The Hazards of Pronouncing Brands and Terms in Scotch Whisky
There’s a street in the East of Glasgow called Ledaig Street. Once the site of typical Glasgow tenement-style buildings, it now provides more modern community housing as part of the area’s regeneration efforts.
Deriving from Scots Gaelic, it’s an idyllic name for such a street as it means “safe haven”. As I understand it, the folks who live there pronounce it “Leh-dayg” Street, pretty much how you would read it – and right up until somewhere around 2009, that’s how I pronounced it.
Now, back to the whisky world, might I cast your attention over to the Isle of Mull, which lies off the West coast of Scotland. When drawn in map form it looks a little like a stuffed teddy sitting slightly slumped over. Tobermory is the beautifully picturesque town and also the name of the only distillery located there. Here they produce a range of whiskies which have become remarkably good in recent years.
Some Things Really Do Get Better
These expressions form part of a palpable renaissance in recent years across all of Burns Stewart expressions which is widely understood to be at the hands of Ian MacMillan. South African concern Distell took over a few years back and in 2016 Ian moved on to help rejuvenate Bladnoch distillery in the Lowlands, but so far that’s the only obvious changes at Burns Stewart and I sincerely hope that the positive direction continues.
If you pick up a bottle you’ll see all four cornerstones of presentation checked in full: age statements are in place, good minimum bottling strengths of 46.3%ABV, a non-chill filtration policy as well as natural colour. Excellent stuff, to tug at the heartstrings of the even the most stubborn whisky fan. Align this with a significant hike in quality and what seems to be masterful cask management and you have a recipe which is truly magical.
This has been apparent across all Tobermory bottlings as well as siblings Deanston and Bunnahabhain. In my opinion, all have become more delicious and unique in recent years. I would heartily recommend any of these to my new-to-whisky friends. But, there is a linguistic booby-trap.
Red Face Time
You may be aware that at Tobermory they make a peated range of malts which are, like the street, called “Ledaig”. The first time I ever referred to this brand out loud was in a whisky specialist and I simply called it “Leh-dayg”. There was a flash reaction across the owner’s face as he wrestled with how to correct my error without causing a customer offence, or perhaps looking preachy. In the end all became clear when he simply slipped in the correct pronunciation of “Ley-chig”. I made light of my mistake and drew attention to the Glasgow street and, after an awkward laugh, no one could have cared any less. Except me.
I was enjoying my discussion that day and I felt like I was appreciating his range of whiskies at a level that perhaps he could only enjoy with a few enlightened and knowledgeable customers. But of course I blew the facade.
Should I care though? Of all the whisky pronunciation hazards that exist out there this has to be one of the most easy for folk to trip over; the spelling looks nothing like how it’s actually supposed to be pronounced. So does it matter if they’re buying a Ley-chig or a Led-ayg? Not really, surely.
But of course, it does.
From Blagger to Connoisseur
You see, whisky is so much more than buying and drinking. It’s a landscape that you step inside and walk around in. You become part of it. You feel compelled to detail the colours, the smells, the tastes and the variety of it all. It’s almost like taking a trip to a bucket-list destination where you’re damn sure you’re gonna try to enjoy every element of the experience. You do your research in an effort to slide in and feel as comfortable as possible. It’s a minor disaster when you’re exposed as an out-of-towner.
In Scotch whisky, it’s easy to be exposed as a newbie. So many of the whisky terms are derived from Scots Gaelic and its different set of phonetic rules that, as English speakers, we’re simply not very familiar with. Even to me, as a native Scot, this dynamic adds a layer of confusion that can be construed by the outsider as elitist. There are the folks that know and the folks that don’t yet know.
But, a little like life in general, when you get to dig a little deeper into the whisky landscape you discover it’s bursting with benevolent souls eager to share experiences and knowledge; the type of folk that will sense someone who’s a little green and be sure to say “Ley-chig” out loud as they pour you a dram of Ledaig. But I find whisky more hazardous for this than any other subject I’ve taken up, simply due to the prevalence of Gaelic words.
Take the word slàinte. Usually written with an accent over the ‘a’ it’s simply said in place of cheers and means health. It’s not exclusive to whisky, but just like salud in Spanish it’s meant as a toast. Slàinte can be heard everywhere Scotch whisky is enjoyed. It’s pronounced slahn-che, but in the central belt of Scotland and particularly Glasgow it is often hardened at the end to sound like “Slanj”.
Does anyone care? I don’t know. If someone’s toasting to my health I think I’d like to put more emphasis on the intention rather than the execution. But when I hear it pronounced that way I always suppress a flicker of desire to correct it. It’s my flaw, I know.
As we walk the whisky road, we’re confronted with different words that, like slàinte, seem alien in construction and many seem flat unpronounceable. From names of towns, villages, hills and glens to distilleries, whisky brands and even terms of goodwill, the opportunities to stumble over a tricky word abounds in Scotch. What can the whisky novice do to limit the clangers and reduce the awkward moments?
It’s a Small Investment – Get it Right
A quick google search can usually help educate the curious, but that’s a disastrous idea in this case. The sites with lists of how to pronounce whisky terms are hardly accurate. We even see experts fumbling all over the place. Heather Greene is a respected and insightful whisky commentator, yet she’s on YouTube coaching everyone to ask for Glen Garioch while spitting on them. Heather, I love you but, no. Let’s not make it worse – especially when the correct pronunciation is actually easier than what’s being suggested!
If you think about it, it would be rude if you met someone and made no effort to try to pronounce their given name correctly. You’d be easily forgiven if you attempted it and got it wrong. It’d be pretty certain you wouldn’t be the first to make the mistake, but you’d make an effort to get it right next time, right? Surely, within reason, it’s the same with brands, place names and language? At least I think so.
Of course, if I myself step forward to throw in my interpretation of whisky pronunciation, surely I lay myself open to the same criticism I’m laying at the poor Ms. Greene? What qualifications do I have to cry expert in a scene where I’m merely a spectator? How can I dare to suggest phonetics and pronunciation about a language I don’t speak?
Well, a wise man once told me that you only need to be one page ahead of your pupil in order to be a teacher.
And a wiser man told me the whisky will give me strength. And so, let us pour…