Whisky purveyors weigh in on Scotland vote

Spirits are high in Scotland’s ‘Whisky Capital of the World’ with one distillery thirsty for independence.

A mountain of wooden whisky barrels at Springbank, a distillery that backs independence [Andrew Connelly]

Campbeltown, Scotland – At the end of the tortuously winding roads of Kintyre peninsula, almost hidden in between the rows of houses, pagoda-style chimneys of dilapidated distilleries peek out revealing the ruins of the former “Whisky Capital of the World.”

One of the most remote towns in Scotland, Campbeltown’s heyday began in the Victorian era with booming shipbuilding and coal-mining industries, also hosting more than 30 whisky distilleries that later fuelled the illegal smuggling routes into Prohibition America.

Gradually these industries declined, as did Campbeltown’s fortunes, and the distilleries fell silent. One of only three survivors, the Springbank Distillery recently declared its full-throated support for Scottish independence, its political allegiance fitting for one of the only independent distilleries remaining in the country.

Scottish whisky exports reached £4.3bn ($6.9bn) in 2013, accounting for 85 percent of Scottish food-and-drinks exports, and a quarter of the British total. The ongoing argument between Edinburgh and London over whether an independent Scotland could use the British pound has led some whisky barons to express concern that sales would be affected by spooked markets, and they would no longer benefit from the promotion and administrative support of British embassies worldwide.

The nature of an independent Scotland's currency remains unclear, and self-evidently this could affect our exports.

by - David Frost, Scotch Whisky Association

David Frost, CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association, wrote in an annual report, “The nature of an independent Scotland’s currency remains unclear, and self-evidently this could affect our exports, management of supply chains, pricing, and competitiveness.”

‘Brave new step’

Sales manager Ranald Watson stands in the basement of Springbank, where the floor is a sea of yellow made from 12-tonnes of drying barley. The age-old production techniques used here, many of which are still done by hand, ensure Springbank is one of the main employers in this working class town of 5,000.

“It’s incredible, you’ve got guys right now talking about politics who normally would only talk about football, or what they had for dinner,” said Watson.

He is not deterred by the ominous predictions from most in his business, adding whisky and the Scottish identity are inseparable.

“In my experience, on the ground workers are supporting independence, but the suits further up the chain don’t and I think that’s related to concerns over share price,” Watson said. “People don’t just like Scottish whisky for the taste, they like the romance associated with it, and I think the idea of the country taking a brave new step would appeal.

“Just because we’re choosing a different political path, I hope it wouldn’t cause any animosity or damage to trade. The UK is still our biggest commercial partner. The benefits of independence come from the global recognition of a country that can stand on its own two feet, and can make its own decisions to benefit its own people.”

One-hundred and eight-six years of tradition, 64 jobs, turning whisky casks by hand, shoveling barley; there is a feeling in Campbeltown that independence isn’t just a political decision, it’s protecting and endorsing a less aggressively capitalistic lifestyle, too.

Roasted malts

At the top of the peninsula, 145km northwards lies Oban, perched on the craggy rocks of Scotland’s west coast. It is host to one of the oldest distilleries in the country, and the rich tangy aroma of roasted malts wafts around town, merging with the fried fish fumes emanating from seafront cafes.

Mixed messages at Scotland’s Oban harbour [Andrew Connelly] 

Visitors could be forgiven for guessing the residents’ political persuasion. A few days previously, the sun rose to reveal a giant “Yes” scrawled into the beach, and a banner appeared opposite on a hillside on the almost unpopulated island of Kerrera.

Established in 1794, the distillery has always been the epicentre of Oban, and today is owned by multinational food-and-drinks giant Diageo, which controls more than 40 percent of the whisky market. Diageo remains diplomatically silent on the independence debate, but Alan Rutherford, former production director of whisky at the company, told Al Jazeera a government in an independent Scotland may tax whisky owners more heavily.

“There seems to be a nationalist sentiment that, because the majority of the industry is not Scottish-owned and the two main firms are operated from London [Diageo] and Paris [Pernod-Ricard], that money is haemorrhaging out of the country, and a vital resource is being exploited.”

Oban’s main thoroughfare George Street is abuzz with news of a visit by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. A huge crowd of independence campaigners pose for photos as a piper plays the bagpipes in the background. Through the crowd, a lone white limousine with a maroon “No” banner rolls down the street slowly.

John Sinclair, a local postman, looks on with an air of bemusement.

“We’ve got government austerity measures, people are using food banks in the town, and they drive a great big limousine through here,” he said.

In the end, Salmond’s visit was cancelled as his helicopter couldn’t navigate through the fog, but that didn’t appear to dampen spirits at the “Yes” headquarters, a former wine shop, where Sinclair stands dispensing badges, posters, shaking hands, and exchanging conversations with well-wishers.

“I’m actually an internationalist, I don’t really believe in borders. Until recently, I was going to spoil my ballot because I didn’t want to see Scotland torn apart, but after all the negativity and scaremongering from the ‘No’ side, I changed my mind. Now I’m worried it’s getting a bit cult-like here but the mood in the town is exciting. Change is coming.”

Autonomous powers already

The grassroots engagement around Scottish towns is reminiscent of the lead up to US President Barack Obama’s election in 2008. The handful of unionist campaigners next door do not command the same following.

“We’re always outnumbered here,” said teacher and “No” campaigner Kieron Green, smiling. On the window behind him a quote from Albert Einstein, “Nationalism is an infantile disease, it is the measles of mankind.”

Green told Al Jazeera: “[The Yes campaign] have got people involved in politics, so good for them, but Scotland has already got more devolved, autonomous powers even before the referendum, so it shows that the current system responds to the will of the people.”

Green’s words are briefly interrupted by a passing car laden with “Yes” flags and affixed with a giant cardboard Loch Ness monster, hooting at fellow independence supporters.

“The nationalists only have empty promises,” he said. “They think that they can increase public spending, lower taxes, and still have money left for an oil fund.”

Pensioners Charles and Elsie Henderson stop to express support for the No camp.

“We’re such a small island already, I don’t understand why we have to split,” Elsie said.

Despite a majority of naysayers in the industry, Springbank Distillery has come out in favour of Scottish independence [Andrew Connelly/Al Jazeera]

Nuclear question

The Hendersons live in Helensburgh, a key electoral battleground as the nearby naval base hosts Britain’s nuclear submarines. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has pledged that Scotland would be nuclear-free and Charles said that independence would spell bad news.

“Look, nobody wants to use a bomb, but I’m 73 and it’s kept us safe all that time. If they move the weapons out of Scotland, that’s 9,000 jobs that will be lost.”

Elsie is gloomy on an independent Scotland’s financial prospects. “The ‘Yes’ campaign think that they can use the pound and the UK will bail them out in an emergency, but they won’t.”

Looking around conspiratorially, she added: “See if it’s a ‘Yes’ vote, we’re moving straight to England.”

Back in Campbeltown, in the shorefront Black Sheep Pub, business developer Stuart Ellis pointed out to the grand grey stone houses overlooking the harbour.

“All those houses were built by whisky, or coal or salt, but now those industries are gone. Now we need to focus on tourism – that’s an asset they didn’t talk about in the debates. Not only that, I think many expats will be proud to come back and work in an independent Scotland. But if we say no, Scotland will be one of the only countries in the world that refused independence in recent history.”

Michael the barman added: “Aye, and most countries have to go to war for their independence. We just have to tick a box.”

Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew

Source: Al Jazeera