Tied to the landscape
In my last entry, I gave the spotlight to our Scotch Express series – the bottles that celebrated the achievement of the Victorian era railways in connecting the remote highlands of Scotland with the more populous areas in the south. See Part II.
These railways had an incredibly tough time of it – Scotland is a very lumpy, craggy kind of place. Even now, in the 21st century, modern travellers know that getting around the country can take a long time. The distances may not be huge, but a straight route is often hard to find. Road users are often ambushed by rocky mountain sides or surprise sea-lochs, and have to take a meandering path or even jump on a ferry to get to their destination.
As someone who writes frequently about whisky, this landscape has been a constant muse to me. Mostly because reminding people that they’re drinking something with roots in the untamed wild places seems to be an excellent marketing technique, one that every distillery knows very well. And did I write something about whisky tasting better when one’s psychology is nudged into picturing great, windblown Scottish vistas? Why yes, I might have. See part I.
This landscape, though, has been a very real and very formative feature for generations of people who had the very real task of learning to live comfortably within it. The small communities embedded in highland glens and on island shores have had their fortunes tied to the clemency of unpredictable weather, the hassle of rough terrain and the isolation of being far away from urban centres.
The myths and stories of Scottish folklore owe everything to these challenging conditions. People tell fantastic stories if they feel the very water, trees and stones have their own will to live. Hidden beings, powerful gods and wonderful creatures are residents in these shifting landscapes, just as much as the humans and animals are – and every community will have their very own set of stories and rituals to make sense of and describe the etiquette of interacting with these beings. After all – sometimes life depends on not offending the fairy folk.
The Folklore of Whisky
Whisky distilleries are as embedded in their communities as these classic folk tales and myths are. Whisky takes its sense of place not just from the local landscape, but also from the people who inhabit that place. Whisky distilleries were founded and grew up alongside local gods, heroes and spirits. Thanks to this, our Scottish Folklore Series has been a great success: no matter where in Scotland we go to find our whisky, we can always find an incredibly compelling creature from folklore to adorn our bottle and tell a story to enhance the flavour of the whisky.
/kʰuː ʃiː/ & /sɛlkiː/
I wish that I could claim to have been the progenitor of the Cask 88 Scottish Folklore Series, but I arrived at the company when Cù Sìth & Selkie had already been unleashed upon the world. I loved what I saw – two exquisite bottles of old and rare whisky, each telling a great story. I was instantly captivated by the artwork created by Hannah Fleetwood – eyecatching, clean, modern but reverential to the subject matter. They’re both so full of life as well. I’d confidently say that the heavy lifting of this unique series is being done by Hannah’s artwork. Luckily the taste of the whisky is able to keep up!
With the groundwork set, it has been a pleasure to collaborate with the Cask 88 team on creating the 3rd and 4th SFS releases. Sourcing the whisky, creating the artwork, researching the theme and handling the logistics – we’re a well oiled machine and fearsomely proud of what we’ve done.
(Selkie was a very limited run of Arran whisky, and she has sadly sold out. Cù Sìth, the Ben Nevis, may still have a couple of bottles left!).
This spelling is a 20th century modernisation of Cailleach Bheur, which feels like it fits best with the style that our folklore series has adopted – a fresh and clean artistic interpretation of some of Scotland’s oldest myths. However you choose to spell her name, the Cailleach (or ‘cowled one’) is incredibly old. She predates almost all the other figures of lore, since she is a mother to many of them. Some stories have her birthing the Scottish pantheon, as well as carving Scotland’s highest mountains and deepest lochs. She has given shape to everything around us.
Because of this, Beira could have conceivably partnered well with any distillery in Scotland – she’s equally at home up the mountains as she is on the firths between the islands. In fact there is one island that is particularly associated with her – a mysterious green island that doesn’t keep a fixed location in the Atlantic ocean. There it is always summer, and the spring of youth grants Beira an annual reprise of her younger years when she goes there to drink at the end of Winter. Every year is a lifetime for Beira, who is youthful in spring and summer, and ages quickly to become the Queen of Winter.
I’m certain there’s a distillery somewhere on the green island, producing the true water of life, but casks from there are impossible to find. Luckily, there is a detail in Cailleach Beira’s story that inspired us to choose another heavenly island.
Just off the coast of Islay, in the firth between it and Jura, lies the Corryvreckan. Churning, twirling water: a navigational hazard and the only vessel big enough for Beira to wash her divine clothes in. She washes her cloak until it is white, and drapes it to dry over all Scotland – the first snows of winter.
Laphroaig was our malt, then – within earshot of the sluicing Corryvreckan, and a perfect whisky to showcase the dual nature of Cailleach Beira. The grumbling peaty notes represent Beira at her stormiest, but the red-wine matured whisky has a Bacchanalian playfulness to it which underscores Beira’s summertime vivacity. We assumed that Beira would be released towards the end of winter, at the final stages of her reign, but there was a little upset caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic of 2020 (remember that one, readers of the future?) – luckily Beira is a creature of summer as well, and quite easy going at that time of year.
Hannah’s art captures Beira during her Winter phase, and she looks magnificent. Gnarled, wizened, yes, but with tremendous gravitas and… is that the flicker of an amused smile on her lips? You can read more of Beira’s story here. Sadly, her bottle is now sold out.
Though Beira had a choice, our most recent bottle could not have been released at any other time than in winter. The legend of Nuckelavee is very clear that this demonic creature is safely contained within the deep ocean until the Mither o’ the sea has her fight with her nemesis Teran, a powerful spirit who creates storms. Every year, Teran fights the Sea Mither, defeating her and allowing the Nuckelavee to stretch its legs and cause all kinds of havoc on land.
We were delighted to have been able to use an Orcadian whisky for our 4th release – the Orkney islands are an incredible melting pot of Scottish and Norse culture, and the folk tales told up there l are elegant fusions from the mythos of both.
Once we knew we were working with Orcadian malt, it was a close competition between Nuckelavee and the Stoor Worm for which one would get pride of place on our label. The Stoor Worm is thought to be the Orcadian version of Jörmungandr, a colossal sea serpent which terrorises ships and spoils crops with pestilent breath (this seems to be a common theme on Orkney – I guess it’s hard to keep green plants alive so far north).
In the end, it had to go to old Nuck. The sherry/Rivesaltes matured whisky was incredibly dark, almost black like Nuckelavee; and we were releasing in winter, when Nuckelavee is abroad. Also, there’s something curiously compelling about the horribleness of this flayed horse-creature, attached to a groaning, grasping torso…
Hannah’s depiction of the Nuckelavee went through a few iterations – which way should the head be facing? How long are the arms supposed to be?! The barley in the background is supposed to be diseased and dying? The final result is stunning and quite unsettling.
Our previous bottles had played with the darkness of folklore before, but Nuckelavee fully took the plunge. You may have noticed a little Easter egg – Nuckelavee is the only bottle in the series to have a black foil cap.
I think it’s safe to say that we have found our confidence and our style with Independent Bottlings. We’re hoping 2021 will be a year where we can develop further in this direction – and we are not short of exciting plans for new bottles.
As for yourselves – if you’ve ever wanted to create your own bottle of whisky from your own cask, just let us know. Our writers, designers and artists can help make that dream a reality!