, as my favoured lowland malt was from Bladnoch. However, I have sampled many a fine example of the produce of Talisker and can say that the line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Scotsman’s Return From Abroad is in no way inaccurate in its description, “The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Islay, or Glenlivet.” Any expression of Talisker is a delight and although it is readily identifiable as an island malt, it differs in a number of subtle ways from the great Islay malts. Indeed, this preference of the First Minister demands a fuller description and shall feature within the pages of HK Golfer soon.

Now that I have mentioned golf, I can admit that the restrictions of the SDA were readily ignored and Mr Salmond was eager to talk about one of his great loves. He often rises before 5am to play and has experienced the finest courses. In tune with his endorsement of Scottish seafood exports he also proclaimed that the best golf-enhancing snack between holes was mackerel pate on an oatcake. I was somewhat surprised, coming from the Isle of Arran where mackerel used to be an unwanted catch and unsuspecting tourists of yesteryear were served steamed mackerel coloured with beetroot juice that the menu described as smoked salmon.

I remarked to Mr Salmond that the erstwhile Deputy Head of Mission in Hong Kong, Iain Lindsay, had had the temerity to defeat him 2&1 during his last visit to Hong Kong, but this was readily turned around by the politician into a story about Lindsay’s father having been a previous captain of the Walker Cup team and a tale of an eagle facilitated by a three-wood to five feet by the First Minister at a course that recently hosted the biennial amateur team event.

Fortunately, the SDA had this time around replaced the impudent Lindsay with the long-hitting but directionally-challenged Mark Galloway of HSBC and Fanling resounded to good cheer as the result went the way of the visitors.

This golfing event had given rise to the final misunderstanding. At another function in the morning, where Mr Salmond had been announcing initiatives supporting both charity and sport, I had held up my treasured Saltire jersey and said “this is what you should be wearing to the golf today”. Wee Eck replied “Thank you very much” and my mother’s Christmas present became an unintended gift – and a great memory.

Next issue, we’ll get back on track as we review a fine 1967 expression from Knockando that a reader has generously offered for our mutual enjoyment.

Click here to see the published article.