Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - April 1996

* Genius Loci *

Imagine this scenario: "Rising costs are to force the closure of the famous Macallan distillery in Scotland. The distinctive malt whisky will now be produced at a giant computerised plant in Glasgow, which had previously only made grain whiskies. A company spokesman assured drinkers that there would be no change to the character of the whisky." Unthinkable? Absolutely.

Scotland has seventy or eighty small malt whisky distilleries, whose products each draw their unique and distinctive character from the particular location where they are made. If a distillery closes - and a few have in recent years - then its whisky dies with it. All that's left to remember it by are the dwindling stocks laid down when it was still working. Nobody would contemplate distilling Laphroaig alongside the Glenlivet, and even if you tried, it just wouldn't work.

Yet almost every time a brewery is closed, the beers it used to brew are moved somewhere else, often hundreds of miles away, and the brewers pretend nothing's changed. We have the ludicrous spectacle of Higsons being brewed in County Durham and Wilsons Mild in Oxfordshire. Usually, these transplanted beers are markedly inferior to the originals, sometimes they may be better, but one thing's consistent; they're never the same. Maybe the effect is less than with whisky, but beer too certainly does take on a distinctive character from the surroundings where it is brewed. You can't shift production around the country as if it were crisps or soap powder.

If a brewery really does have to close, then they should do the decent thing and bury its beers at the same time. Surely it's preferable to sell a different but authentic product in pubs, rather than a bastardised travesty of the original. And perhaps, if this principle was generally accepted, it might persuade the brewers that it's worth keeping a few more plants open for the sake of the brands they produce, as brands seem to count for more on the balance sheet than people's livelihoods.

* Ecstasy vs. Booze *

There have been a number of tragic cases recently in which young people have died after taking only one, unadulterated, Ecstasy tablet. At the same time, there has been a notable dearth of stories of people being killed by a single pint of beer. Yet we still hear media pundits, who really should know better, talk of alcohol and Ecstasy in the same breath, as if the risks and dangers were the same. A few months ago, I even read one Charlotte Raven in the Observer, in one of the most irresponsible pieces of journalism I have ever seen, state that she would be happier for her children to use Ecstasy than to drink alcohol, conjuring up images of happy kids dosed with E's dancing the night away, compared with drunken yobs on the rampage.

In fact, though, the two are not equivalent at all. The risk of death from one drink, or even one drinking session, is non-existent. While you can kill yourself drinking, it's extremely hard work. And, over a long period of time, alcohol will do no damage to health unless you consistently drink at a level way above the official "safe" limits. On the other hand, it has been clearly demonstrated that every single tab of Ecstasy you take carries a slight risk of fatality, and regular "social" use is likely to cause real and lasting harm, and may in the long run kill you.

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