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A Murky History of Fettercairn

Do you ever consider how you may be remembered? For some of us it may be for voluntary service, professional achievement, or perhaps just warmly within the confines of our own family. Those who have reached great heights through business success or public office are often aware of the eventual eulogising that may follow them.

The Nobel Peace Prize is one of 5 prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist, inventor, and armaments manufacturer. His great fortune had been amassed from supplying weapons to wars around the globe, so the establishment and association with a prize of such worth certainly reframed our association with the name Nobel.

More recently, Donald Trump was vocal about his belief that he should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize instead of Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia in 2019. The complexity with this case is that Abiy Ahmed subsequently launched a civil war in November 2020 which has been conducted with such brutality that various observers claim genocide.

These examples demonstrate why it can be difficult to settle on a particular view of an individual or historical character without remaining open to future evidence that will paint a less favourable picture.  Here I present William Gladstone, British Prime Minister during the critical period of the abolition of slavery and the legitimisation and licencing of the Scotch whisky industry.

Fettercairn distillery’s website recounts:

“In 1829, [Fettercairn founder Sir Alexander] Ramsay’s Fasque estate, on which the distillery buildings sit, was sold to the Gladstone family. Their most famous son was William Gladstone – British Prime Minister four times during the late nineteenth century. Gladstone was a great friend to the Scotch Whisky industry. He abolished the taxes on Malt and the Angel’s Share, and introduced legislation allowing Scotch to be sold in glass bottles for the first time.”

In 1829 John Gladstone was the largest British owner of slaves and received the largest of all compensation payments made by the Slave Compensation Commission in 1833.

Elsewhere it has been argued of his son William Gladstone:

“William Gladstone’s views on slavery and the slave trade have received little attention from historians, although he spent much of his early years in parliament dealing with issues related to that subject. His stance on slavery echoed that of his father, who was one of the largest slave owners in the British West Indies, and on whom he was dependent for financial support. Gladstone opposed the slave trade but he wanted to improve the condition of the slaves before they were liberated. In 1833, he accepted emancipation because it was accompanied by a period of apprenticeship for the ex-slaves and by financial compensation for the planters.”

“In the 1840s, his defence of the economic interests of the British planters was again evident in his opposition to the foreign slave trade and slave-grown sugar. By the 1850s, however, he believed that the best way to end the slave trade was by persuasion, rather than by force, and that conviction influenced his attitude to the American Civil War and to British colonial policy. As leader of the Liberal party, Gladstone, unlike many of his supporters, showed no enthusiasm for an anti-slavery crusade in Africa. His passionate commitment to liberty for oppressed peoples was seldom evident in his attitude to slavery.” 1

In these days of polarised politics, of war against woke, or of tearing down statuesm it is often expected that one accepts only one version of the truth (one that is politically aligned with their own outlook) at the expense of rational and nuanced consideration. In the case of Gladstone both statements above can be true. Gladstone can be a friend to the whisky industry and a beneficiary of slavery.

Where I am disappointed is that brands ignore the less savoury side of the story. It would not be difficult to provide a link to further information for visitors to the site. Surely this is easy for a company like White & Mackay, who have owned Fettercairn since 1973 and have no association with the Gladstone family? I certainly think this attitude flies in the face of the modern approach of facing up to and reckoning with the uncomfortable history of slavery and its links to Scotland.

Fettercairn village has a further association with Slavery and Whisky via William Shand, who started distilling in the 1820s. The exact location of this lost distillery remains unknown. Shand used his experience of making rum on his brother John’s sugar plantations in Jamaica and his own estates and is noted having “experience of managing 18,000 to 20,000 enslaved people in his time in Jamaica between 1791 and 1823.”

For at least 10 years he ran parallel experiments in Jamaica and Scotland to improve his rum and whisky production. These experiments included using a wooden still that prevented the wash from scolding and increased the spirit’s alcoholic strength; however, these stills proved grossly inefficient in comparison to other designs of stills such as the Coffey still. By his death in 1845 he was hopelessly indebted, and the distillery never recovered. There is no association between Shand’s distillery and modern Fettercairn.

Shand’s distillery was also known as Fettercairn Distillery, and the whisky was reasonably well regarded at the time. It appears the current Fettercairn Distillery was previously known as Nethermill, thus confusion was avoided initially. Certainly, Nethermill Distillery is recorded in Fettercairn in 1845 the year of William Shand’s death.2 Frustratingly, it is also recorded as “Fettercairn Distillery, or Farm of Nethermill” in the Edinburgh Gazette of December 6 1842. Nethermill has infrequently been used as a name under which whisky from Fettercairn distillery has been released.

Perhaps more questionable is the suggestion that at the height of the success of Shand’s distillery with his experimental stills, Nethermill distillery installed Shand’s design of still in 1832:

The licensee was James Stewart & Co. Durie later acquired the distillery himself, and operated it until his death in 1854. The distillery was then known as Nethermill. The stills were replaced in 1832 with stills of the Shand’s type, similar to Lomond type stills. These stills have necks that can be fitted with plates on different heights to influence the degree of distillation.”

The source of this article is the Fettercairn Distillery Wikipedia page archived in 2015 (you can review the history)’ the references have subsequently been removed and clicking on the old links gives a “404 error” return from an obscure blog on a Dutch whisky bar’s website. It’s unclear whether the reference was wrong, or simply expired and was tidied up. It may indeed be that the original reference was confused with William Shand’s distillery also being called Fettercairn, and no corroboration for this assertion could be found.

So, back to the original dilemma of how we want to think about the history of those associated with Fettercairn Distillery. I suggest that – at best – the current information is murky.  Whisky companies such as Whyte and Mackay have the resources to commission further professional research, and they have the access to archives and information that may genuinely contribute to some interesting and enlightening history. It’s time for some honest reckoning; however, I fear brands are too focussed on presenting a convenient and outdated view of themselves and their history.

How does modern Fettercairn whisky perform?

Fettercairn 12 Year Old – Review

American oak ex-bourbon. Coloured and chill-filtered. 40% ABV. £38.

Colour: Rich gold.

On the nose: Bright and fruity, juicy peach, butter toffee, sponge cake batter, apple and pear with a little grist.

In the mouth: Light and fruit with a heavier mid-palate like highland toffee, a gentle spiced finish with a buttery or custard-like texture.

Conclusions:

Priced fairly and inoffensive whisky that’s difficult to get excited about.

Score: 5/10

Fettercairn 12 Year Old Pedro Ximenez Sherry Cask Edition – Review

Travel Retail Exclusive aged in American White Oak ex-bourbon barrels with an 18 to 24 month finish in PX. This is also coloured and chill-filtered. 40% ABV. £66.49 for 1L.

Colour: Deep copper.

On the nose: Burnt sugar, modern seasoned sherry casks, treacle, date puree, raisins, hints of tropical fruits, new sneakers, orange peel.

In the mouth: Boiled sugar, Moffat toffee, a little oak spice, dry dusty mildly spiced finish with a little cask char on the finish.

Conclusions:

I’m just not a fan of this type of cask treatment and I don’t think it’s a well-conceived release at all.

Score: 4/10

Fettercairn 16 Year Old Batch 2 – Review

First-fill oloroso, refill oloroso and first fill pale cortado casks. 46.4% ABV. £64.95.

Colour: Pale gold.

On the nose: Very fruity, light texture, orange leaves, Starburst sweets, some red fruits, bergamot, sherry sweetness is modern and balanced.

In the mouth: Fruity but also praline, oak spices and more fruit, nectarine, more Starburst, marzipan, grapefruit, struck match, juicy fruity finish.

Conclusions:

This is the value offering of the range; lashings of juicy fruit balanced by oak spices and the gentle enhancement of sherry casks.

Score: 6/10

Fettercairn 22 Year Old – Review

Ex-bourbon casks, including some 1996 refill casks that were re-racked into fresh bourbon in 2009. 47% ABV. £165.

Colour: Gold.

On the nose: Glazed Danish pastry, fruit is juicy tropical punch, some dusty vanilla, demerara sugar, subtle wood spices and a hint of distinguished age.

In the mouth: Rich thick mouthfeel, dusty vanilla, oak spices with all the tropical fruits bursting towards the end of the experience, lovely aromatic fruity finish with mango and pineapple, banana chips and coffee grounds and a little rancio sourness.

Conclusion:

This is a cracking whisky, an old style presented at a sensible ABV. The price does seem in line with the market now.

Score: 7/10

Fettercairn 28 Year Old – Review

Ex-bourbon casks. 42% ABV. £400.

Colour: Mahogany.

Nose: Dusty well aged spirit, skin-on hazelnuts, polished oak, baking spices, peanut skins, nutmeg, ground ginger, slightly effervescent with fruit on the mid-palate, Lilt perhaps? Almost rum-like. More Danish-pastry and a bit of dunnage.

Taste: Nutty, dark chocolate, very oaky, layers of oak spices and muted orchard fruits, cinnamon bark, blood orange, toasted oak, French polish, dry and tannic finish.

Conclusions:

There is complexity here, but much of that is coming from the wood which is overpowering the spirit. Over-oaked and a little disappointing given the price-point.

Score: 5/10

1(Roland Quinault, The Historical Journal, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Jun., 2009), pp. 363-383 (21 pages), Published By: Cambridge University Press)

2 The new statistical account of Scotland. Edinburgh and London, W. Blackwood and Sons, 1845.

CategoriesSingle Malt
Graham

Graham is at the consumer end of the whisky world; constantly seeking out a bargains and generally very cautious with his limited budget. An occasional visitor to distilleries and a member of the odd whisky club. He does not collect whiskies but has a few nice ones put away for some future special occasion. He enjoys discussions with the wider whisky community and may resemble the ‘average’ Malt reader.

  1. KC says:

    It could be a coincidence but the higher ABV bottles are scored higher than the lower ABV ones, regardless of the age and pricepoint.

    In your own opinion, do you feel that the higher ABV had contributed to a better tasting whisky for this line-up?

    1. Graham says:

      Morning KC,

      You raise a very interesting question and it’s something I explored in this article on proof: https://malt-review.com/2021/07/23/needing-some-proof/

      But in a nutshell; a mediocre whisky can benefit from a few more percentage points ABV because the extra alcohol seems to carry a bit more flavour, but a good whisky will be good at any ABV.

      Equally very old whisky will naturally be lower in alcohol due to the angels share during it’s storage but can still pack a powerful flavour hit.

      Specifically these Fettercairn’s at the lower ABV are also chill filtered and targeted at a different price point. Which can all impact the final product.

      All the best,

      Graham

      1. Tom says:

        An interesting and thought-provoking piece, thanks! It’s also interesting to see broadly positive reviews of whiskies from a distillery which doesn’t generally seem to get much praise. I guess it shows there is sometimes value in leaving your preconceptions at the door.

        1. Graham says:

          Tom,

          I think Fettercairn was a little unloved and forgotten about but recent changes to the distilling team at Whyte & Mackay are starting to filter through to the new products.

          I also hear there are plans to improve the visitor experience at the distillery itself too which is a clear sign of investment in the brand.

        2. John says:

          Tom, W&M distilleries were said to have budgets cut when Vijay Mallya owned them. According to what I heard before, the funds went to his King Fisher airlines.

          I think the distilleries are on track now under the ownership of Emperador.

  2. Jon says:

    Thanks Graham for this, it made for an interesting read. Quite a lot of uncomfortable history does get overlooked and forgotten when it comes to the older distilleries. It’s not only regarding the slave trade, but also connections between the establishment of the newly legalised distilleries, in the early 19th century, and the clearances (Clynelish/Brora and Talisker being the most clear examples I think).

    I’ve written previously on Fettercairn too, and have been really enjoying their recent releases, especially when you get beyond the core range to the ‘batch’ type bottlings. Good to see I’m not alone in my assessment of the range, and that we’re on a similar page!

    1. Graham says:

      Jon,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I certainly got to the limit of my competence for research on this one and no doubt a lot more to discover.

      I’m not sure if you have come across the Liquid Antiquarian vlog hosted by Dave Broom and Arthur Motley but the content is supported by professional researchers and very engaging. Certainly they have broached the clearances in open episode in more depth that I could hope to achieve. Interestingly though Shand’s whisky still mentioned above does feature in their episode about still.

      All the best,

      Graham

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