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For a number of years now Lidl supermarkets, along with their counterparts at Aldi, have been occupying headlines having won countless awards for their budget-friendly whisky brands. Single malts are bottled under the Ben Bracken range, a made up name that doesn’t relate to any distillery in Scotland. It sounds the part though and whilst the number of different awards ceremonies around today renders the winning of one almost meaningless, you can’t help but raise an eyebrow when an £18 bottle is singled out for praise. The range features Highland, Islay and Speyside expressions. I reviewed their Islay bottling a while ago and thought it was about time I checked out another so off to my local Lidl I went and home I came with their Speyside malt, my bank account drained of a measly £16.49.
Speyside is a protected whisky producing region under UK Government legislation. The area became famed for its Glenlivet whisky, with the hills and glens around the River Spey peppered with stills, churning out spirit that could be smuggled to eager customers in the lowlands. It was a lifestyle not without risk however, with excisemen on the prowl across the countryside, looking to shut down any such enterprise.
The Caledonian Mercury of Thursday 7th November 1822 recounted the tale of Thomas Wilson, officer of excise in the town of Beith who witnessed an innocent looking horse and cart pass through the town before having his suspicions raised when four stout Highlanders followed behind, apparently offering some protection of the cargo. Mr Wilson gave chase and at the Toll Bar outside Kilbirnie he attempted to seize the cart and its cargo. For his troubles he was attacked by the four Highlanders and thrown into a ditch, where they “proceeded to abuse him in the most barbarous manner” whilst the fifth man escaped with the horse and cart.
Two local lads came to the exciseman’s rescue and together, the three gave chase, eventually coming to a stop in Barr, near Lochwinnoch where they found nine casks of whisky abandoned by the roadside. Contained within was some eighty or ninety gallons of whisky but soon enough they were once again set upon by the Highlanders, resulting in a “severe and unremitting skirmish” that only ended when some Lochwinnoch men chased the smugglers away. Despite suffering considerable personal injury, the officer accomplished his task and delivered the quantity of smuggled whisky to the excise office in Beith.
I’ve often wondered what happened to such whisky after it was seized and I was able to find the answer in another newspaper, this time The London Courier and Evening Gazette of 23 May 1836 which carried an advert from Henry Brett & Co… “The admirers of illicitly-distilled spirit have now a rare opportunity of laying in a stock of true poteen malt whisky of extraordinary age and flavour, from actual seizures recently submitted to sale by the Honourable Commissioners of Excise, of which we were purchasers.”
In the end many distillers opted to make use of the Excise Act of 1823, purchasing a license for a relatively small sum and creating a legitimate tax-paying business.
The Speyside region, once a hub for such so-called illicit goings on is now home to more than half of Scotland’s distilleries, with three of the five best selling single malts in the world produced there…
Lidl’s Speyside Ben Bracken is bottled at 40% and retails anywhere between £16 and £20, depending on the time of year.
Smell: Malt, honey, apple… Straw. Caramel and toffee. Cinnamon. Wee bit of oak.
Taste: Orange, apple, pear… Malt and honey. Muesli. Toffee, butterscotch (Werther’s Original!)… Cinnamon and a wee bit of ginger.
Thoughts: I mean… What can I say? £16.50 a bottle. £16.50!!!! It’s better than some drams at double that price. Obviously we’re not talking about life-changing experiences, but as an everyday sipper of a dram, you won’t find more for less.
It’s a nice wee Speyside dram that does the simple stuff well. Sure it’s only 40% but there’s a fullness of flavour that no sub-£20 bottle has any right to display. Lidl are quite simply knocking it out the park of late and whilst more than a year has been lost to the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses have been decimated, jobs lost and the need for a bargain never greater, it’s reassuring to know that Lidl will see you right for a decent drop for less than £20.