SMWS founder Phillip ‘Pip’ Hills tells Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan about how the Society started out and how he and a ‘motley bunch’ ignited a revolution in the world of whisky appreciation

Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan caught up with Society founder Phillip ‘Pip’ Hills to find out more about the origins of the whisky club and how he found an eager audience for single cask, single malt when it was virtually unknown.

Tell me your recollections of how The Scotch Malt Whisky Society formed.

The whole thing started because two of my oldest friends have a little farm up in Aberdeenshire, up on the edge of the Howe of Alford, and then as now I usually go and visit them a few times a year. Their next-door neighbour was called Stan, a very wealthy Aberdeenshire farmer, and he lived in a wee two-up two-down farmhouse with no sign of affluence, and drove an old Land Rover. What he did have the luxury of was that once a year he went over the Cabrach to Speyside and up the Spey to Ballindalloch, where from George Grant he bought a quarter cask of Glenfarclas.

Now the domestic purchase of casks by that time, we’re talking about the 1970s, was virtually unknown. It never died out completely, but it was bloody near it. By the 1970s, malt whisky was practically unknown outside Scotland and very little known within it.

I was brought up in Grangemouth where my dad was a docker, and whisky was Haig, that’s all it was – blended whisky. I grew up knowing it was our national drink but frankly not liking the stuff very much. What really opened my eyes was in the 1970s when I went to visit the McArdles, Stan would come over with a lemonade bottle of whisky. What he wanted was to talk politics and I was only too happy to oblige, because I was an active member of the Labour Party at the time. I thought it just the best whisky I had ever drunk, by miles. I asked about it and Stan took me up to the house and showed me. It was a wee Aberdeenshire farmhouse kitchen with an armchair on either side of the fire and beside Stan’s chair was a cask with spigot in it, and he drew the whisky out of the cask. I thought this was just wonderful, and experienced this a few times, and experienced the fact that I could get very drunk on it without feeling desperately ill, which was what usually happened to me. I asked Stan about it and he told me where he’d got it and so on, so I told a number of my friends about it and I said if I was to get hold of a cask of whisky, would you be interested? They all said sure, great.

And so eventually I got in touch with the Grants and explained who I was and what I had come across, and was there any chance of buying a quarter cask of Glenfarclas? They said, well, as a matter of fact one of our customers to whom we supply these quarters casks has died and there was nobody to inherit his supply. Since I knew Stan, I was obviously a respectable person, so I drove up to Glenfarclas and I paid the Grants £2,500 for a quarter cask of 10-year-old Glenfarclas, and I brought it down to Edinburgh. I called the chaps together and we met in the lobby of my house at 10 Scotland Street and we sucked it out with a plastic pipe and divvied it up.

Obviously, we tasted it a few times, and everybody thought it was wonderful, so we divided it into gallon jars and they went off clutching their jars, happy as could be. It wasn’t long before I started to get phone calls from complete strangers, saying, you don’t know me but I’m a pal of so-and-so, and I’ve just tasted this wonderful whisky. Is there any chance of getting some?

So, I would say, give me your phone number and I made a list of names and phone numbers, and eventually the members of the syndicate were coming back to me, remarkably soon, saying ‘I’ve run out of whisky, can we get some more?’ So, I called a meeting and said: ‘Look, it’s not just you lot, it’s your pals as well, what would you say if I could get two casks, would you be agreeable to enlarging the syndicate?’ They said sure. So, I phone up the Grants and I said, any chance of two more casks? They said, yes, well, we have two you could have. So I drove up to Glenfarclas.

Pip HIlls and his dog Hector on the beach at Montrose.

Shortly before that, one of my friends was a man called Ritchie Calder, an extraordinary character, a press man, he was one of the leaders of the British propaganda unit in the Second World War. I understand he was responsible for the “da da da da” call sign to Europe, which of course being the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th also spelt V for victory in Morse code, it’s the kind of thing Ritchie did.

I met him not that long before, it was around about Christmas, and he said when’s this syndicate going to happen? I said pretty soon, I think, it depends on the weather. And he said make it quick would you. I said why, what’s the hurry? He said: ‘I was in Moscow last week, and I had a heart attack, and they tell me I’m going to have more – so the sooner the better.’

As it turned out, I couldn’t go until February, and in the intervening period, Ritchie died. He was chairman of Filmhouse in Edinburgh at the time and he had left strict instructions that if he was to die before he got his gallon from the syndicate, we were to have a wake at Filmhouse and to use his whisky, which we did. It was wonderful.

But as you can imagine, well, the thing is, there was a big group of mainly middle-class people, in Edinburgh, all involved in the media, the arts, and things thereto, and it was a society through which word moved very easily. I suppose you’d call it networking now.

SMWS founder Pip Hills with his original member's card.

It was clearly word of mouth because no one had tasted anything like this…

Yes, they’d drunk blended whisky, but they’d never tasted anything as wonderful as this. This went on for quite a while and I went looking for other casks of whisky, though none, as it turned out, quite as spectacularly fine as the Glenfarclas. But I got the idea that possibly, I was thinking to myself, why is somebody not selling this stuff? And why is it so much better than the same stuff in a bottle? And this didn’t just apply to Glenfarclas, or not even particularly to Glenfarclas, but it did apply very clearly to an awful lot of other whiskies.

I had a very close friend, called John Ferguson, he was a climber. When I was young, for my sins, I was a mountaineer, and I stopped doing it I suppose in my early 20s, I’d had a very bad accident at the age of 20 and spent three months in hospital, but I did quite a lot of hard routes after that. John was a member of the Creagh Dhu [mountaineering club], and I remember when I met John, he said, you’re known as Pip Hills, is that right? I said yeh. He said were you a mountaineer when you were young? I said aye. He said, we’ve met before, and when we last met you threatened to kill me. Surely not! How was this? And he described a day which I remember vividly, it was a wet Saturday in Glen Coe and Dougal [Haston, Scottish climbing legend] and I were at a loose end. It was far too wet to climb any good routes, so we attempted to do what generations of mountaineers had tried to do, and that was to make a girdle traverse across the north face of Aonach Dubh, a dirty business but better than doing nothing, sitting in the pub.

We knew there were a couple of guys somewhere further up the mountain, and at one point we heard a rumble, and we dived – and it’s a very vertical face – and managed to get ourselves under an overhang, but with great difficulty, as a rock avalanche swept past us. Obviously, whoever was further up the mountain had started this. It took us the rest of the day to get off the face, because we were shaky, and we saw these two obviously Creagh Dhu [climbers] and apparently I shouted at one of them, ‘You bastards I’ll kill you!’ and this was Ferguson, and he and I formed an alliance.

John liked hi-jinks and we got up to some great things together, we had a lot of fun, a lot of it involving boats. I told John about my idea. I said I needed to talk to somebody in the whisky industry, because I knew nobody in the whisky industry, he said why don’t you try Russell Sharp, he’s in the industry. I said I don’t know him, he said he’s a member of the Squirrels, the Edinburgh climbing group. So, a meeting was arranged in the Horseshoe bar in Glasgow, the three of us met there and Russell was the perfect person, because he was trained as a brewer, and was the head chemist at Chivas – a good job in the whisky industry. He was responsible for quality, and he knew all the technicalities of whisky. So I asked Russell, why was this stuff so much better? He was able to explain to me that it was down to two things; it was down to the individuality of the cask – and we had been fortunate in getting good casks – and it was also down to the fact that we were taking it straight, without chill-filtering, which removes some of the flavour.

So I said, I fancy doing this commercially, there’s got to be a market for the liquor, this is Scotland’s finest product and there’s no market for it, it’s not sold. And it was Russell, he said, the industry won’t like it. He said they’ll stop you if you use any distillery names, because they are all trademarks, they’ll try to stop you if they can. But then he said, if you manage to do it, I’d be happy to be part of it. So he came on board, not immediately, but soon.

SMWS member #001, Mr P Hills.

But other people within the industry said there’s not even a market for this?

That’s right. I got introductions to various people in the industry and they all said oh there’s no market for that, if there had been we’d have done it before. Which showed how little they knew! The main motivation was fun. It was a fun thing to do.

There were a whole lot of elements to it, I’ve been thinking about it recently, and there were a lot of elements to it. Part of it was that the people I spoke to who said it couldn’t be done were so dull, there was no imagination. They were all pulling in big salaries from their companies and they were all selling blended whisky, and they were surprised that anybody would want malt whisky.

Let me tell you a story about that. David Daiches – you’ve read his book [Scotch Whisky, Its Past and Present], one of his seminal books in the history of whisky? – when David in the mid-60s was doing the research for that book, he went to Bowmore, which at the time was owned by Stanley P Morrison, obviously a wealthy man, several generations in the whisky industry, and nobody had ever come to visit Bowmore, because nobody thought of visiting distilleries. He explained what he was about and they were very obliging and they showed him around the distillery. Once they’d shown him around they said would you like a dram, he said, yes certainly. So they took him into the sample room and they poured him a dram of blended whisky, of which Bowmore was an important constituent. David said, would it be possible to have a glass of the Bowmore and Stanley Morrison said, is it nice, just on its own? This is a man who owned a distillery, who’d never thought to drink the malt on its own. Now that…that is astonishing. That shows how powerful our ideas were, here was an almost entire industry that believed this sort of thing, just amazing.

You’ve written about how there was an almost complete ignorance about what we were producing as whisky – because blends were everything, and distilleries may have had good casks or not such good casks, but it didn’t really matter to them, because it was all going into the mix.

That’s right, it’s all going into the one blend. And contrary to what they say, if you’re blending a thousand gallons of whisky, the fact that there are some exceptional casks is not going to be discernible. There was great mystique about the choice of whiskies for blending, and like a lot of what the whisky industry said, a lot of it was bullshit.

It took the whisky industry 10 years to waken up to what we were doing at the SMWS, and to realise that here was a huge market at the very top of the market, and one whose existence would reflect well on the rest of the market, on the blended whisky part. It took them that long.

You were obviously doing this when it was a new thing, but was it easier to source good quality casks?

It wasn’t only easy to source, people were delighted for me to take the stuff off their hands, they were delighted to get rid of it. They didn’t give a toss about the whisky. What they wanted was to shift it, get it off their stocks. I remember going to bond number 9 in Leith, quite early on, to buy Highland Park, and they had lined up about 20 casks with samples drawn off each of them.

We went along the row, and nosed them and said, yes, we’ll have that, that and that, and it was agreed and we signed the paper and so on. And then the manager, said, I’ve got some old whisky in the bond, would you be interested? I said what is it, he said it’s Dallas Dhu, it’s 25 years in cask. I said I’ll have a look. So, we went up to the top of the racks on the gantries, and there were seven casks, four were first-fill sherry butts and three were second-fill, and they’d all been in casks for 25 years, and it was wonderful. It was a lot better than it should have been after 25 years in a first-fill butt, but it was wonderful.

I said we’ll take the lot. All we paid for was the alcohol, you paid so much per litre of pure alcohol per year, that’s all you bought. There was no addition for the nature of the cask or the quality of the product, it was all one price. So sourcing the whisky was no issue in those days.

And 1983 when the Society formed was a year of multiple closures of distilleries, of notable distilleries.

Sure, so people were happy to get rid of stuff.

But even with the state of the industry at that time, you thought – we’ve got a market for this?

Well, I knew very little about the industry remember, all I was doing was judging on the quality of the product and the response of my friends, who were ordinary middle class, and working-class, people. But this has always been a middle-class thing, because poor folk can’t afford to buy expensive whisky. But I was convinced that there had to be a market for something as good as this.

There was a social element to it to, in that Scotland in the 1960s was undergoing something of a cultural revolution. What was regarded as Scottishness by the 1960s hadn’t changed much in a century or more but there was part of the population that was aware of itself and had some awareness of its culture, who were aware that Scotland was a lot better than the official view. The kilts, tartan, haggis, sort of view of Scottishness, I mean the shortbread tin aspect of culture, was dominant. And there were relatively few people who didn’t subscribe to that, although it must be said that most thinking people were uncomfortable with it, because it was such a limpen sort of culture. But there was a process of rediscovery.

If you read the books about Scottish history, there was what Marinell Ash called The Strange Death of Scottish History. I mean, historiography, scientific historiography, began in Scotland in the later 18th century, and continued for quite some time. But in the Victorian era, suddenly critical history disappeared, for about 100 years. Modern writing about Scottish history I would say [emerged] from the 60s, when there were a new generation of historians coming out of the universities – not all coming from universities though – but writing about Scottish history. Also, people like John Prebble made a huge impact. And there was also the fact that Scotland was changing its political condition, it was becoming much more left wing, and it has, I’m delighted to say, continued in that vein.

What you must remember is that in the 1951 General Election, there was a Tory majority not just of seats in Scotland, but of votes, and that gives you some idea of how huge the change which had come about by the later 1960s was. So there were these processes going on of the rediscovery of the real Scotland. And I’m not saying it was conscious on our part, but we were obviously part of that movement. We were rediscovering, and the rediscovery was lots of fun, and it was poking our fingers up the nose of all sorts of terribly respectable members of the establishment, who all adhered to the old ways. This was part of my motivation, and I think it was part of the motivation of a whole lot of people, this group of sort of aware people in Scotland.

Because blended whisky was the drink of the establishment?

That’s right and it was drunk in open glasses with soda, and…

But there was a rising sense of self-confidence in terms of what we were producing as a nation that wasn’t being appreciated?

Absolutely, sure.

And you saw the market for that.

Yes. And I said to the members of the syndicate, look, how about it? I applied to the Registrar of Companies for a company called The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Ltd. Now I had been told very clearly that I couldn’t get a company name which implied national status, unless it was real. And indeed, Companies House came back to me and said what is this about? And I got back to them and said, well, we are a Scotch malt whisky society, as far as I know we’re the only Scotch malt whisky society, is there any reason why we shouldn’t have a company? The registrars said okay, and gave us the company name.

Once we had the company name, we then had to find somewhere to do it in. I spent quite a bit of time in Leith, mostly to do with pubs and boats and things, and it was a very scruffy place at that time. I liked old buildings, and at the time JG Thomson the wine merchant occupied The Vaults and the buildings behind it. I thought that would do fine. I walked up the stairs one day and asked to see the manager, who was in what’s now the Tasting Room. He was a perfectly nice chap, he said what can I do for you. I said, well, I fancy your building, is there any chance of buying it? He said, well I don’t know, we’re moving out in a month’s time. I didn’t know this, all I thought was it was a cracking building it would do just fine. He said if you made the firm an offer they’d be happy to get it off their hands.

Was the building condemned at the time?

No, but it was in pretty poor repair. So, I told the members of the syndicate of whom four or five said, well if you want we’ll chip in for it. So, we chipped in £10,000 a piece and we bought the building for £50,000. It turned out to be a disastrous speculation, because it cost a fortune to restore it. I got historic building grants and all sorts for it, but even so, we lost our money. But fortunately, by the time the building company went down, we were doing well enough with the Society, which was operating in what’s now the Tasting Room, with holes in the floor.

I spoke to Anne Dana and she filled me in on the conditions she was operating in!

Anne was a stalwart at that time. I had wanted a secretary, I had a business, I was a tax accountant which I ran from my house on Scotland Street, fixing income tax for people and companies and I had advertised for a secretary. Anne turned up and she seemed a very personable person, and I said, well there actually might be far more to this job than being my secretary. And I explained to her what was in the air, and she thought it was a great idea. So she came in and she ended up running the thing.

As the Society’s first managing director…

That’s right, and she was very good. And did it in very difficult circumstances. My reasoning was simply that if this stuff is as good as we think it is, people will make a path to our door. So we set up business in The Vaults. There was a wee bottling plant down on Commercial Street in buildings belonging to, if I recall rightly, Glenmorangie, because Glenmorangie were headquartered down there at that time. They agreed to do our bottling, and to hold the stuff in bond. And we just set up business, but what really started it was an article in the Scotsman.

Conrad Wilson was the Scotsman’s food and wine correspondent, and he had bunch of his pals who did wine tastings for fun, mostly journalists. Conrad was a pal of my business partner, Penny Craig, and I told Conrad about it and he said well how about if we do a whisky tasting?

So I set it up and this was probably the first amateur whisky tasting ever to happen. Conrad and the rest thought it was just wonderful. They scored everything in points out of 100 and the highest wine they had ever scored was a Chateau Talbot I think, which they had rated at 87. They rated our whiskies and the lowest one got 95 and the Highland Park got 99!

And nothing like this had ever happened before?

Absolutely, it was completely new. And I can’t remember exactly where the idea of treating it as you would wine arose, but we got ourselves some nosing glasses, I imagine Russell had something to do with that.

We got the idea that we had to write tasting notes, I think we got that from Conrad and his group, and I thought, how am I going to do this? I can’t go to the whisky industry, who presumably would know about such things, I thought it best to get people who know whisky but who are literate, so I convened a meeting of the first Scotch Malt Whisky Society tasting committee in the kitchen of my house at 10 Scotland Street. It was a motley bunch. Russell was there as the technical expert, I asked Hamish Henderson, a well-known whisky buff but also a very distinguished man of letters, and arguably one of the most important people in that Scottish renaissance. I asked Willie Gillies, who was the professor of Celtic [Studies] at Edinburgh University, I asked my pal Ian Duffield who was a historian, and I asked Bernard Crick. He had had a distinguished career as a professor of politics at the London School of Economics mainly.

That was our first tasting committee. I poured the drams all around, explained what we would do, sniff it first, and then put some water in and talk to me about it, give me words.

They were by and large useless, despite my care in selecting them. Hamish – poet, songwriter – should have been brilliant. I said, right Hamish, tell me about it, how would you describe this whisky? Oh, he said, it’s a lovely whisky, just a lovely whisky. I said tell me more! He said, it’s a very lovely whisky. I could get nothing out of him except that it was a lovely whisky.

Pip in the centre, chairing an early meeting of the SMWS Tasting Panel.

But the language didn’t really exist in terms of describing whisky at that point…

Yes, we decided to use kind of metaphorical descriptions. I have to say the tasting committee wasn’t a huge success over the years – it was very difficult to find people with the right kind of qualifications, and it all tended to become a bit routine. In later years I ended up doing it myself and I don’t think it suffered for that.
But this was something that hadn’t been done before. You started something that has carried on, maybe taken its own path.

Never been done. No. That’s right, and I think the first attempt at it was Conrad Wilson and the Scotsman tasting team. But although they have great literary qualities, it doesn’t follow they can describe a whisky.

But what really made the business fly in the first year, I took it upon myself to do the publicity. And I said now one thing must be clear is that we do not pay for advertising in any shape or form. I had fights on the board, year after year, on that. The board was a battleground, throughout the whole of my time there, because I had a very clear vision of what it ought to be and while commercially it may not have been a great success, at least I was clear about the main guidelines.

I said if it’s as good as we say it is, we can get it to sell itself. I phoned up [wine writer] Jancis Robinson, this must have been in the first year, and she wasn’t very keen at being cold-called, but I explained, mentioned a couple of mutual acquaintances, and she agreed to listen to me. I told her as briefly as I could what it was and what I was doing, and she was sceptical, but she agreed to see me. I said give me half an hour of your time and if you are not completely convinced, I’ll go away and I won’t bother you again. And I’ll leave you some very good whisky.

I packed a bag with half a dozen bottles, by that time we had spread the net a bit wider, and I went down to see her in London, and I told her what it was and how it had come about and I said what we’re doing is treating whisky as though it were wine. She was completely sold and wrote a big piece for the Sunday Times magazine and that just caused the whole thing to explode.

But there was no advertising, it was all through word of mouth and press. And we got some amazing press.

Paul Levy rang up to say what was all this about, and I told him, I said come up and we’ll show you. Paul Levy was the wine correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, and very much a snob, in the best possible way. He had a very good opinion about himself and also very high standards. Paul came up with a photographer and I had arranged to take them around a few distilleries and to show them a few drams. At the time, I drove the same car for 25 years – a 1937 4.5 litre Lagonda.

The 1937 Lagonda Pip used to transport the first casks of Society whisky.

It was a spectacular motor, and it was quite early in the year, March, and Paul was a very sceptical and I think he was regretting allowing himself to devote two or three days to this, he thought better of it. I took him to lunch at Khushi’s Indian restaurant in Edinburgh. It was established in 1947, the oldest Indian restaurant in Scotland, because there were so many people coming from the Indian subcontinent to study at Edinburgh Medical School, and it was close to the medical faculty. Mrs Khushi did all the cooking, and I took Paul there and you could see his nose turning up – he hadn’t been in a dive like this in a long time.

We set off and drove up the A9, and somewhere north of Aviemore I screeched to a halt, I’d seen something lying in the road. I ran back down the road and came back very pleased, and Paul, who was very much a city boy, said what on earth is that? I said it’s a hare, it’s a big one and it’s still warm! And it was early enough in the year it still had its white coat. I said when we get back I’ll cook you hare, and chucked it in the boot.

We drove up to Speyside, went to Ballindalloch [Glenfarclas], and one or two other distilleries, and next day on the way down the A96 I did the same thing, drew to a halt. Two pheasants killed by the same car. They went in with the hare. So, when we got back I invited Paul and the photographer to come to my house for dinner that night, and I made them a stew. I bought a big slab of belly pork and made them a big stew of hare, and pheasant. Paul said afterwards, it was the stew that did it. We got a complete page in The Wall Street Journal. Now can you imagine the cost of that? That’s what made the Society take off, that kind of press coverage.

Pip Hills on the beach near his home in Montrose.

How important was the social aspect of the Society?

Enormously important, because we made friends of all the members. The members felt they were members of a club, and I think Anne Dana was very important in that, she was a very warm personality and the members loved her and they were astonished to find a good-looking woman running an outfit like that. Yes, it was very important, and what was also important was the atmosphere of the thing. It started with a sense of fun, and it continued with that sense of fun, and of doing something that dull respectable people wouldn’t do. Now I’m sure that most of our members were dull respectable people. It’s what’s called aspirational marketing, they couldn’t be us, but they could associate with us by being a member of the Society.

But none of you had come from within the whisky industry – you were very much outsiders.

That’s right but we did get quite a lot of people with quite a bit of money who bought in to the company and came on the board who wanted us to start selling blended whisky, there was a big move to make that happen at one time. I said absolutely not, are you nuts? They said we can make money from it. Well, if I’d paid more attention to making money I’d have been a richer man today. But that’s the way it went.

But it’s clear that the Society has had a big influence on the wider whisky world.

Oh yes, all the stuff you see in the airports for hundreds of pounds.

How do you view that? That imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

Absolutely, yes. It doesn’t matter a toss to me, frankly, because flattery has never been anything that excited me particularly. but…

…but when you reflect on what you started and where the industry has gone now…how does that feel?

Well firstly, the whisky industry, like so many industries, has no historical sense, which is astonishing, given what it is. But each new generation wants to make its mark and write its own scenario. And I’m sure if you scratch most people who are selling fancy cask whiskies around the world, and ask them where it came from, most of them won’t know, I don’t think. I may be wrong about that but I don’t think so. I think they all – each company – creates its own mythos, and the bigger the company the more powerful that is.

Do you have any assessment of the Society now?

I don’t know enough about it. By the time I came to leave it, I had already grown a bit bored with the whole thing. You can only stand up doing whisky tastings for so long. It’s a nice thing to do, there’s no question about that. I think I’ve only ever been in the Society once or twice since I left it.

Can you remember the last time?

Yes, I went in a few years ago now, there was this man at the door in a fancy uniform, a doorman’s uniform. He asked to see my membership card, I said I have no idea [where it is]. He said did I by any chance know my membership number? I said I wasn’t very sure but as far as I was aware it was 1. He was very nice and let me in.
But I feel a wee bit like Groucho Marx who said, when asked about being a member of club, I wouldn’t want to join the kind of club who would have me as a member. Now I’m not saying I feel that way about it, but I rather doubt whether it’s the sort of thing that I would be attracted to as a person.

Any reflections on the Society at 35 years of age?

Not really, because as I say, I’ve only been there once in the last 10 or 15 years, so I know very little about it.

But could you have imagined at that time in the late 70s and then in 1983 when it was formed, how it would develop?

I never gave it a thought, to tell the truth.

But it’s had this major influence on the industry.

Yes, I didn’t foresee that. I could see it happening once we’d been in business for a few years. Quite early on, United Distillers brought out what they called their Classic Malts series, and at the time their head of marketing was Mike Collins. He came for a dram once at the Society, I said you bastard, you stole that idea from me!

He said there’s no copyright on good ideas. I said the least you can do is to let me have product, because at the time United Distillers wouldn’t help out with product, and they held out for a long time, but they are sitting on wonderful stock, and the only thing they could do with it were the Classic Malts, which weren’t all that great frankly. And they were trying these bright new wheezes like – what was that black whisky they brought out, Loch Dhu? That was awful, it was paxarette casks. It was hellish.

It’s become a collector’s item because it was so bad!

Don’t ask me what I think about collectors…I think you’ve got to be some kind of moron to collect whisky.

When you talk about the lack of knowledge about what we were sitting on in terms of the quality of the whisky that was in Scotland, there no awareness of it, but there was this rising self-confidence that you’ve been talking about. Through the Society there was an exploration of what we had in terms of quality. That was revolutionary on reflection, although maybe it didn’t seem like that at the time?

Yes, it was a very small revolution!

Small but very worthwhile!

That emerging consciousness of Scottishness started, as so many revolutions do, among what might loosely be described as the ‘intellectuals’, and it took a long time to percolate down to the commercial classes, and to tell the truth I’m not sure it ever did, as far as some of them are concerned. But there is no doubt that it was a social movement which resulted in us getting a Scottish Parliament.

My main reason for writing my book Scots on Scotch was to lay down a marker, because I could see that process of falsification starting already. People rewrite history, or they ignore it and these forces are still present, which is why I think history is important. You must know where you come from!