Tuesday, February 20, 2007

What we talk about when we talk about whisky

(Mirrored from the new blog Nippy Sweeties: Tom Morton's whisky musings)

You see, that's my problem. It's partly what drove me away from the otherwise hugely attractive world of malt whisky: The sense that I was drowning in adjectives, metaphors, similes and, latterly, numbers. I felt the same way I did when people started writing scholarly books about Iggy and the Stooges. That this was something too precious, too personal, too intuitive, too visceral to obfuscate with mere description and analysis.

In 1992 I rode a horrible East German motorcycle (and sidecar, because I hadn't passed my test)around several dozen Scottish distilleries. I travelled from Kirkwall to Campbelltown, Islay to Bladnoch, Glen Garioch to Wick. It was an interesting time for the whisky industry, right at the start of what would become the boom in single malts, and at the tail end of a great depression in whisky production which saw many distilleries silent or demolished. I met industry figures who seemed either terrified of, or simply uninterested in the possibility of a malt-fuelled revival. Who hated the notion of visitor centres, of catering for tourists; of change.

My trip was written up as Spirit of Adventure: A Journey Beyond the Whisky Trails, a kind of punk rock odyssey into the world of distillation. It was also a partial autobiography. I went into it knowing very little about whisky except for the fact that I liked Laphroaig (tasted due its starring role in the John Fowles novel Daniel Martin) and I came out of it raving about Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig, obsessed with peat, viciously denigrating 90 per cent of all known Speyside malts (other than the big Macallans and Glenfarclas 105)and with a heartfelt plea that the Scotch Whisky Industry embrace the making and marketing of malts as its salvation.

I was also obsessed with the notion of place. That was the greatest discovery for me: what the French call, in wine production, terroir. I loved the notion that Clynelish, for example, could speak to me of location, people and history, of the Highland Clearances, of Croik church and its desperate, scrawled messages from homeless crofters. That you could taste its cultural and geographical origins in every sip.

We made a 13-part TV series based on the book (shown in Scotland and Canada and, as far as I know, nowhere else) a new paperback edition of Spirit of Adventure came out in 1993, and since then I've engaged in sporadic bouts of whisky writing, public tastings and tours of South Africa, where they absolutely loved the book. In Scotland itself, not a single distillery shop stocked it (it was too rude about too many companies and drams, and it had swear words in it). And gradually, my grasshopper mind was attracted by other subjects - golf, cars, island life, religion, oil, fishing and, of course, music. For the last five years my main concern has been a daily two-hour show on BBC Radio Scotland. Of course, I kept drinking!

Meanwhile, a mania for malts swept the world. Great, erudite, witty writers emerged - the Charles MacLeans, Jim Murrays, Michael Jacksons and Dave Brooms to name just four. Distilleries reopened, visitor centres and shops sprang into operation, sometimes in the most unlike places. Collectors and obsessives multiplied across the web. Markets for malt whisky began to open up in China, India, Thailand and Russia, and new distilleries were planned or indeed opened. Far from their previous lassitude about the individuality of malts, the industry, with Glenmorangie leading the way, went utterly nuts over wood finishes - adding tastes, not always nice ones, to whiskies and ever-more collectible items to shopping lists - by final ageing of whisky in barrels previously used to hold....you name it: rum, claret, Tokai, pickled herring, human remains...

Three years ago, asked to address a dinner organised by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I denigrated this practice, which seemed to me a reductio ad absurdam of single malt passion: you might as well, I argued, add essence of American Cream Soda, or some of those syrups you seen in vodka bars and coffee shops, the pure spirit of Scotland. It's fiddling. It's fidgeting. And yet I knew that fidgeting and fiddling had always been part of whisky production. A touch of magic, if you like, too. But real magic. Not fakery

I felt out on a limb. And I didn't want to talk about whisky in terms of scores out of a 100. Yes, there was the nose, the palate, the finish to discuss, tones and notes to be identified, but so much of the discussion and description seemed to cater for the anal retentiveness of the middle class male with money and nasal passages to burn. What do you do when you hear Raw Power by Iggy et al? You dance, you fight, you scream, shout and if you're lucky, find someone to have sex with. It's elemental. Like drinking Glenmorangie in the pouring rain, scooping water from the Tarlogie Spring itself to dilute it, and feeling the warmth spread through your body...it's not a number.

Now, though, I feel the need to talk about whisky. About what it means, what it does, the people who make it, the places it comes from. And what it's like to drink. Why? Well, it has to do with visiting a couple of distilleries. Reading a few books(Notably the two Neils, Gunn and Munro), drinking a few drams with old friends, and asking myself: what DO we talk about when we talk about whisky?


snakelocks said...

There are some interesting contradictions in your whisky musings. You seem to denigrate talking about whisky whilst you so obviously love talking about whisky. You are aghast at the 'added taste' of wood finishes while proclaiming your love of the Islay's (clue:- the peaty taste is added with a precision of 1ppm).

We live in a golden age of whisky - the rarest of whisky experiences are available to the common man (that's me). But please keep it quiet, 'cos if they all find out the price will go up.

If whisky wasn't so enlivening, people wouldn't want to talk about it. But because of that special thing that happens when you put a good whisky in your mouth, one is overpowered by the desire to express oneself, as you so obviously are.

And I'm glad you mentioned the most important ingredient to drinking - friends. A great taste enjoyed in company is made even more special.

So quit all the introspective, self-conscious, guilt-ridden stuff. Get hold of some great whisky, get high, and write me a eulogy about your amazing bottle of Bruichladdich or Glefarclas.

Why muse about whisky when you can sing about it?

I'm looking forward to your next instalment...

Tom Morton said...

Well said Snakelocks, thanks for that. I suppose the contradictions are what I intend to try and work through, singing and drinking all the while...