A Sense of Place, part II – The Scotch Whisky Express

Theming a Series


Two weeks ago, I wrote about a ‘Sense of Place’, and how important it is to ensure that the products we make are firmly attached to the place of their origins. I delved into the strange phenomenon of our enjoyment of things being increased when we associate them with their place in the world. This phenomenon is something we lean into at Cask 88 with our signature independent bottlings. We’re still quite new at the IB game, and so we’re finding out what works for us, and so far our ‘Folklore’ and ‘Scotch Express’ series’ have really demonstrated how we feel about the whiskies we bottle.

Naturally, we focus on finding wonderful casks of single malt Scotch, great exemplars of their house style, or quirky one-offs that subvert expectations. The taste of the whisky is always going to be the core of the whisky experience. But we believe in giving the whisky an even greater sense of identity, if we can. We draw attention to the distillery that crafted it, the local geography that influenced it, and the techniques that created it. 

And then we extend the story further – to give the whisky an even deeper sense of context within the place it occupies in Scotland. Nothing exists in isolation, and Scotch whisky gets that appellation because it can only be made in Scotland – a place shaped by a shared history.

One of our series focuses on the industrial growth of Scotland in the Victorian era – and how that growth shaped the whiskies we know today.


The Scotch Express Series

The label of the first in the series – the Highland Railway.

The Story

In the mid 1800s, Scotch whisky was a far bigger deal than it had been a few decades prior. No longer fearsome firewater brewed in secret by the light of the moon, Scotch was quite the hot ticket. The trouble was, the distilleries were almost all located in remote and inaccessible corners of Scotland, the glorious Scottish scenery being something of a barrier to the free passage of a bulky product like a whisky cask.

Luckily, whisky had chosen exactly the right time to get popular. The industrial revolution was chugging along nicely and the age of steam brought the fanciful idea to people’s heads of connecting the distant Scottish Highlands to the south by rail. The late 1800s were a time of furious distillery building and railway construction. There was kind of a ‘wild west’ attitude in which these two very different industries flexed their muscles, giving rise to new companies which fought and bit and kicked each other in a competitive fury to carve out an exclusive piece of territory for themselves. Scotland’s distilleries were able to form partnerships with the railway companies and send their whisky south, to new audiences.

It was an exciting time of opportunities seized and lost, and I don’t think I would have come across the stories of Scotland’s railway companies if I hadn’t worked on these bottles of whisky. Names almost lost now: ‘The Highland Railway’, ‘The Caledonian Railway’, ‘The Great North of Scotland’. What part did they play in Scotland’s industrial history, and what was their relationship with Scotch whisky?

A good amount of time was spent trawling for information on each of Scotland’s old railway companies and the locomotives that served them, often in corners of the internet carefully curated by passionate train fanatics. This research was done was partly out of a desire to tell the fascinating tale of these Victorian era companies in their golden years, but also to be as sure as possible that every detail of the story was correct. There are people who know exactly how many inches in diameter differ between a Cowan ‘C’ class and a Cowan ‘M’ class locomotive’s driving wheels (it’s 4 inches), and would rightly let us have it if we misrepresented these facts on our whisky bottles. I’d prefer not to get a single rivet out of place.


The Artwork & the Whisky


Railway artist Robin Barnes, signing cards for the first release.

One of the highlights of this series has been working with the renowned railway artist Robin Barnes, who also happens to be the uncle of our CEO. Quite serendipitous! Robin has not only produced beautiful watercolours of all the locomotives that adorn our bottles, but he has also painted the scenes for the backdrop of our print advertising in railway enthusiast magazines.

Back in the early days, we really didn’t know the kind of shape this project would take. We knew that we wanted bottles of whisky to pay tribute to the old Scottish railways, and that was enough for Robin to head off to his studio and produce a range of kinetic paintings of 19th and 20th century locomotives under full steam. It happened that each of them represented a different Victorian-era Scottish Railway company.

Since each of these companies served different regions of Scotland (with some overlap), it made perfect sense to try and source the whisky from a distillery somewhere along these routes. And since Scottish distilleries and railway companies advanced each others’ interests in the past – there were plenty of candidates. The relationship between the whisky and the art was thus established. This gave our in-house designers plenty to work with. Old route maps, company liveries and period fonts were all brought into the mix when desiging the final housing for the whiskies.

The Scotch Express bottles release seasonally – every few months. When the whisky is in the bottle, we spread the word among the audience we think will be the most appreciative – and so we primarily advertise in railway and model railway hobbyist magazines. There are other spheres of interest with fans just as invested and passionate as whisky geeks can be; a little overlap between whisky and railway fandom can allow us a window on each others’ worlds.

There is a definite whiff of nostalgia about the Scotch Express series, and so we always wanted our print advertisements to be reminiscent of those gorgeous early 20th century travel posters – those that encouraged the use of railways through bold brushwork and romantic landscapes. Once again, Robin Barnes raised his brush to our aid and has painted the scenes for each of our Scotch Express releases so far.

Once again, we’re leaning into that sense of place for each bottle. These scenes painted by Robin are the ones we’d like you to picture in your mind’s eye when sampling the whisky.

The three print posters to date, showing scenes from the stories of the bottles. A snowy Aberlour freight yard, a summery day in the Highlands and the Forth river crossing – boat and bridge.


Bring it all Together

Go on: close your eyes and take a sip. Picture the scene of the distillery, the stillmen hard at work, the barley drying, the washbacks steaming. Then wander outside into the brisk Scottish morning, squint against the low sun and survey the scenery. And then cast your gaze down to the valley below, suddenly full of the rush and smoke of a gleaming steam locomotive, pulling behind it clanking wagons bearing the whisky that’s destined for exotic and faraway places. Now, open your eyes again. Tell me the whisky didn’t taste just a bit better?

If it did – then mission accomplished! The Scotch express bottles are supposed to resonate with the drinker of the whisky they contain, and add some extra weight to that intangible… sense of place. 

Ah, and of course; if you’ve been inspired by all this, you can find our Scotch Express series in our online store.

Right here!


Join me again in Part 3, when I will go behind the scenes of our most iconic bottles – those in the Scottish Folklore series.

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