"The whisky of this country is a most rascally liquor; and by consequence only drank by the most rascally part of the inhabitants …"
So wrote Scottish poet-laureate Robert Burns to an acquaintance in 1788, and somehow epithets such as these remain paired firmly with the swish of the tartan, the skirl of the bagpipes, the broad Scottish brogue and the "uisge beatha" or water of life – whisky, in English.
Tall tales abound about the "wee dram" or shot of Scotch whisky. One based loosely on a true story was made into the 1949 movie, Whisky Galore, then remade in 2016. It's about Hebridean Islanders purloining the whisky cargo of a freighter when their island runs dry during wartime rationing.
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This title has been purloined in turn for use in the eponymous Christchurch business of Scottish whisky merchant Michael Fraser Milne.
"We loved the movie and everything about it, so we borrowed the name from them," Michael says.
It was the name of his family's whisky business in Scotland, founded by Michael's great-uncle Hector, and it was the obvious name for his own business.
"When I started here, it was a very handy contact and all the whisky trade knew the name. It's a well-known name in Scotland."
Michael was passing through New Zealand as a traveller in 1992, but this country wove its magic around him, so he stayed and set up a Scottish travel company. It became obvious there was a gap in the market here for quality single-malt whiskies, so he began importing small quantities as a hobby. Fairly soon, the sideline had outgrown his travel agency.
"In Christmas 2002, we [he and wife Stella are the sole owners] had to make a decision whether to go 100 per cent into it or give it up, so we decided 100 per cent and opened a store in March 2003."
They opened a tiny shop at 808 Colombo St, then moved across the road to a bigger premises until the earthquakes flattened both blocks. They moved to 66 Victoria St for four years and are now back on Colombo at number 834, a substantial building with a warehouse out the back, tasting rooms and a large swath of Fraser tartan carpet covering the showroom floor.
Whisky is a distilled spirit made from grain, water and yeast. In Scotland, more than 72 pages of Scotch Whisky Act (1908) documents define the specifics.
"It's defined as made in Scotland from grain using only water and yeast in the production. You can use only barley as a grain and it has to be made in a pot still. It has to be in an oak container or cask only; the wood has to be made on site at the distillery, it has to be aged in Scotland and, if it's a single malt, it has to be bottled in Scotland."
Whisky Galore carries up to 1100 international whiskies at any time, with the bulk being Scotch. The rest are from Canada, Ireland, the United States, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Wales and the three New Zealand distillers: Thompson (Auckland), Workshops (Christchurch) and Cardrona (Central Otago).
"There's a lot of looseness in various parts of the world as to what whisky actually is," Michael says. "If you're, in theory, talking about the biggest-selling whisky in the world, it's in India and it's called Bagpiper. It's made in India, but it's made from molasses, so nowhere else would they call that whisky."
Precious bottles at Whisky Galore are under secure lockup guarded by fierce woad-painted warriors in well-worn kilts. Well, the warriors are an exaggeration, but the security is not. At the moment, the most expensive drop is a rare 1938 Mortlach that sells for $38,000.
However, that is well overshadowed by the Dalmore Constellation, with its $80,000 price tag, Whisky Galore once bought for a client.
The business hosts regular tastings for private and corporate clients in Christchurch every year, and about 70 events countrywide, which might be whisky dinners with well-known chefs, cheese or chocolate-matching events, small private dinners and tastings for large interest groups. Every two years, it runs a Dramfest.
"It's a very exciting time to be in whisky," Michael says. "It's quite a change from when we started and whisky was a wee bit in the doldrums. We're privileged to be involved and really enjoying it."
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