By the Whisky Couple

Often used but not worn out, antlers are a favorite among whisky label designers.

Who started this? Was it Glenfiddich? Or Dalmore? Both use a stag’s head as the company logo, albeit Dalmore uses this symbol somewhat more explicitly on its bottles. Based on the foundation date of both distilleries, The Dalmore (1839) should be credited with being first, since Glenfiddich started distilling in 1886. Notwithstanding that fact, I opt for the latter.

I do remember older Dalmore bottlings — and even own a miniature — on which label not a single stag’s head can be seen. The usage of the head and antlers by the distillery at the Cromarty Firth is from a more recent date. The story behind it, however, is too beautiful to ignore. In 1236 one Colin Fitzgerald, founder of Clan Mackenzie, saved the life of Alexander III. The then-monarch of Scotland had fallen off his horse during the hunt and was under serious threat of being killed by a 12-pointer, or Royal Stag. Fitzgerald didn’t hesitate, threw himself and his spear between king and danger, killing the deer with a mighty stroke. His reward was the Royal Stag in his family crest and a considerable land grant.

Fast forward. In 1891 Colin’s descendants bought Dalmore distillery from founder Matheson from whom they had been leasing the property. The ancient story of heroism was smartly polished by the marketing department as early as 1874, with the stag undergoing many changes over the years, resulting in today’s noticeable bottle carrying a silver 12-pointer affixed to the surface.

A somewhat different story is attached to Glenfiddich. The antlers are more or less included in the brand name, which is Gaelic for “valley of the deer.” Originally a true depiction of a stag, the logo now shows a rather stylized version, due to a deliberate step-by-step redesign in the last decade.

These two famous brands are not the only ones sporting antlers on the bottle. Here are some other interesting Scotch whiskies that proudly carry the stag on their labels.

Scottish Leader — Part of Burn Stewart from Bunnahabhain, Tobermory, Deanston and Black Bottle fame, currently owned by the South-African Distell Group. Scottish Leader is its flagship, being sold in more than 60 countries. Rumor has it that this blend also contains some Caol Ila and Aberfeldy, next to grain whiskies of Girvan and North British. Since the 1940s many designers have played with the label. The current one is the result of quite an extreme makeover.

The Monarch — A beautiful label design for a blend once launched by Lambert Brothers from Edinburgh. It has been decommissioned; however, a version called Monarch of the Glen is still available.

Royal Strathythan — The proud stag guards the valley in which his herd takes shelter for the winter. The image reminds me of a wintry walk I once took around Loch Muick. After five hours of plodding and trudging through knee-deep snow, I came to stand nearly eye-to-eye with a sturdy stag in a similar position as his cousin on the label. In no mood to meet his antlers I carefully backed out, while he scraped one of his hoofs impatiently in the snow. Luckily I managed to get to my car undamaged and quickly drove away, hands trembling violently on the steering wheel.

White Stag of Arran — This raises the question whether an albino stag was once spotted on the isle. The current label on the Isle of Arran single malt has no stag or deer in sight.

Auld Acrimony — A blend developed for Safeway Supermarkets in 1986. The subtitle is rather nice and reads: “What every hunter should carry.” The image with those soft, pastel colors is beautiful, but the name is somewhat awkwardly chosen. The word is derived from the French acrimonie, meaning bitter, as in aroma or taste. Anyway, figuratively speaking it could be wordplay on the Auld Alliance having gone sour.

Black Stag — A blend that sadly went into oblivion. There is a macabre tale from Newfoundland about a black stag: An experienced hunter named Conway once tried to kill a rare specimen and fired from his horse, three times in a row. The black stag fiercely stood its ground, without moving a limb. Conway hurried away to a nearby pub where he told the story. Nobody believed a word of it and he went home disappointed. He never made it. The next day villagers found his dead body, face covered in gunpowder from his horn. Two months after the event his widow gave birth to a child. Having no priest at hand to baptize the infant, she left with two companions for the next village. They too never arrived at their destination and were found at roughly the same spot as Conway. Tracks in the snow indicated they had encountered something and tried to flee from it. This gruesome story is still told during dark winter months in Newfoundland and Labrador … probably with a stiff dram at hand.

Highland Stag — Last one. Stalking red stag in Scotland is a majestic tradition. The blender of this whisky was located at a very appropriate place: Glen Coe, one of the most dramatic natural environments in the Scottish Highlands, which has a story of its own to tell, perhaps in another column.

 

Slainte Mhath,

 

The Whisky Couple

 

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