Shetland: the nearest railway station is Bergen in western Norway, and to get to the Scottish mainland by NorthLink ship takes between 12 and 14 often discombobulating hours.
In such circumstances, the comforting glow of what that great sailor Para Handy called “Bruuttish Spurrits” is called for.
Yet the traditional ‘nip’ in Shetland is not whisky. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given the maritime tradition of these northernmost British islands, that dark rum has tended to rule the roost.
Stewart’s is a traditional Demerara rum from Guyana and the company name – J&G Stewart of Leith – indicates a mainland provenance. But there’s a great story attached.
J&G Stewart was originally a Leith grocery business founded by expatriate Shetlanders, one of whom, George Stewart, later became (after a bizarre life which included emigrating to British Columbia as a woodcarver) author of the first major book in Shetland dialect – Shetland Fireside Tales.
Stewart’s rum remained in production, though ownership of the brand passed from hand to hand until, several years ago, Lerwick wholesale grocery firm Hughsons bought it.
By that time, the vast majority of Stewart’s sales were in the islands anyway. Stewart’s, in a very real sense, had come home.
But whisky? Shetland, with little barley produced locally, has never had a tradition of distilling whisky, though there were, back in the 19th century herring boom, plenty of ‘sma’ stills’ operating at the fishing station, making hooch from any handy source of sugar and starch.
Nevertheless, when news broke in 2002 of plans for a Shetland distillery, it made sense. Britain’s most northerly single malt would always find a market among collectors, and when Caroline Whitfield and Blackwood swung into action, selling ‘Shetland’ gin, vodka and Jago’s Cream Liqueur, it looked very positive.
A site was found, planning permission sought, and… it all fell apart. It’s a tortuous tale involving divorce, theft (stocks of whisky earmarked for ‘maturing’ in Shetland disappeared from a warehouse) an abortive move to Unst, the most northerly Shetland island, and Blackwood’s final slippage into administration.
The latest is that the profitable gin and vodka brands have been sold off, with Caroline still insisting she will build a distillery in the isles.
We shall see. It seems some of the ‘angels’ who ploughed cash into the project early on did receive bottles of ‘Muckle Flugga’ whisky (allegedly a lowland malt ‘similar to Auchentoshan’ in taste) in compensation. But the mystery over barrels supposedly stored in various locations to ‘mature’ has never been satisfactorily solved. Rumours persist about what was in those barrels when they arrived…
Meanwhile, if you want Shetland whisky, you have to go Brucefield Stores in Lerwick, owned by the shipping supply firm Zetland Bonded Services. There, Bert Anderson will sell you a litre of Zetland North Sea whisky for £12.99.
It’s a Loch Lomond blend, grainy and hot, like many supermarket or privately labelled bottlings. And it carries a similar galley logo to all Blackwood’s products, a clash which Bert takes, I think, a little pride in having won.
Most of the whisky goes to western Norway, and there’s a good reason for that: a visiting (Norwegian) yacht skipper can buy it duty free for just (wait for it!) £3.50 a litre. That’s what happens when you’re not in the EU. Norway, that is. Shetland is. For the moment.