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Scotland’s whisky islands are dealing with an almighty Covid hangover

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(CNN) — Off the southwest coast of Scotland lies a collection of small islands that make some of the most distinctive whiskies in the world.

Names like Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig are revered by whisky lovers from Japan to New York, from Australia to St Petersburg. Yet those three ancient distilleries are not only on the same island — Islay — they are lined up together on a narrow two-mile stretch of coastal road on Islay’s southern shore.

Nearby, across a 500-meter stretch of water, the island of Jura also produces whisky, a less smoky, more herbal dram from an almost deserted landscape.

And nearer to the mainland stands mountainous Arran. This island is also unique in being the only whisky-producing outcrop that makes Highland whisky on its north coast and Lowland on its south.

These rugged islands, drenched in mist and buffeted by the roar of the Atlantic, are hugely important to the Scottish whisky industry. And whisky itself is vital for the Scottish economy.

In 2019 the country exported 1.3 billion bottles to 175 markets around the world, bringing in £4.9 billion ($6.3 billion).

Protected industry

The Carraig Fhada Lighthouse on Islay -- one of Scotland's most important whisky islands.

The Carraig Fhada Lighthouse on Islay — one of Scotland’s most important whisky islands.

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Just as the champagne industry cannot be allowed to fail in France’s Champagne region, so Scotland protected its whisky industry as best it could during the Covid lockdown.

So what was the impact of Covid on these islands and on the whisky they produce?

These three important whisky islands — Arran, Islay, and Jura — were completely sealed off during the British lockdown. The only ferries that arrived were delivering supplies (99% of what sustains the islanders arrives by boat).

The only people allowed off-island were those with medical emergencies.

As a result there were no cases of Covid-19 on the whisky islands, even though Glasgow and Cumbria on the mainland nearby were badly hit.

That is not to say the islands didn’t suffer, however. As non-essential industries, all distilleries in Scotland were obliged to close by March 29, 2020.

The Laphroaig whisky distillery on Islay.

The Laphroaig whisky distillery on Islay.

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This inevitably affected the local economy. Ten thousand people work in the Scottish whisky industry, the majority of them — 7,000 — in remote areas like the Highlands and the islands.

“All distillery staff were furloughed during lockdown,” says John Campbell, manager at Islay’s Laphroaig Distillery. “It was very quiet on the island and good to be able to go out for a walk and not meet anyone.”

Laphroaig, founded in 1815, normally produces over two and half million liters of smoke-infused, peated whisky every year and has the distinction of being “by appointment” to Prince Charles.

Those quiet roads also meant no tourists. With the closure of distilleries came the closure of all visitor centers and hotels. Islay annual whisky festival (Fèis Ìle), which normally swells the island’s population from 3,000 to 10,000 in May, had to be canceled.

Doors closed

“The weather this spring was beautiful and I was able to spend a lot of time on the beach with my son,” says Jane Deakin, manager of Islay House Hotel, located in the grandest mansion on the island. “But we had to close our doors for four months.

“Whisky tourism is incredibly important to us. In 2019 the Whisky Association recorded over two million visitors coming to Scottish distilleries, and a tenth of that number — 200,000 — come to stay on Islay. I estimate it will take two to three years for us to make back what was lost during lockdown.”

Linda Maclellan, who runs one of Islay’s best fish restaurants, the Bowmore Hotel, describes the current situation as “pretty dire. All the distilleries are making whisky again, but on Islay only Ardnahoe is offering tours to visitors.”

Whisky island Jura was completely sealed off during a coronavirus lockdown.

Whisky island Jura was completely sealed off during a coronavirus lockdown.

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The visitor experience on mountainous Arran isn’t much better either. Fortunately Arran’s whisky lockdown didn’t last as long as Islay’s because the island’s two modern distilleries, Lochranza and Lagg, were built to be operated by one person. As such they had special dispensation from the Scottish government to recommence early on 12 May.

At Lagg, which produces Lowland whisky on the island’s southern coast, manager Graham Omand soon had his computerized distillery up and running again. “I was in my office and there would be one member of staff socially distanced in the distillery and so we were able to start mashing (mixing milled grain with hot water to extract the sugars) again straight away on May 12. That went on for a week and by Monday the 18th we were able to start distillation again.”

Not all island distilleries were that fortunate.

‘It’s just lost’

The Isle of Arran's whisky lockdown didn't last as long as Arran's.

The Isle of Arran’s whisky lockdown didn’t last as long as Arran’s.

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Back on Islay, Laphroaig is a much older and more complex distillery, meaning that manager John Campbell needed to bring in three staff members to restart production. “This meant we didn’t reopen until 29 May, the day after the whole of Scotland came out of lockdown,” he says.

These older distilleries didn’t always take well to having been shut down for so long. Many have been customized, adjusted and added to over the years and are only kept in a delicate balance by being constantly in production. “It took six weeks to get things back to normal,” says John Campbell. “We had never been shut for this length of time for over 40 years. I reckon we lost about a million liters of whisky and we will never make that up. Even working 24/7. It’s just lost.”

Visitors to Islay always make straight for Port Ellen where Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig stand together on the coastal road, but Ardbeg and Lagavulin have only reopened for tastings — with no distillery tours — while Laphroaig hasn’t reopened at all for visitors. Neither have Caol Ila, Bruichladdich and Bowmore.

The Ardbeg distillery has reopened for tastings.

The Ardbeg distillery has reopened for tastings.

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Similarly on the island of Jura, which sits less than half a kilometer east of Islay and is home to a single distillery (also known as Jura), there are no plans to open to visitors.

So it’s not looking like whisky tourism will be bouncing back any time soon in the islands. Back over on Arran, Lagg reopened its shop to the public on 21 July and its café two weeks later on a “pre-booking only” system.

“Distillery tours were to begin again on 14 September,” says Graham Omand, “but new government guidelines prohibiting mixing more than two households and having more than six in a group has made that unfeasible, even though we were only going to run two tours a day with clean-downs in between.”

Instead Lagg is offering tutored tastings in a room that Graham says is “big enough for two groups to keep their distance while enjoying the whisky we have to offer.”

Whisky shortage

Whisky exports bring in $6.3 billion to a year to Scotland.

Whisky exports bring in $6.3 billion to a year to Scotland.

Danny Lawson/PA Wire/AP

Visitor center admissions provide only a small addition to a distillery’s primary profits, but footfall can still be significant.

On the north coast of Arran in 2019, 120,000 people visited the Lochranza Visitor Centre where there was an attractive modern café (currently closed).

The charge in the shop for tasting four whiskies was £15 ($19), with a distillery tour costing an additional £10 and many visitors buying a bottle of single malt to take away with them. Until the Scottish government lifts its restrictions, the number of visitors will continue to be low and an additional source of income will be denied.

“We’re fortunate that we will get back up to our 500,000-liters annual target by end of the year, with no extra costs,” says manager David Livingstone.

Lagavulin is one of Islay's well known whisky producers.

Lagavulin is one of Islay’s well known whisky producers.

Shutterstock

“It’s a terrible thing that we’re not able to offer full distillery tours. But the safety of our customers and workers takes top priority. Once lockdown is fully lifted, we look forward to bringing visitors through in order to experience the magic of distillation first-hand, once again.”

Another post-lockdown problem is an actual shortage of whisky on some of these islands this autumn. Although all aspects of production are required by law to take place on the home island, the filled whisky barrels are always sent to bottling plants on the mainland.

The disruption to supply chains caused by lockdown means that at the moment it’s not possible to buy a bottle of Laphroaig on Islay.

It’s not in the supermarkets and it cannot be purchased from the Laphroaig Visitor Centre because that remains closed.

So islanders are finding themselves in the bizarre situation of having millions of liters of Laphroaig whisky sitting in casks in island warehouses and yet less than two miles away in Port Ellen, Isaias Fuentes Cuartero, bar manager at the Islay Hotel, complains that he has been unable to source any Laphroaig on the island. “I’m actually thinking of buying bottles off Amazon.”

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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