The liquor and its marketing have resulted in a booming business. When I toured more than a dozen Scotch whisky facilities in June, meeting with distillers and other industry folk, they were effervescent and confident. Scotch whisky sales have been soaring around the world, almost doubling in the past decade to $7 billion — a huge sum for a country of just 5.3 million people. In fact, Scotch is Scotland’s second-biggest export after oil.
Which explains why so many people I spoke to didn’t just think independence, which Scotland will vote on this week, was risky; they thought, in the words of one distiller as we sipped his whiskey drawn straight from the barrel, that it’s “baloney.” (More than two dozen Scotch industry workers — from executives to coopers who make the barrels — didn’t want to weigh in by name because their companies are playing neutral in the political battle.) Everyone I chatted with had a sophisticated sense of currency issues and trade policy, and most thought it crazy to risk killing their profit machine. Rather than join the chaotic Eurozone, independence supporters, despite their break-from-Britain rhetoric, still want a currency union with the mother ship. But it’s not at all clear that Scotland could remain part of the pound sterling.
And then there’s the problem of exporting their Scotch. A new Scotland would probably have to reapply to the European Union to get coveted, duty-free membership access to 27 countries. Scotch whisky’s status under British bilateral trade accords would be uncertain at best. Plus, whisky makers import barrels that have been used by bourbon distillers in the United States and sherry producers in Spain. Would they still get access to those as easily? The cooperages I visited are machine-assisted, but they still forge barrels much as they would have done 200 years ago. Like automotive manufacturing, it’s a delicate symphony of global suppliers and markets
What’s more, distilleries are part of multinational enterprises that crave a free flow of goods and predictable laws. Dewar’s is part of Bacardi. Glenmorangie is part of the Louis Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy empire. Johnny Walker is part of Diageo.
The large companies I dealt with, as well as the industry’s trade group, the Scotch Whisky Association, and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (which sponsored my trip), are neutral in this fight, which makes sense. They may well have to operate in an independent Scotland, and some of their members favor independence. But it’s telling that the SWA’s head, David Frost, isn’t a liquor veteran but a former member of her majesty’s diplomatic service. After all, the trade group sees Scotch as a fundamentally global business. Frost noted that an independent Scotland would have far fewer embassies, 70 to 90 to start, than Great Britain, which “punches above our weight” with more than 200.
Still, for all the rational head-over-heart arguments for staying with Britain, the independence forces are surging, if the polls are right. Their arguments often come down to anti-Tory vehemence (anger over cuts to the health service and so on). And while pro-separation advocates say Scotland’s economy will thrive and all the trade and currency issues will work themselves out, I still found #IndyRef’s appeal to be emotional — based less on grievance than pride. Scottish ethnic identity is strong, which is what helped Scotch marketers over the years transform a land once seen in the popular imagination as the scary terrain of Macbeth or the pastoral idyll of romantics Robert Burns into the place we know for “Braveheart,” “Shrek” and the highlander.
I saw that on the small isle of Islay, home to eight distilleries (like Lagavulin and Laphroaig) and some of Scotland’s most impossibly beautiful scenery. My hosts from Bruichladdich, a delightful upstart owned by Remy Cointreau, threw a party in an old barn with tablecloths and Christmas lights. “I’m for it,” said one barley farmer who also played the pipes. “It’s just time.” I kept asking why. Was he worried about all of the trade and tax issues? Why risk the prosperity? Was Britain oppressive here, 550 miles from London? “No,” he agreed. “But it feels right.”
Perhaps the ambiguity is on Scotch labels themselves. The Dewar’s label — the one with the highlander — also touts a coveted Royal Warrant seal, meaning the company is a supplier to Buckingham Palace, home to England’s queen.