Game of Thrones & Single Malt Whisky, A Match Made in Scotland

Disclaimer: For this blog post myself and the Scotlanders travel blogging collective worked with Diageo to promote their new Game of Thrones special edition single malt whiskies. We were compensated for our work (with a dram or two as well). You’ll know, however, that I love Game of Thrones – I literally wrote the book on GoT and Scottish history – so this was a lot of fun for me and, as ever, I’ll only ever conduct campaigns that I can have fun with and that I believe you’ll be interested in hearing about. Slainte! 

It’s no secret that Scottish history provided much of the raw material for the process of forging the world of Westeros. Standing upon Hadrian’s Wall in 1981 and envisioning the real and imagined horrors that confronted the Roman Empire’s sentries at the furthest reaches of their world, George R R Martin said that “…what tended to emerge from those trees was Scots, and we couldn’t use that”, and so were born the Wildlings. I’ve explored the myriad direct and thematic parallels between Game of Thrones and Scottish history in my book, which I’ll be blogging about next. For now, however, there has emerged yet another link in the chain between Scotland and the Seven Kingdoms – whisky.

While there’s no trace of the water of life in the established Game of Thrones pantheon of indulgences, I found this link to be stronger than I initially suspected. Diageo has released a series of Game of Thrones-inspired single malt whiskies, with each distillery involved branded with the sigil of one of the noble houses of Westeros – Stark, Targaryen, Lannister, Tully, Tyrell, Baratheon, Greyjoy, and even one for the Night’s Watch (who could certainly do with something to temper the cold with). As part of a campaign beyond the Wall with the Scotlanders, we managed to treat with them all. I sought out House Tully and House Tyrell, Patricia Cuni reconciled the old enemies of Baratheon and Targaryen, and Neil Robertson patrolled the coasts for Greyjoys, Lannisters, and the Night’s Watch.

House Tyrell (Clynelish)

Clyenlish distillery with its cat sigil

As the northernmost distillery of the bunch, it seems odd at first to find House Tyrell, a decadent southern family whose sigil is a flower and whose words are ‘Growing Strong’, aligned with Clynelish. However, the traditional idea that ‘Highlands = North’ and ‘Lowlands = South’ doesn’t hold here; along the east coast of Sutherland and Caithness are fertile, temperate (by Scottish standards) lands with rolling hills and plentiful fields. The mountains of Wester Ross loom to the west, yet their stony grip is kept at bay. Still, this is the far north, and so while the palette of the single malts in this area – known as ‘coastal Highland’ – may be on the sweeter side, they are not absent an edge – much like the Tyrells when pressed into a corner.

A clue to the Game of Thrones connection also lies in the name. Clynelish is derived from the Gaelic for ‘garden on the hill’, and sure enough only a few miles from the distillery is Dunrobin Castle, which I reckon is Scotland’s closest equivalent to the House Tyrell seat of Highgarden. Perched upon a high slope overlooking vast gardens and the nearby shore, it suits the name perfectly. More of a chateau than a true castle, Dunrobin offered a level of decadence to its inhabitants that was unparalleled in the region. This, however, came at a tremendous human cost – its builder, the 1st Duke of Sutherland, presided over some of the most brutal episodes of the notorious Highland Clearances, and even had the people whom he had evicted build a giant monument of him atop the highest local hill. More of a Bolton than a Tyrell, if you ask me.

It was also the first Duke who established the distillery now known as Clynelish, originally called Brora after the village in which it stands. Partly thanks to profits from the distillery Brora became known as ‘the electric village’, being the first settlement in the north to be run by electricity.  It was a way to profit from a barley surplus, and by 1819 the distilling process had begun – though the Duke of Sutherland’s role in forcibly evicting his residents made Brora into a ‘Clearance distillery’. For instance, workers were only allowed to purchase goods at the company shop – whose proceeds, of course, directly lined the Duke’s pockets. The original distillery is still on site, and is even set to re-open its doors in 2020 after over 50 years of silence. The Clynelish distillery that visitors see today opened in 1968.

The White Walker special edition of Johnnie Walker. Much of Clynelish’s output goes into the Johnnie Walker blend.

Clynelish ferments the malt in ten massive washback tubs for longer than many distilleries, which produces a sweeter than average flavour. Its copper swan-necked stills remove any impurities, making it exceptionally neat as well. Caramel, flowers, sherry, and pineapple are commonly listed amongst the tasting notes. I tend to prefer my single malts to taste like they were smoked over a peat fire and blended with salted earth so the House Tyrell Clynelish is a bit too saccharine for my liking, however if you’re tentative about single malts (or just prefer something that doesn’t give you dragon’s breath) this could be the one to bend the knee to.      

While you’re in the area, it is very much worth visiting Carn Liath broch, just a few miles south of Clyelish along the coast. Brochs are prehistoric stone towers whose precise purpose is unknown, however they offer a tantalising connection with another faction from Game of Thrones – the mysterious Children of the Forest. The Victorian perception of the Picts, the peoples in the north of Scotland who emerged from the wars against imperial Rome, was of a magical, semi-mythological race with painted bodies, strange customs and powerful abilities, much like how the Children of the Forest are depicted.

House Tully (The Singleton)

The Riverlands of Westeros are a rich yet volatile place, and the former is the reason for the latter. Its soils are amongst the most productive in Westeros, its lands criss-crossed by waterways that bring nutrients as well as raiders far inland, and its position at the junction of several of the other Seven Kingdoms makes it a constant battleground. There are few mighty castle in the Riverlands – aside, of course, from Riverrun, amongst the most impregnable fortresses in Westeros – but countless smaller tower houses, built by insecure minor lords, dot the landscape (a great nearby example is Fairburn Tower, set on a hill above the Falls of Orrin). Word for word, that description also applies to the Black Isle north and west of Inverness, which is where The Singleton, flying the banners of House Tully, has its base at Glen Ord.

Every single malt has three, and only three, essential ingredients – water, barley, and yeast. The water for The Singleton flows out of the high hills that loom over Glen Ord and is amongst the purest in a region already distinguished for water quality, while the barley is drawn from the famously fertile fields of the Black Isle. Unlike many distilleries which outsource their malting process Glen Ord conducts its own malting. Casks used for Kentucky bourbon and sherry casks from the south of Spain infuse the distilled whisky with distinctive flavours, with the sherry producing a slightly sweeter palette. In fact, The Singleton is definitively international. Glen Ord is the only place outside of Asia where it can be sampled. During the colonial era The Singleton became incredibly popular in Asia, particularly Taiwan and Japan, and it is now exclusively sold in that region – aside from the House Tully Game of Thrones special edition, that is.

These have been Clan Mackenzie lands for over 700 years, and Thomas Mackenzie founded the Glen Ord distillery in 1838. So how did House Tully end up planting its banner here? There are three main reasons why. Firstly and most obviously The Singleton’s logo is a leaping salmon, which bears a striking resemblance to the Tully sigil of a silver trout. Placed side by side, they are nearly indistinguishable. The above-mentioned abundance of waterways, which result in productive yields, is another common factor shared by this part of Scotland and the Riverlands. The Black Isle was also hotly contested by vying factions in Scotland’s history, namely the Lords of the Isles who ever coveted the northern Scottish mainland, the ambitious Norse-descended Earls of Caithness and Sutherland, and the nascent Kingdom of Scots itself.

Settlements here were frequently put to the torch or forced to pay taxes to one lord or another, and after a few centuries of this constant turmoil the locals probable cared little for whose hand was holding them down. To quote one of the more historically insightful lines from Game of Thrones, “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends…It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace…They never are.”

Having sampled both The Singleton and Clynelish, neither of which I had tried before, if I had to pledge my sword to House Tyrell or House Tully then I’m joining the fish rather than the flower. The Singleton still doesn’t quite have the brimstone flavour I like best, but its palette – something like fresh cut grass with vanilla, a sprinkling of earth and a pinch of salt – has that hint of northern steel that I’m happy to stand behind.

Who gets your sword, House Tyrell (Clynelish) or House Tully? Or maybe another house altogether? Check out Neil and Pat’s blogs, linked to in the second paragraph of this post, to hear about the others. We also produced a YouTube video with distillery histories, Game of Thrones comparisons, and, of course, whisky tastings from this collection which you can view below.