Duncan McGillivray, Coronavirus Efforts, Whisky Things to Do in Lockdown
My first mention this month must be of the death of Duncan McGillivray, former General Manager at Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay. I don’t follow their website daily so it was only after my first March column that I learned he had passed away in the second week of this month. A friend over there told me an announcement had been made but it wasn’t in any of my daily drinks feeds. I’ve known for a while that Duncan was ill, but not that he was suffering from a rare illness called PSP or Progressive Supranuclear Palsy which can seem like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s early on. More details on it can be found via a link on Bruichladdich’s website alongside some lovely tributes from colleagues and friends.
Over the years since Bruichladdich reopened I have met Duncan almost every year on Islay and occasionally spoken over the phone, he giving generously of his time and knowledge. He was an engineering and mechanical genius, getting the long-mothballed Bruichladdich back up and running in months instead of years. He began his whisky career at Bruichladdich and during the inbetween years from 1994, when it closed, to its reopening in 2001, he found other work. As a hobby, he indulged his passion for engines and vehicles, telling me about restoring two tractors from the 1960s and the first ever lorry (1935 vintage) to go to Islay, where it spent all its life.
In a Twitter-style interview I used to do for a US site, he was one of my interviewees in 2013 and spoke of how he loved seeing his grandchildren who lived in the Scottish Borders and how he had no intention of retiring, “…always seem to have something on the go”. My final question to him then was to ask what would be his desert island dram, pointing out that it didn’t have to be one of his own. Ever a Bruichladdich man, he replied it would be Bruichladdich 15 Year Old 2nd Edition, “one of my all-time favourites, finished in a very good Sauternes cask.” However, he did say if he couldn’t have that it would be “a Highland Park”. I think he was one of the very few interviewees generous enough to give a mention to another brand. A mark of the man.
My friend told me his funeral must have been about the biggest ever seen on Islay. A very fitting turnout and a testament to the regard people had for him. I was privileged to have had even a little of his time.
Well, here we are in lockdown in Scotland, allowed out to buy foods and collect medicines, no high street shops and no restaurants, hotels or bars until it’s deemed safe for them to reopen. Rightly so. We need to stamp out this nasty coronavirus. Today, though, I see from internet news that we’ve now been told wine and spirit shops in the UK (not just supermarkets) are also “essential”. Somebody lobbied hard there!
I mentioned in my last column that word was awaited on whether this year’s Islay Whisky Festival and Spirit of Speyside would go ahead. Both were cancelled a couple of days later, as many of you will now know. Bruichladdich closed its doors completely for at least a few weeks and others will have followed. Distillery visitor centres had largely already shut. Stupidly, some people were still coming into Scotland thinking they could escape this or because they had booked trips and weren’t prepared to cancel. So selfish. As mentioned before, our islands don’t have medical or food supply infrastructure for these people. Islay, for example, does have a wee hospital but there are only 6 beds and those are for islanders who become ill but don’t need to be transported to the mainland for their conditions. Well, the ferries to/from our islands are now accepting as passengers ONLY people who are full-time residents (not second home owners) needing to come home, those bringing essential supplies or people needing to go to the mainland for treatment for other conditions. The message from the Scottish government is very clear. If you don’t live here, STAY AWAY. That’s harsh and the opposite of our usual hospitality but it’s necessary to preserve lives in the whisky industry and all over Scotland so we can welcome you better when it’s safe to return.
Calmac (ferries) is accepting no new reservations for dates before 16th July. Two Islay accommodation owners told me last week that their room bookings for April and May had been cancelled. However, one said that an intended Festival visitor had e-mailed 5 minutes after the Feis Ile announcement that he was still coming as there was more to do on Islay than distilleries. Well, he won’t get on a ferry or flight now! Unless, of course, rules are relaxed by then but I’m not holding my breath. I’ve still to cancel my own ferry and B&B for the Islay event as I can’t now go over to do my annual dinner. We’ll maybe look at something another point in the year, perhaps to celebrate not being under house arrest any more!
Oddly, the Whisky Fair in Limburg, Germany may still go ahead on 25th and 26th April. The e-mail I received was a bit confused around state regulations and honouring of existing contracts and what takes precedence. I thought Chancellor Merkel had forbidden gatherings of more than a couple of people so it shouldn’t really go ahead at all. Please check on the Limburg Fair site for latest news but I couldn’t see any today.
A whole raft of distillers, large and small, are contributing to the production of hand sanitiser for our health services and for the general public. A notable one is Diageo who are supplying enough alcohol to make 8 million bottles of the stuff over some of its key markets. LVMH is also making a sizeable contribution in certain areas as are Pernod Ricard and Beam Suntory. Many companies, including these just mentioned, are giving large donations to funds that are to provide financial support for people in the bar/restaurant/hotel trades or, like Wemyss Malts (UK only), vouchers against purchases that you can use to support local businesses once they are open again. Diageo is also offering online training while people cannot go into work.
Just in my inbox this afternoon is an e-mail from the Scotch Whisky Association to say it is, “…launching an online portal to help with the supply of hand sanitiser to frontline health and social services, emergency services, local communities and other industries in need of it across the UK. The SWA is working closely with government and relevant authorities, including HMRC and the Health & Safety Executive and now have a green light from regulators to follow WHO guidelines in the production of hand sanitiser from denatured alcohol. Scotch Whisky producers are being invited to submit details to the portal of what they can provide, be that either high-strength alcohol or hand sanitiser. The portal will help distillers to source necessary ingredients, whilst organisations in need of sanitiser will be able to specify their requirements. Those who can support with packaging and distribution will also be able to state on the portal how they can assist.”
So what else might you whisky enthusiasts do to while away your time during this health crisis?
- Jo and Sue from The Whisky Ambassador (and owners of this site) are holding conference calls with their course tutors in various countries later this week to see if it may be possible to run anything online. Courses at venues in Europe are pretty much all cancelled or postponed but their courses in other areas may be running. Check this site for news later this week or early next.
- Go online to look for tutored whisky tastings from distillers and blenders and some well-known whisky writers. Watch the experts, not those who think they are. There may be new live or recorded ones and there are older ones you can go back to and watch again. You may not have the whiskies to hand but you can take notes, learn more about nosing and tasting and try them another time.
- UPDATE 26 March: GLENGOYNE DISTILLERY is currently closed but is holding an online event for World Whisky
Day on Friday 27th March.“Starting as we mean to go on, we’re delighted to invite you to join us for a Facebook live tasting on Friday 27th March from 8pm GMT. Be sure to join us with a dram in hand on International Whisky Day as Gordon Dundas, Glengoyne International Brand Ambassador hosts a Facebook Live Tasting. Whisky Experiential Ambassador, Gordon Dallas will also join Gordon, and both will be thrilled to answer all your questions.” They have asked that questions are submitted in advance via their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter pages, or they can be asked live on the night. Anyone joining the tasting will be in with a chance of winning a bottle of Teapot Dram, Batch 007, with the winner being notified on 30 March. Teapot Batch 007 is a wonderful dram so do join in the tasting.
- Expand your knowledge by reading whisk(e)y books. If you have some whisky books but haven’t had time to read them, put your feet up with a dram (not at breakfast!) and make time now. There are reading lists attached to The Whisky Ambassador courses and other books out there too by Charles MacLean, Dave Broom and Ian Buxton, amongst others. And let’s not forget Michael Jackson, Helen Arthur or Andrew Jefford. Subscribe to Whisky Advocate and Whisky Magazine too.
- Go back into your own whisky stocks and set yourself up a small tasting. Remind yourself of things you haven’t tried in a while but do it like the professionals you are – taste and spit, don’t drink it. Maybe find out or remind yourself of how good blends are. Stephanie MacLeod of Dewar’s once told me of a meeting at a whisky fest where someone said he didn’t like blends. She secretly gave him some Dewar’s 18, I think it was. He reckoned he didn’t know blends could be that good. All he needed was the education. It ain’t all about malts, you know.
I promised a review of a new US book about whisk(e)y but still haven’t read it. Next time. Also, Ardbeg are partners in bringing out a new beer but its release has had to be delayed (that virus again). I’m hoping to get hold of some and keep it here for my brother who works for UN World Food Programme trying to get aid to the people of Yemen. He’s currently stuck in Amman, Jordan with no beer delivery as they’re on lockdown too. Anyway, I’ll cover it if I can get some to taste.
Back in another week or two. Till then, stay safe and well and, if you’re in an area with coronavirus, don’t go out unless you absolutely must.