DEADLY STILL, my latest Inspector Torquil McKinnon crime novel is about whisky. Bad whisky, to be precise.
My grandfather, who taught me many life skills, perhaps most importantly how to spin a yarn, had been a head maltman in several famous distilleries in the Speyside area. My novel is dedicated to him.
Speyside is, of course, one of the main malt whisky producing areas of Scotland.
The main whisky areas of Scotland – Speyside, Highlands, lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay and Islands
My grandfather and his family lived in Dufftown, in Banffshire. This town is famous in whisky terms, hence the old expression:
‘Rome was built on seven hills, Dufftown stands of seven stills.’
Indeed, the number of distilleries dotted around this small highland town rose to nine.
Mortlach est 1823
Glenfiddich est 1886
Balvenie est 1892
Convalmore est 1894 (closed 1985)
Parkmore est 1894 (closed 1931)
Dufftown est 1896
Glendullan est 1897
Pittyvaich est 1975 (closed 1993, demolished 2002)
Kininvie est 1990
There are now six functioning distilleries in Dufftown.
But back to my grandfather. He had started his working life as a ploughman, then worked as a forester before getting into whisky. He had seven children, my mother being number six. She was actually born in Glenfarclas Cottage, which as head maltman at the Ballindalloch distillery he was given for a peppercorn rent.
My grandfather in centre with malt shovel c 1910, standing next to the seated Mr Grant
My mother always said that she hd whisky in her blood, because every day of her childhood she could smell the heady aroma of the malt.
A consequence of that, she always maintained, was that she had no need to ever take a dram, it was already in her system.
Copper dogs and copper flasks
There were many occupations in the old distilleries. Maltman, mashman, still man, head distiller, involved in the production of whisky. But there were also cooper’s and coppersmiths.
It is said (and I cannot possibly comment) that distillery workers used to get the coppersmiths to manufacture coper dogs for them. Essentially, this was a piece of copper tubing which was soldered closed at one end and stopped with a cork bung on the other. It could be filled with whisky and dangled by a cord inside the trousers to smuggle whisky out of the distillery.
Another more sophisticated receptacle was a copper flask. I inherited one which is substantially larger than any hip flask. It’s top is a King George V ha’penny. It is curved to round the body, under the waistcoat. One wonders whether the ha’penny was a wink at His Majesty’s excisemen by whoever owned it! Suffice to say that it has had a special place on my desk as I was writing my novel Deadly Still.
Two of my muse-objects of inestimable use during the writing of Deadly Still!
Whisky connoisseur can argue forever about the merits of the different malt whisky producing areas. Far be it for me to agree one way of the other. All I would say is that unlike the illicitly produced whisky in the novel, which should certainly be avoided, I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad malt.
But then, I still have not tried them all.
Until next time –Slàinte Mhath!