Scotch Whisky (without the “e”) justly merits acclaim from connoisseurs worldwide who appreciate its nuance and flavor. For this reason, Scotch is increasingly popular as more people are exposed to its charms. The whisky business is now booming in Scotland.
The growth should be a good thing. By modern business metrics, if a product is good, then more of it is better. Entrepreneurs should strive to do everything possible to expand production and maximize profits. Everyone should benefit from this arrangement. Indeed, distillers are ramping up production on the traditional islands where Scotch is made.
However, on the island of Islay, not everyone is happy with this development. The island is especially known for its peat-flavored Laphroaig (owned now by Beam Suntory) and its smoky Lagavulin (part of Diageo spirits). Many complain that this expansion is forgetting something essential. The island may be making good whisky, but it may also be selling its soul.
Losing Local Culture
There are nine distilleries on Islay, with three more being built and a fourth awaiting approval on the 239- square-mile island off Scotland’s west coast. Most of the distilleries are in the hands of giant liquor conglomerates with plenty of investment capital. Many locals complain the expansion on their picturesque island is turning the whole place into a corporate whisky factory.
Indeed, the island is losing its local flavor and culture. Its population of 3,228 cannot cope with the double invasion of whisky makers and tourists. The boom is raising real estate prices so that young families can no longer afford to buy homes or acquire land for farming. Local businesses have trouble finding enough help. Tourists visiting the “Whisky Trail” are straining housing capacity since many houses are now repurposed for holiday rentals. Natives are leaving the island.
Some locals even presented a petition in 2019 asking the island council to freeze the building of new distilleries until the housing crisis can be resolved. The motion failed as distillers claimed they provide excellent career opportunities for everyone. They also pledged to invest in new housing to make it more affordable. However, the problems still linger.
Housing and jobs are not the real issues. Something much deeper is involved that extends beyond the financial bottom line. Inhabitants sense something is missing that must satisfy the soul. The invading corporate firms can construct state-of-the-art distilleries but cannot build a culture.
Good Whisky Just Another Excellent Product
Alas, modern economists treat all products indifferently, as mere things that must be made where comparative advantage exists. If cheap labor mixed with good water and grains come together in Islay, then whisky should be produced there. Should another place make something similar elsewhere, let it be done or moved there so that profits might be maximized.
When marketers find a fine product like Islay whisky that will attract consumers worldwide, they expand demand by advertising these high-end products as the best in their class. They create a mania around the product that gives rise to consumers who seek the best of everything and demand that it be available anytime, anywhere, and any place. Such consumers have no connection to the cultures that produce these distinctive items. They have no culture themselves save that of others. Creating fine products over generations is too much effort for these cosmopolitan connoisseurs.
If the Scots had followed the same logic and relied solely upon the best of other peoples’ cultures to develop their tastes, the rich Scotch whiskies would never have developed.
The Product of the Scottish Imagination
Whisky is not a product of savvy entrepreneurs. It is a product of Scottish culture that, like the drink, should be savored and appreciated. Even the word whisky (without the “e”) has cultural origins. It comes from the Scots Gaelic uisge beatha, an adaptation of the Latin phrase aqua vitae, meaning “water of life.”
Whisky-making was originally a cottage industry that developed over centuries of tradition. It was the wondrous product of the Scottish imagination. Scots experimented with the materials at hand to distill a fine drink corresponding to their rustic tastes. The distiller and local consumers co-created a product that became part of Scottish culture and identity, ideally suited to the region’s inhabitants.
The primary consumers should be the local populations that imagined whisky. Like local cuisine is made for local inhabitants, whisky was made to reflect the native population and not vice versa.
Others may share the libation, but it is not theirs. They are mere connoisseurs invited to imbibe the best of this product, which has no rival. There is nothing wrong with others who want to taste and enjoy it. However, there is frenetic intemperance in wanting everything from everywhere. People should not live off the cultures of others. Such a system destroys the culture that gave excellent products their birth.
When operations go big to satisfy cosmopolitan demand, they lose something of that human touch and local flavor that gives it life. Mass production and marketing destroy the product’s tradition and turn it into another folkloric product in the company’s international catalog. Even these high-end markets became bland and the same everywhere worldwide since there is no more culture to generate new excellent products.
Too Much Whisky
The world would be much richer culturally if each nation or region dared to imagine its own cultures and products, savoring and protecting them.
Such a daring feat would generate natural protectionism—respectful of free markets—that in the past was born of a zeal whereby populations simply preferred the local product out of the joy of consuming what was specific to them and showed natural wariness of what was not. Supported by healthy customs and authentic local elites, people had the temperance of staying within the limits of what expressed their souls, culture and mentality.
Thus, Islay locals understandably resent the intrusion of the giant distilleries. Of what value are its whiskies if the island becomes a corporate whisky factory? This expansion destroys the lifestyle and culture that created this “water of life.” The cultureless devourers of high-end culture become its destroyers.
Something needs to change. There comes a time when there is too much whisky and too little cultural imagination.
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