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Animal farm

Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose are Scotch brands that were introduced in the 1970s but virtually forgotten at the start of the 21st century. That changed a few years ago, when both were given a firm dusting and successfully rejuvenated by Alex Nicol, founder of Spencerfield Spirits. Nicol is no newbie in the drinks industry and has worked for Whyte & Mackay, Laphroaig and Glenmorangie, to name a few. At the latter distillery he was co-responsible for the development of the much-lauded wood finishes.

His current headquarters is Spencerfield Farm in Inverkeithing, in an area still known as the Kingdom of Fife, which traces its early roots as a Pictish kingdom. In the 15th century, a fortified tower stood here, given by the Franciscans to a certain Mister John Scott. The battle of Inverkeithing was fought around it in 1651, between the Royalists and Cromwell’s troops. Spencerfield was seriously damaged, not only by continuous bombardments but also by soldiers who had been heavily drinking whisky, after which they “modified” the furniture.

Inverkeithing also happens to be the birthplace of farmer and whisky distiller James Anderson. He left for the USA in the 18th century to try his luck in the New World, where he ended as master distiller under none other than George Washington, first president of the United States. A letter from the latter to the former, written in 1797 testifies to that fact: “A distillery is a business I am entirely unacquainted with, but from your knowledge of it and from the confidence you have in the profit to be derived from the establishment, I am disposed to enter upon one.” Anderson consequently built a distillery on Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia and the former president would rapidly earn some appreciated extra dollars.

Alex Nicol is a farmer too, but above all a whisky maker. The current Spencerfield Farm is bordered by barley fields and on the premises various animals roam, among which several horses and “Dug, the Delivery Dog.”

In short, this is a place marinated in history and whisky — a fine home for Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose. But where did these two names originate? It was common for farmers to distil whisky for domestic use, especially from barley exposed to unwanted rainfall. To avoid paying taxes, they nicknamed the fiery liquid “sheep dip,” a known remedy for sheep diseases. The term also referred to a dram in the pub, preferably next to a pint, enjoyed after a day’s hard work.

Around 1974, M.K. Dowdeswell & Co., located in Oldbury on Severn, Gloucestershire, launched Sheep Dip as a whisky brand. This was, mind you, an English company. Of course, as can be read on the original label, the contents were produced in Scotland. Sheep Dip is a vatted (or blended if you prefer) malt whisky, at the time also called pure malt. In 1978 the company launched a second brand, “as soft as the snout of a pig,” hence the birth of Pig’s Nose.

At first local retail shops were the target market. Those merchants who wanted to sell Pig’s Nose had to become members of the Pig’s Nose club, after which they received an official membership certificate. Notwithstanding that local marketing approach, both whiskies soon were soon appreciated on a wider scale, finding their way to Canada, New Zealand and the USA.

Renowned whisky writer Jim Murray once described Sheep Dip as “Young and sprightly like a new-born lamb, this enjoys a fresh, mouthwatering grassy style with a touch of spice. Maligned by some but to me a clever accomplished vatting of alluring complexity.” His Pig’s Nose one-liner is a fine one too: “A big, sweet, chunky, gawky, grainlashed but hugely enjoyable blend.”

Both blends almost went into oblivion, just like George Washington’s distillery after his passing away in 1799. Luckily two centuries later Mount Vernon distillery was rebuilt and is currently part of the American Whiskey Trail. Scottish farmer James Anderson might have turned in his grave for joy. His fellow farmer Alex Nicol revived two iconic whisky brands. The fact that Inverkeithing has played an important role in both events might be classified as an interesting coincidence.

In the autumn of 2016, Spencerfield Spirits was sold to Ian McLeod Distillers, who also own the single malt distillers Glengoyne, near Glasgow and Tamdhu, in Speyside. The new owner continues to produce and market Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose.

Slainte mhath,

Whisky Couple

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