E-pistle #18/18 – The Secret Bottler

By Serge Valentin, France

This is a true story written by an anonymous – but he’s got character! – independent bottler and friend of mine who’s been working with and within the whisky industry for a very long time. Today he’s sharing a first interesting anecdote with us and there will be more in the future! I hope you’ll like it…

Santé, Serge.

I met Jonathan for the first time fifteen years ago or so. He was a young, enthusiastic marketing man and he was trying to find a French distributor for what was – at the time – a dirty, characterless and rather repulsively presented malt that, moreover, was very expensive: without mentioning any names, Tobermory – again, as it was at that time.

The dreadful packaging was a faithful image of what was inside the bottle. Not a single flavour was managing to stand out in that vile soup distilled in a still that probably hadn’t been properly cleaned since its origins and matured in casks that were undoubtedly that old that they were close to being reconverted into garden tubs, in a warehouse where, I suspect, cats used to relief themselves from their post pandial needs and where geraniums and other valerians (herb of cats) were coming into bloom.

That competition piece was calling for the sink and it’s that part of our kitchen, precisely, which was to undergo the hardship consisting in absorbing the 69.9cl that were remaining in the bottle after I had been mad enough to taste the lacking 0.1cl, and subsequently to precipitately finish the hardly touched box of bicarbonate of sodium from the medicine chest and to take out again my grandparent’s enema syringe from the attic. I almost took to my heels towards he nearest hospital, which I had thought to be qualified to draw up a proper prognosis if not a diagnosis. My life was at stake.

I reported that memorable tasting session to Jonathan whose ethical physical appearance and pallid features seemed to prove that, thanks to his conscientiousness, he used to carry out sustained tastings of what he was trying to sell.

Shortly after that time, the distillery was sold to new owners who were suspected to be big shareholders of Unilever, and a cargo boat full of extreme cleaning agent was sent over, to be followed close behind by a few containers full of steel wool, sweepers, floor cloths, anti-cats stuff, valerian weed-killer and geranium lifters. Those expeditions were to be followed by a massive hiring of workers to rehabilitate the site. One was looking for Mr. Clean like types, strong and vigorous, and they were provided with clothes pegs so that a likely carnage wouldn’t happen.

A white-collar master distiller made his appearance afterwards and tried to make these refurbished fittings produce an output that would be drinkable if not gastronomic.

The man made it a point of honour to do all that and, next time I went to Scotland, I was invited to taste the first drams of the ‘new spirit’, which hadn’t prevented some to try to make me buy old stocks beforehand whilst trying to make me believe it was already the new one.

Luckily, there was a robust pot plant in a corner of the room, which stood in for me discretely at that occasion and could take things nice and easy whilst tasting the infernal potion the previous owners used to commit. Sometimes inferior forms of the living world bear easier what humans can hardly ingest without damages. By the way, all what I was asking my leafy hostage was not to pass out before I could leave the room at the end of the tasting session.

I have to say some of that helpful being’s yellowing leaves made me think it had already assisted other tasters during the same kind of arduous task but it seemed that it had managed to recover and that it could more or less stand that virulent poison. Besides, it was obviously its main function in a room where it must have been bored with tears.

My host, who was most busy preparing the samples to follow, used to turn his eyes towards them quite frequently, which allowed me to appeal to my assistant as much as I wanted, or let’s say he was doing all what was possible to allow me to do it without he could notice. Fair but I was dreading the last sample because my host wouldn’t have the opportunity not to notice my behaviour anymore…

Fortunately, that one happened to be the ‘new spirit’. It was silky, certainly light but had notes of that inimitable smell of the peaty swamps that occupy a part of the Island of Mull where Tobermory Distillery is located. One explained to me that that was normal, as the water they used to produce that whisky was coming from those peat bogs. Unusual but neither dirty nor unpleasant. A hint of sugar was making the whole even better and rather unctuous – it was probably from a fresh bourbon barrel. That new product appeared to me to be interesting enough to be proposed to our clientele.

I asked the person I was liaising with to bottle it as soon as law permits (right after the mandatory 3 years) while telling him I didn’t want it to be called Tobermory, so that the unfortunate former consumers of that product wouldn’t run away, provided there was still a few alive.

He asked me for a name and, as I wanted to remain honest, I proposed him ‘Ledaig’, as Jonathan had told me about very old batches from the distillery, which he used to sell under that name. I was proposed to register the brand name myself but I refused because I didn’t want to appropriate what obviously didn’t belong to us. So the new owner, his legitimate proprietor, registered the Ledaig brand name.

The distillery changed hands again since that time and Tobermory probably became a good quality malt. In any case, I never heard anybody speaking badly of it but didn’t have the opportunity to taste it since these memorable events.

That was the story of the current Ledaig.