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SPECIAL REPORT: Whisky labels

Feathered friends are a regular on bottle labels. Hans Offringa presents the birds that fly the whisky skies.

Without any doubt the most well-known bird on a Scottish whisky label is The Famous Grouse. He is sometimes lovingly named Gilbert and is accompanied in flight by his smoky brother The Black Grouse, his lilywhite sister The Snow Grouse and the scoundrel of the family, The Naked Grouse.

The last one mentioned doesn’t even wear a label but its silhouette is blown into the glass. The original drawing for the Grouse label came from the hand of founder Matthew Gloag’s aunt. In the course of time the bird has seen various facelifts. Today Gilbert wears a tight suit, compared with days gone by, as is illustrated by some older labels.

He is definitely not the only bird that flies the whisky skies. The next label depicts the majestic Golden Eagle, soaring above many a ben and glen, hunting his prey. An interesting line on the label is the signature J & G Grant. Might this once have been a Glenfarclas blend? Who knows?

Tayvallich Blenders from Glasgow once launched a five-year-old blended Scotch, crowned with the eagle. This particular version was bottled for the French market. It carries a seal of the Cotisation Securité Sociale. That section of the French government takes care of taxes regarding health care, pensions, child support and unemployment benefits. It escapes me why such a mark ended up on a whisky label, but the French are a funny lot, aren’t they? No offence, really.

In the past, independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail presented a series for various distilleries, each bottling showing the eagle above the brand name of the whisky inside, as can be seen on old Mortlach and Linkwood labels. Even earlier G&M launched a Mortlach with a rather motley eagle, as if it endured a serious fight with its prey. Note the newer, more stylish version. A truly unique G&M bottling with eagle is a cask strength Talisker, without age statement, vintage 1957. At the time the peppery dram from Skye still formed a team with Dailuaine and that’s probably why they both ended up in Diageo’s portfolio.
Angus Dundee used the eagle for his ‘The Dundee’ expression. The mention of 100% in front of ‘Scotch Whisky’ actually is a pleonasm, but sometimes blenders came up with the craziest expressions and adjectives to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

Burn Stewart also fancied the majestic eagle and one time introduced a Red Eagle blend.

One more eagle before we move on to other feathered liquid friends. Glen Scotia from Campbeltown bottled a 12-year-old blend called Scotia Royale. This label is slightly older. Note the term ‘proof’ instead of % ABV.
The pheasant, sometimes unrightfully confused with the grouse, has been a companion on the bottle for a long time. Clyde Distillers from Glasgow shows an example in full flight. This cannot be said about every labelled pheasant, for instance Pheasant Plucker, where a kitchen maid artfully de-feathers the poor creature.

Highland Woodcock is a five-year-old blend once produced for an English distiller, who by geographical denomination simply could not distil Scotch himself, being located in London. This very tasty bird cannot be hunted in my home country anymore since a ban in 2002. The same applies to the Flemish part of Belgium, whereas their French counterparts in Wallon still can enjoy this delicacy. The Dutch invented a vegetarian version of the woodcock and created a sandwich of white bread, dark rye bread and cheese. Hunters often take them for a bite to eat in the woods. The colours of the sandwich remind them of the white, brown and yellowy feathers of the beastie. This bird also appears on a blend for the French market, aptly named The Woodcock.

Between 1991 and 2001 a particular series of 26 single malts was launched and soon dubbed ‘The Flora & Fauna Series’ (credits to the late and great Michael Jackson). Among these malts, sixteen carry a bird on the label, eight another type of animal and two a flower. The complete series consists, in alphabetical order (not launch date):

Aberfeldy – Red squirrel
Auchroisk – Swift
Aultmore – Dipper
Balmenach – Capercaillie
Benrinnes – Grouse
Bladnoch – Broad Leaved Helleborine
Blair Athol – Otter
Clynelish – Wildcat
Caol Ila – Harbour seal
Craigellachie – Salmon
Dailuaine – Badger
Dufftown – Kingfisher
Glendullan  - Heron
Glen Elgin – House Martin
Glenlossie – Short-eared Owl
Glen Spey – Goldcrest
Inchgower – Oystercatcher
Linkwood – Mute Swan
Mannochmore – Great Spotted Woodpecker
Mortlach – Merganser
Pittyvaich – Deer
Rosebank – Rose
Royal Brackla – Siskin
Speyburn – Snow Bunting
Strathmill – Red Wagtail
Teaninich – Porpoise

They are well sought after by collectors and aficionados alike.

In the space of this article I have to limit myself to three of them. The kingfisher of Dufftown, which can regularly be spotted above the Dullan River. Inchgower, not far from the fishing port of Buckie, presents the oystercatcher, abundantly present at the beach surrounding the mouth of the river Spey. Mannochmore, twin sister to Glenlossie distillery, shows the great spotted woodpecker that can be heard hammering away in the nearby woods of Millbuies, one of my favourite walking sites in this part of Scotland.

Last but not least, there is one of Burn Stewart’s blends with the rather unfortunate name Black Cock. When searching for this brand online, please do not forget to add the word “whisky” to your query, or risk entering an entirely different domain. To add confusion, there appears to be a Thai ‘whisky’ with this name, too. In this case I prefer putting whisky between quotation marks, since the contents are distilled from rice. It shows that one should not always believe what the label states! 

20 July 2015 - Hans Offringa Conceptual Continuity, CCO and owner