Friday, 19 August 2016

Los Angeles: Part 3: Red whisky bar - a short story of dislocation and connection

I suppose it would be fair to call this part 3 of my LA trilogy; 3 posts that capture elements of my trip to LA 3 years ago. It's taken a long time to reach the page but the memories are still vivid! Parts one and two can be found here. 

Los Angeles Part 1: Seven Grand - An evening of short sentences

Los Angeles Part 2: Seven Grand - A garden of earthly delights

Dislocation: Over the years I've learned that there's a certain reassurance to be gained from the experience of dislocation, I'm even tempted to say that it can be life affirming. For me it relates to that rare feeling of release experienced when surrendering yourself wholly to your immediate environment, relinquishing control to outside agencies and forces, to recognise, in that moment, you are being "held" by someone or something else.

One example of this that many of us have experienced is flying. Think of your last flight and cast your mind back to the moment the plane takes off; in that moment you are at the mercy of the elements, the interplay between wind and wing, aileron and airspace, the nuts and bolts of the aircraft, conversations between cockpit and control, the skills of the plane crew and so on. In this instance, in terms of safety, time to destination, route taken etc, you are powerless, there is nothing you can do, you have relinquished control and you are free from any responsibilities other than to yourself and your fellow passengers. While for a few, this represents a somewhat scary scenario, for some (me included) it represents an opportunity to experience tranquil dislocation. Anxieties experienced at such times are, to be brutally honest, a waste of emotional and physical energy. Emotional distress is often associated with the fight or flight response (no pun intended) in which we confront that which is causing us stress/anxiety (i.e. fight) or we remove ourselves from the situation (I.e. flight). Here's a this example, when you are airborne, flight is not an option!

To those gripped by acute anxieties related to such experiences and those who, to a lesser extent, have difficulty relinquishing control in their lives, this might seem challenging, but you can choose how you experience such events. Worry, anxiety, stress have absolutely no value in such situations - your influence on the situation is minimal at best, so why worry? The more adaptive emotions might be a feeling of relaxedness, of focus, of freedom, opportunities to gain a deeper awareness of ones self. It might sound somewhat simplistic but the reality is that we all have choices in these situations, we may have to learn what range of choices we have and then learn the skills/habits in order to exercise those choices, but they are there to be had. My flight to LA was physically challenging but psychologically invigorating.

Alongside the flight to LA, travelling to spend an evening of dramming with @redwhiskybar (Rob Throckmorton) was also a moment of dislocation. I'm not referring to the meeting with Rob, (I'll covers that when I expand on "connection"), but to the short journey in the cab to our venue for the evening. The twenty minute journey across LA, in a cab who's driver spoke little or no English, along a packed freeway, in the still sticky early evening heat, was a moment of dislocation. Twenty minutes to let the imagination run free, to relax, to anticipate, to forget, to remember, to take in the surroundings, in be free.....and then back to reality as the driver indicates that we're at our destination.

Connection: One of the enduring attractions of connections made within the whiskey community is the privilege of encountering people with passion. Passion is a word spoken with a regularity that, on occasions diminishes its potency and meaning (the word "awesome" is probably the most well-worked example of this). I suspect that there are many people who meander through life in a soma like contentment without experiencing passion from one year to the next. Passion is infectious, contagious, it is an interpersonal currency that opens doors, creates bonds; it needs attending to, nurturing, it can be claustrophobic and, if confined, it will wither, it needs to be allowed to express itself, to be seen and heard. Needless to say, the whisky commnuity is full of passionate people.

No entry ticket was required to gain entry to red whisky bar, the seeds of an invitation had been sown on Twitter many months prior to the trip, frequent humorous exchanges and thoughtful explorations of all things whisk(e)y had nurtured the whisky bond and I felt it only fair to bring along an offering, in this instance, a bottle of Ardbeg Uigeadail from travel retail.

The evening started well, had a good middle, and ended splendidly. The theme was, not surprisingly "all things whisky". Experiencing a shared passion is one of life's pleasures; it is to be savoured as you might savour the whisky itself. Mein host for the evening Rob, is as passionate as it get when it comes to whisky, not only that, his passion comes with a wealth of knowledge about the product. I think it would be fair to say that his particular niche passion within the whisky world is rye and whilst not having any fixed agenda for the evening, it was clear that he was keen to devote a reasonable portion of the evening to this area.....but a "ryeathon" this was not!

Whilst it may have been useful to have had detailed tasting notes for each of the whiskies, to have taken time out to put pen to paper would have detracted from the experience of the evening. Whisky is not my "work", but is a conduit through which I experience many pleasures. For me, remembering the details isn't the be all and end all, indeed, it can at times be a distraction. The evening was about different levels of connection, and I've seen too many evenings fractured with frantic scribblings of half thought through impressions to let that happen here. Our conversation occasionally delved deep into whisky theory and speculation (different types of peat, the impact of water, organic ingredients, and so on), but for me, the evening will be remembered in the context of simply sharing whiskies with a fellow passionista.

We began with a straightforward and exciting exploration of West coast whiskies but as the evening progressed and our conversation became more animated, Rob conducted the whisky choices in response to the conversation, the whiskies "riffed" off the spoken words. I remember sitting on the red-eye a couple of days later, 7 hours into the flight, reflecting on the evening, I was reminded of the final scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Truffaut conducts the scene where a guy (using a cross between an organ and a small factory), responds to the alien sound sequences, building up momentum into a triumphant symphonic connection. The evening was well orchestrated and evolved into, well, a free-form jazz kind of experience. I was perfectly happy to see Rob move through different sections of his high quality collection, both of us becoming more animated as the evening progressed. Only occasionally did I purr with nostalgia at the mention of drams that were more familiar to me (Mortlach, Springbank). This prompted a visit to the "old friends" before returning to pastures new.


We compiled a list of the drinks experienced "post event" as it were. If it looks excessive, that's because on some levels, it was! The drinks were never treated as shots, each drink (or pairing) was connected to varying levels of discussion and analysis. One experience firmly located in the memory banks!


One of the first drams was the James Martins Fine and Rare 20 yr old. I had only had this dram once before (see The man with the Jack Daniels tattoo), and Rob had managed to source another bottle - a genuinely lovely start to the evening. We moved on to:

· Faultline Littlemill 21yr old 1990 vintage bottling by K&L exclusive to California - 59% (lush....from a distillery that lost its life in a fire x years ago).

· Old World Spirits (CA) Gold Run Rye ; 45% 100% Organic White North Dakota Rye. Only six months old.

· Red Whiskey Bar Whiskey - This was a lovely blend of 7 or 8 American Whiskies (one of Rob's creations), mostly rye, but one wheat whiskey, one bourbon and an American single malt, married in a medium char 750 ml oak cask for two weeks.


· Firestone Walker Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA with a reverse chaser of Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey; 49.5% Literally a batch of Racer 5 (California) IPA turned into Whiskey. I'm a lover of the whiskey/beer paring and this was right up there!

· Hirsch 20 Year Canadian Rye ; 43% Glenora distillery.

· Kilchoman (K&L Exclusive) 100% Islay Sherry Cask Release, CS - ; 61.6%

· Lost Spirits Bohemian Bonfire; 59% California organic barley, Canadian Peat, freshly scrubbed French Oak cask.

· Lost Spirits Ouroboros; 54% California organic barley, 4000 year old California peat taken from the San Joaquin river delta. A memory maker.

· Mortlach 22 yr (1990, Chieftains, K&L Exclusive) ; 58% Ahhh, back on my turf with a Sherry Bomb, Oloroso!

· Bunnahabhain 21 yr; 52.6% (The Exclusive Malts) Subtle rolling waves in this.

· Bowmore 11 yr (2001) ; 53.6% (The Exclusive Malts)

· Thomas Handy Sazerac Rye (2010 bottling). 63.45%

· Anchor Distilling (San Francisco, CA) Old Potrero, 18th Century Spirit ; 51.2% 100% Rye malted mash.

· High West OMG Pure Rye ; 49.3% New make.

· Springbank 14 yr Fino Cask ; 55%

· Caol Ila 29 Yr (Duncan Taylor) 53.8%

· Ardbeg / Chieftain's 17 yr 55.5% Barolo cask finish.

Some of the fine whiskies we sampled on the night!

I have to admit that it was Rob's memory and a "morning after" bottle autopsy that enable us to put together such a comprehensive list. So, another stitch in the whisky fabric, a broadening of my whisky education, an affirmation of my passion for not just the whisky, but for the varied positive connections that seem to go hand in hand with it. A door opened in Los Angeles and the offer of an open door in the UK.

Whilst I have a general rule that the whiskies I locate within my whisky shed have to have be full bottles that I've had/shared, I made an exception for the Ardbeg 17. Rob let me have the box and it's now a permanent  reminder of the fantastic evening.....Cheers mate!

An unexpected event that punctuated the evening was my first ever sighting of a real, honest to goodness, skunk! My childlike excitement almost resulted in a wildlife faux pas given that I was all ready to run outside to get a close up photo before Rob reigned me in with the appropriate health and odour contamination warnings. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Penderyn: Part of a bigger conversation

What connection does a distillery have with its surroundings?  Is context important when considering the location of a distillery? Clearly there are a number of logistical necessities (e.g. a suitable water source) but lets delve a little deeper. The easiest consideration of this question is located in an exploration of its geography and more often than not, the history associated with that geography. For many distilleries, with heritage stretching back for generations, talking to the past as a way of illuminating and exciting the present is a “privilege of heritage”; and one that is not available to every distillery. What of distilleries that don't have the luxury of decades, that don't have grainy black-and-white photos adorning musty and damp rock walls, the graffiti of generations etched into the out of kilter, off centre, architecturally suspect, cutesy nooks and crannies that seem to be the purview of many of our older distillery brethren?

The untrained eye could be forgiven for missing Penderyn distillery; it nestles by the side of an innocuous A-road, on a ribbon development that offers no clues as to history or context. You might drive through, only glimpsing the seam of gold on the distillery façade out of the corner of your eye and....gone...but that would be a shame. Heading North on the A4059, take a left turn just past the distillery and you are elevated quickly into rustic, yore byways, sunken, slate grey pubs and the cemetery stone overgrowth of a different history.

Get out of the car and you're walking in the footsteps of Welsh sinners wending chapel way, catching whispers of gossip on fading dialects borne on unalloyed Welsh air; it is peaceful, bucolic, and tinged with nostalgia...but back to business.

The satnav shenanigans failed to disrupt my morning given that I always set out to arrive around 30 minutes earlier than scheduled, and so it was that I arrived at Penderyn village with 5 minutes to spare. Five minutes in which to compose, prepare, focus, savour.....but I'd done no preparation, paradoxically, not preparing was the preparation. I was coming in cold, unarmed, but quietly confident that the conversation that was about to take place would be enjoyable, illuminative, interesting and, perhaps most importantly, underpinned with passion. In the event, I was not to be disappointed.

To be honest, I wasn't even sure who I would be meeting other than Jon Tregenna, the marketing manager who gave me a warm welcome. My brief was remarkably simple, just two words, Penderyn was a taboola rasa, a blank slate on which I could choose to daub my notes. 

A brief introduction and a skip up the stairs to the Boardroom where I met fellow conversees, Stephen Davies, the MD of Penderyn, and Sian Whitelock, the commercial director. Stephen and Sian evolved into the distillery business from the somewhat less glamorous steel industry (a fortuitous occurrence in the light of the current economic challenges) but are now fully immersed in all things whisky. Jon's route into the business was somewhat unconventional (a YouTube ambush of a Penderyn competition no less!) We began to talk....

The short, slow and steady history of Penderyn. 

Opened in 2004 and slowly increasing production to 230,000 70cl bottles last year this is a distillery short on history but long on ambition. That 230,000 total is nearer half a million if you include the other spirits produced at Penderyn (e.g. Brecon Gin, Five Vodka & Merlin cream liqueur). Fundamental questions had to be answered in the early days – Steve: "We knew from the off that we had to make the business a certain size in order to make it viable, and there were some tough conversations early on with the shareholders in terms of "Do you want to be a large part of something small, or a small part of something a bit bigger, but that's only going to be viable in the longer term. These were difficult conversations to have..." The successful resolution of those fundamental questions clearly provided the management team with a sense of direction and commitment; the Penderyn journey had begun. 

So what of the whiskies themselves? There is an expanding range of expressions with the Madeira finish being the most well known. These are whiskies that more than hold their own in the category that I would call "aperitif" drams and are drams that I often refer to as "dangerously quaffable!” They are not "heavy hitters" in terms of drams that place a ransom note on your palate, but they possess a clean, light, fruitiness that is having an increasingly broad appeal both nationally and globally. In terms of current debates within the whisky world, it is interesting to note that their predominant output is in the NAS (no age statement) arena. Indeed, it would be fair to say that, since opening in 2004, Penderyn has worn its heart on its sleeve in relation to a commitment to NAS expressions. This was not without its challenges and in the beginning there was a recognition that this market was somewhat uncertain, Steve: "Back in 2004 we were one of the first to produce NAS whisky and a lot of people weren't convinced at the time (2004). That's changed now and a lot of the major brands are doing it for a lot of good reasons; yes, due to shortage of stock, but also the realisation that you can make good NAS was nice that we there early and it hopefully gives us some credibility". I was curious to know if there were any plans for diversification into the "age statement" market. My question was met with an unequivocal and unified "No" from Sian, Steve and Jon. Steve went on to say "...we don't plan to put an age statement on the whiskies. We might do special editions e.g. Vintage 2000, but it would be wrong of us, almost dishonest, to suddenly say that age statements are important." (Note to self: Honesty is a thread that runs through much of this conversation). 

So first principles were established; honesty, commitment to high quality spirit, and a sense of Penderyn’s place in relation to Brecon and the wider Welsh context; so how to "grow the product"? The marketing of Penderyn is certainly worthy of consideration. The honesty associated with their commitment to the whisky is echoed in the marketing choices that they have made. Whilst not shunning the traditional Welsh cultural stereotypes, the message from Penderyn selectively taps into icons that resonate with what one might guardedly call a more contemporary audience. There is none of the traditional Welsh folksiness that for many would have been the obvious choice for the first commercial whisky produced in Wales. There are no leeks, Welsh ladies in tall hats sat spinning wool outside a bwthyn by a llyn, no daffodils; instead, you will see a contemporary thread that connects to a modern Wales. 

The cultural currency of their marketing hints at a more recent past (Dylan Thomas - A Sherrywood expression in the Icons of Wales series), locates itself in innovative contexts (Welsh Rugby - The “Grand Slam” expressions & "That Try"), and interconnects with a variety of artistic experiences (Welsh National Opera, the Penderyn Music Book Prize). Interestingly, it is only after recent discussions with their increasingly impressive European market that Penderyn have taken some more overt steps to "embrace the dragon" as it were. Sian - "...our connections in Europe (e.g. La Maison du Whisky) wanted a little more Welshness connected with the brand." The result can be seen in the "Myth" expression (ex bourbon cask - Buffalo Trace).

As someone who is interested in any opportunities for creativity within the whisky world and someone who has fumbled with guitar strings for decades, I was particularly interested in the Penderyn Music Book Prize. This is "the first UK prize specifically for music titles (history, theory, biography, autobiography)". Any connection between literary/musical luminaries such as prize judges John Cooper-Clarke, Shane McGowan, Beth Orton and Mark Lewisohn (inaugural winner with his book "The Beatles - All these Years: Volume One”), and the whisky community, is a bang on winner for me!

Two new Lantern Stills

So what about the future? In terms of creativity and innovation there are some exciting times ahead. The installation of Penderyn's own Mash Tun has created opportunities for a more nuanced approach to whisky production. The two Pot Stills and two Penderyn stills have increased opportunities to work with different styles of new make spirit, and there is a new, bespoke Penderyn bottle on the horizon (which I find really exciting!). The close collaboration with Dr Jim Swan (legendary distilling consultant) is set to continue. I noted that Steve referred to Jim as a tremendous force for creativity. 

Jon (who is a gifted "outside the still" thinker), will continue to seek stories that are "organic and honest to the business". He goes on to say that, in relation to the context of Penderyn, "we're part of a bigger conversation" which for me at that moment, was (and still is) an illuminative and telling statement. If passion was fuel then this distillery's tanks are full. The question "What does Penderyn distillery mean to you?" took the trio by surprise, but was answered with both eloquence and honesty. Sian - "It is part of me; it feels like my child, we get to bring the brand to life". Steve - "The first sip of Penderyn was astonishing to me. It's a very intense thing being part of a brand" Jon - “My grandfather was from the Rhondda, just over the mountain. I’ve always felt a strong connection here, and Penderyn defines the spirit of Wales.

So the guardians of whisky production at Penderyn are at their posts. There appears to be an exciting creative dynamic at work that, allied with a business acumen located at the coal face of the whisky business, bodes well for the future of this exciting distillery. I for one am excited by the possibilities.

This article was originally written for Issue 5 of Whisky Quarterly magazine. The magazine will soon be available as a free download.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Reprieve - (the lost "James Bond" chapter)

This is a piece written for Issue 4 of Whisky Quarterly magazine. The theme was "James Bond" as the issue coincided with the release of "Spectre". The magazine will be available as a free download at some not too distant point. Let your imagination run free and try to fill in the gaps in terms of the possible whiskies that Bond got to try.

The lock gave way with barely a sound and Bond eased his body through the door, his focus was on his breathing and the gloomy interior. With his Walther PPK in the right, his left hand eased the door shut behind him; silence...both inside and outside. A dirty skylight offered some illumination and as his eyes accommodated, he recc'ied his surroundings. No ground floor windows, a desk with evidence of recent activity, two chairs and racks of ground to ceiling shelving units, some covered with dirty sheeting - a relatively small space, but it was cover......for now.

There was nothing soft in what had happened earlier that evening, it was textbook kill or be killed, and he had executed the plan almost to perfection; just the one slip, the pause that would, in many other circumstances, have left him lying in a heap at the scene. He'd taken a bullet but he'd got out, escaped, and hopefully found some temporary refuge. He tentatively reached for his cigarettes only to lay his hands on a few remnants of Balkan/Turkish tobacco trapped in the jaws of a mangled gunmetal case that was folded around a bullet meant for him - another escape. 

As his mind slowed, his pain quickened. He needed to regroup, to take stock, to plan his extraction but most of all he needed to sit down. He eased himself into the nearest chair, a worn but sturdy swivel back adjacent to one of the covered units; his back was to the wall, which just about summed up his present predicament. What was the time? His Rolex had been ripped off in the mêlée, he felt a tinge of loss, a fleeting moment before his mind moved on, purposeful, deliberate...what needed to happen? What cards did he have to play? He deliberately slowed his breathing, regaining control, shifting into textbook secret service. What resources did this dimly lit bolt-hole offer? His hand brushed the canvas draped over the nearest shelf to his left.

He slowly pulled off the dusty sheet being careful not to jar his bleeding shoulder...and forced a slight smile through his broken lips. Two or three coffee mugs, a bowl of sugar, a half opened packet of crostini ... and three bottles of scotch, only one of which had been opened! The Bond family motto came to mind, "Orbis non sufficit" (The world is not enough), well, at that moment, in that backstreet, back of nowhere shack, these bottles would do quite nicely. It was the medicinal sanctuary that, had he been a religious man, he would have prayed for. He'd had the vodka tonics, the Mouton Rothchild, the double kümmel, the martini's, the Hennessy's, the Rosé d'Anjou, the Löwenbrau, the Enzian, but he reserved a special place for whisky. It was a connection... to what, he wasn't sure, but it always felt like it held something of his past.... and here it was, in spades!

He grasped the open bottle, fumbled the screw top off and without pausing to sniff, took a slug, immediately regretting it. The liquid burned his lower lip as it passed over the cut mouth. What should have been an exquisite connection of blood and bourbon became something altogether less pleasant. Hot, sharp, brutal and unwelcoming, he swallowed a little and then spat out the remainder, an act that caused a spasm of pain to run through his body - IW Harper this certainly wasn't. Unpleasant memories violated his present, Fräulein Irma Bunt, heartless, humourless bitch, her viperous, blistered mouth mounted on its vindictive facade; then there was the stale, sweat laden Mexican capungo he'd grappled with and "left" in Mexico City; and finally, Rosa Klebb, the real deal, a compact coven of all things malign, the face of a reptilian pug that, at its most malevolent, would puncture itself with the sweetest of smiles (the mere thought of her exacerbated the bittersweet taste in his mouth). The only saving grace for this liquid was its fleeting nature, no sooner than it hit and seared the back of his eager throat, it was gone. 

Bond needed to rid himself of both the taste and his unwelcome guests. Things can't get any worse he thought as he reached for the second bottle. With a little more caution he nosed the liquid before tasting and despite the pain associated with any facial movements, he couldn't stop himself from smiling. This was more like it, this felt like ... promise! Sweet, soothing aromas emanated from the liquid, surrounding his head with some ethereal cushioning force. He took a small sip ... and it was as if he'd "fixed" himself; the sensation of calm and tranquility eased through his bruised body; the warmth of an open fire, smells redolent of ripe fruit and home baking, Christmas and chocolate cake, drew him out of the present, and he began to experience sensations that felt akin to some beneficent angelic ministration, as if they were sharing their love...he was pleasantly drifting, freewheeling with gay abandon into semi consciousness. Beautiful women from his past drifted in and out of focus. He remembered Pussy Galore's rebuttal of Jack Strap "....I wrote a song about you the other day....It's called "If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it all over you". He chuckled, and sprayed a little blood over hand and bottle. Then there was Ruby Windsor - he remembered how her hair smelled of new mown grass and her mouth of Pepsodent. Thoughts of Vesper Lynd, a woman he had truly loved and yet had dispatched to the remote recesses of his mind, entered his consciousness. He dwelled on their passion, their love making, their moments of solitude and finally on the "betrayal". Now Tracy entered his mind. He had actually married La Comtesse Teresa Di Vicenzo (Tracy) in what turned out to be another lie; another lie in a string of lies that acted as an ephemeral scaffold around which Bond had constructed his life. Who was he? Perhaps more importantly, what was he?

The pain had become a dull throbbing ache that only resurfaced when he shifted in the chair. He glanced over at the third bottle, curious, could it be anywhere near as good as the whisky he had in his hand? Thinking ahead, he had already determined to take the current one with him, but what was in the remaining bottle? He braved the stabbing shaft of pain, carefully placed the current bottle by his side and reached for the last of the three. The pain he endured in extracting the cork from bottle was more than compensated for by its contents. He could smell the sea, salt foam and oily harbour odours; there was a smokiness that brought to mind beach bonfires, he closed his eyes to take in sweet savoury scents. 

In anticipation, he put bottle to lips and once again he relocated to some distant past. He could hear the lap, chat and shush of Scottish waves, he could see the crabs scuttling away from probing fingers, he could feel the warmth of the virginal morning sun, he could smell lemons mingling with the smoke from his father’s cigarettes...his father! He had little or no memory of his father but, from somewhere, something stirred. Images of powerful hands, broad shoulders, laughter and stunning views across what seemed like vast stretches of water, aching childhood bones being scooped up in a terrifying but exciting and playful swoop, a moment of fear before the realisation that he was safe, held, safe and held. His pain was temporarily forgotten in the freedom and bliss of this glorious liquid.

His eyes were flickering, his breathing laboured, the bottle slipped from his fingers and smashed on the floor. He immediately snapped awake, alert, in pain once more, his hand automatically reaching for the PPK as his eyes looked to the door and his ears tuned in to the world outside the room. Had anyone heard? Had he been asleep? If so, for how long? The quality of the light in the room had altered and Bond noted that the full moon was now visible through the skylight, sending shafts of illumination into the now less murky room. If they came through the door he would have a good eye line on them, but nothing stirred, no one came, the noise of a lorry in the distance and the accelerated thrum of the cicadas were his only accompaniments. He relaxed a little, cursed himself for his slack behaviour, but was still both intrigued and slightly unnerved with regard to where his mind had wandered. By his reckoning he was about a mile from the hotel and safety. Saturday morning would bring a slew of people on to the streets providing him with the cover that he would need to blend in, to reach safe haven, to recover ...and then to return to finish the job.

(C) Dave Alcock 2015

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

For God, Karuizawa, and King George! A chip off the old cynic.......

 This piece has been taken two years to materialise on the blog. I've chipped away at it for some time but finally got some space to complete it. The occasion was the planning my Dad's funeral service - and the events are as described.  

The planning of a funeral, probably not an activity that one would choose freely, but an inevitable requirement of the dying process (or the processing of the dead). In hindsight, it was, for me, a piece of the "closure" jigsaw. However it fits into the scheme of things, that was the task of the day. I was in a two car convoy with my two sisters and two brothers in law, on the way to the church house to meet Father Gordon, the priest who would be conducting my dad's funeral, in order to determine the order of service.

One of the things I've learned over the last 18 months is that the process of working through the death of a family member is punctuated by moments of the surreal, moments where one seems to be on the outside looking in, viewing an event that isn't part of your own life, engaging in conversations that you've seen other people have but that aren't your conversations; it's like reading words from someone else's poorly written script. This was such an occasion and the feeling was amplified by the fact that I hadn't had such priestly conversations in relation to either my mum's or brother's recent funerals. The former was sensitively handled by my dad and sisters, and the latter was an equally moving, but altogether more secular affair organised by my brother's ex wife and daughter and his many friends in the North of England.


St Stephens church (our destination), a drab late 50's plain, brick built affair standing proud of its working class surroundings, was a huge achievement for the devout and bulging post war, baby boomer, congregation. I have only vague memories of the parish priest of my youth (Father Dillon); big, proud, and imposing are the only adjectives that spring to mind when trying to remember him and I'm sure that is a disservice to a man about whom my parents had nothing but good things to say.
With regard to the church itself, I feel that it's important to make a personal distinction between function and representation. It functioned, amongst other things, as a marker of births, deaths, and marriages, a congregation point for the faithful, an absolution point, a celebration point, a refuge, a place where (in theory) one could connect to like minds, and a place where one could experience a unique form of "quiet". At my most cynical I would see its function as a pound shop for washed souls, a provider of absolution from earthly responsibilities, but that would be somewhat unfair. In terms of representation it had deeper, more meaningful, more pervasive meanings for me. As a young boy it represented a conduit to my parents approval (and the approval of my wider Irish-Catholic community family), a place to assert myself as separate from most others of my age (as an altar boy), an extension of my everyday life, but a place about which I "felt" very little. As an adolescent it represented something altogether different, and over time it came to signify containment, confusion, and embarrassment. It was a palpable layer of the skin of my identity that I was determined to shed in order to emerge into a new and more exciting world as an independent thinker, an adult.....and now, some 40 years later, and a middle aged man, I returned.


I'd packed a sample of Karuizawa 1984 to give to the priest, Father Gordon, and was looking for a suitable opportunity to slip it into the conversation, not an easy task as I'm sure you can imagine! "Why on earth would you even consider taking whisky to such an occasion?" I can hear you ask...and it is a good question! On reflection, the answer is somewhat elusive and I don't really know for certain. However, there are two possibilities that occur to me, one located in my unconscious processes and one firmly grounded in conscious awareness. Firstly, I was in totally unknown territory, I didn't know what to expect, I didn't know how I would react, I had no understanding of the "tone" of the gathering, the protocols, the discourse....and yet I had in my pocket something about which I possessed high levels of confidence, something that I associated with pleasure, something that I could talk freely and passionately about to any willing listener, it was full of positive associations, like a touchstone grounding me to a less challenging, warmer place; simply feeling the small glass bottle in my pocket and knowing what it contained provided me with some semblance of certainty in what was an uncertain situation. Secondly, in my experience most Catholic priests like a drop of whisky and, despite the context, giving something of high quality to someone who will undoubtedly appreciate it is simply a nice thing to do. 

We were escorted into the reception room where matters of God and Earth are often clumsily and sometimes seamlessly fused together. It was a nondescript but unbelievably powerful room, a decompression chamber in which the outpourings of elation, euphoria, despair and despondency served to save supplicants from attacks of the emotional "bends". It was, perhaps intentionally, minimalist (after all, this was no one's permanent home); it was Spartan, there were the obligatory icons (Christ on the cross, the holy Trinity etc), a half empty bottle of sherry and a few standard whiskies located on a shabby dresser, stale wallpaper, non-descript blinds, it was clean and non-offensive, a blank canvas into which it was the job of the attendants to infuse meaning, (with the priest acting as conductor).

It was dominated by a big, bold, old, oak table; a solid, stark, immovable, and austere block of timber onto and into which decades of emotional effluvia had been poured; we seated ourselves around its looming presence. Over many years this table had been a silent witness to a full range of human suffering and joy and it was as if a patina of guilt and elation had formed on its knotted top as a result of both the physical and the emotional contact; forlorn palms resting on the unyielding surface, weary elbows supporting desperate, heavy heads, nervous forearms, excited knees brushing against other excited knees, and tears, an infinite variety of tears had rained on this table; flurries, leaks, drips, streams, reluctant, begrudging tears, grateful, too easy tears, joyful, effusive, uncontrolled tears, voluptuous, splash, mascara crisis tears. As we began to talk and I wondered whether more tears would fall, adding to the saline testaments of past encounters.

The conversation was as you might imagine, somewhat formulaic, that was until, in a not uncomfortable pause, I drew the sample from my pocket and asked the question "Do you like whisky Father?" Now many of you will have been in that position, when you've asked someone if they like whisky and “that thing” happens. Firstly, the change in the eyes, a modest dilation of the pupils followed in a split second by the elevated eyebrows and then, maybe a second or two later, the slight smile evolving into something much more expressive, that look of playful joy that transcends anything that was going on before the question was asked. Well, that happened, in the church house, in the austere room, around the oak table, where we were discussing my Dad's funeral service, and for the next 10 minutes the room seemed smaller as we talked whisky. It didn't seem irreverent, it certainly wasn't disrespectful, there were smiles from all in the room (albeit good natured smiles of incredulity from my sisters), and, had my dad been there, he would have laughed, indeed, I would have given all the whisky in the world to hear his laughter at that moment (and each day since). The usual whisky "icebreaker" questions were exchanged "Do you have a favourite?” “How long have you been passionate about it?', "Do you like peated whisky?" .....and so on. It transpired that Father Gordon had the whisky passion, had his favourites, and had a small collection of 50-60 bottles upstairs.

A few minutes into the whisky conversation Father Gordon asked "Do you like grain whisky?" I answered in the affirmative and could tell from his response (a slight furrow in his brow and a flattening of the affect) that he didn't feel the same way..."not really" he answered. My response was, perhaps, a little hasty, even defensive, "Why is that Father, are you a whisky snob?" "No, no, no" he said, "grain whisky gives me a terrible headache, I've tried to get on with it but I always end up with a bad head the next day....I don't drink it anymore".

Now, I'm no doctor, I spent the first 15 years of my working life as a nurse but not in a medical services context and so my knowledge of the validity of the connection that Father Gordon was making was minimal at best. Anyway, whilst it might not have seemed apparent, I still retained an awareness of the context of our meeting, and a discussion of the physiological "truth" in his attribution was not appropriate. I was about to suggest that we return to the purpose of the gathering when he reached purposefully behind his chair and opened a door in the dresser, recovering a large and sturdy black box, he had to use two hands to put it onto the table. "Have you seen this before? he asked, and slid the box along the table. I knew it was whisky, what else could it be?


It was a sturdy, matt black box with small gold panel on the front identifying the contents, I realised what I was looking at and gingerly opened the box; it was an unopened bottle of Johnny Walker King George V whisky. I took the bottle in my hands and admired the obvious care and attention that had gone into its production, the accompanying certificate, the considered wrapping, etc. I also knew that it retailed at between £400-500. 

"I've seen it advertised Father but it's out of my price range and I've never tried it"

"Have it" he said

"......sorry I didn't catch that Father"

"Have it.....please, I want it to go to someone who would appreciated it. It was given to me by a parishioner and I didn't have the heart to say no, please take it."

"....I can't Father, it's too much"

I wasn't feigning my reluctance, it was exactly as I said, it felt like too much of a gift; as if from nowhere, I was being offered a high priced (and probably high quality) whisky, in the most bizarre circumstances. It felt almost as though I'd engineered this, but how could I; this was totally out of the blue. For a few moments I felt a little embarrassed by the sheer extravagance of the offer. I also felt speechless, which, for those who know me will realise, is a very, very rare occurrence. Was he being serious? Did he mean "a sample" or had I heard him correctly? I looked up from the whisky and saw the look of genuine sincerity in the priest’s eyes, he meant it, to him this was a gift, not an act, not some "hair shirt Catholicism", it was a gift and I sensed a genuine pleasure in the act of giving. I was tearful but refrained from sharing my tears with those present (or the table), and at that moment a shard of cynicism was gently removed from my side, there was no gasp, no outpouring, it wasn't an epiphany, it was a brief moment of connection that generated such a range of emotions, the most powerful one being humility.

There was a moment of quiet, a few seconds to digest what had just happened, before returning to the matter of the hymns and psalms that would mark my Dad’s passing. We returned to Dad's house and for the rest of the evening I inhabited a somewhat creative and reflective place that enabled me to construct a short tweet sized communiqué that I later extended into a poem, read at my dad’s funeral.

the tweet....

And so, your blue, loved eyes have gone,
And each word caught in my clumsy throat,
Has less meaning in this moment.

.......goodbye dad

Postscript: At the wake after my dad's funeral a couple of weeks later, I gave a selection of "world whisky" samples and a bottle of 21yo cask strength Wine Society Mortlach to Father Gordon. He seemed genuinely excited by the gifts, we had a brief chat at the bar before he had to resume his duties, leaving to visit some of his parishioners.


Johnnie Walker King George V - brief tasting notes

Nose - Malty digestive biscuits, some citrus notes (oranges), toffee apples, a creamy smokiness (there's some Port Ellen in the blend), well-balanced oak notes.
Palate - Fruity, malty, slight peatiness fused with some maritime influences, some lovely leathery "old bookshop" notes. A lovely whisky indeed!
Finish - On one level it has a medium-long finish but on another level, well, I guess for me there is no finish to this whisky. It is a dram that I will savour once a year in memory of my Dad....I reckon I've got enough left in the bottle for it to outlast me...

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The price of everything...and the value of....

I'm torn ..... writing this piece has, at times, felt like carrying out a DIY appendectomy without an anaesthetic. I have experienced feelings of evangelical delight, hypocritical guilt, bemusement and befuddlement, insight and obfuscation in equal measure. It all stems from a consideration of "the tasting note". How has it come about that many tasting notes now cause me a soupçon of irritation? Why is it that, when connecting and enjoying time with the whisky fabric on Facebook and Twitter, I find myself having to skip past a seemingly endless litany of "reviews" that appear to be no more than a set of tasting notes with a sentence or two containing an opinion as a finale? Why do I wince ever so slightly when I see yet another reference to some bizarre fruitery that no one (other than the reviewer) has ever heard of ("I'm getting hints of Shangrilarian Dodo grape"). Have I become that jaded, that pompous, that cynical......a thing that I used to mock as a younger man - the curmudgeonly old fart! (Q. Is "Bah Humbug" a tasting note?).

Please don't get me wrong, I come to praise tasting notes, not to bury them. They are an essential part of the whisky journey, they are invaluable, and are more than just an entry point into the experience of whisky. The journey from casual imbiber to a more considered shareholder in the whisky experience and by default, the whisky community, begins for many with the tasting note. They are part of the language of whisky, and as we know, the success and flourishing of any community is founded on a shared language. How else can one enter the community without having an understanding of what it is that you are tasting and a mechanism for conveying that understanding to others? How can you differentiate one whisky from another without grasping the essentials of taste and smell? If the language of the whisky community is, to a great extent, the language of the tasting note, then who would not want to possess a degree of fluency in it? ....and yet... is that it? I think not. There is more to the experience than this ever expanding lexicon of concrete descriptors. Where does the broader, more meaningful “experience" of whisky fit into the journey? Are we resting contentedly on a merry-go-round of colourful, jaunty descriptors, a carousel of flavour words, a cornucopia of clever (and sometimes clumsy) whisky "markers", on some Escheresque rotunda? Or is there room for exploration, sight-seeing, stepping off the ride and flexing the creative muscles that sit, sometimes undiscovered or dormant, in all of us?

As I see it, the challenges in relation to tasting notes stem from 3 different sources, namely volume, quality and scope. It is hardly surprising that, given the explosion of global interest in whisky at all levels, a vast increase in written whisky traffic has taken place. There are more blogs & Twitter accounts with a focus on whisky than ever before and the number is growing on a daily basis. Make no mistake, this is a valued development; if you’ve not done so already, get “out there” and express yourself. There are some writers who poor scorn on the increasing number of “opinions” being voiced over the internet and to those people I say “fuck off, we live in a democracy. If you’re concerned that they’re a threat to you in some way then up your game” The reality is that there are more and more opportunities to make meaningful connections inhabiting a world beyond politics, gender, and class. The whisky fabric, this global coalescence of like minded whisky passionistas, willing to listen, willing to share, willing to teach and learn, is strengthening on a daily basis.

But how do we make sense of the sheer volume of tasting guidance on offer? This is something that challenged and perplexed me for some time. At a personal level, I have a small list of whisky reviewers whose opinions and tastes I can relate to, whose views I have come to respect over the years, and whose writings I will seek out when I'm in need of a little guidance. Even then, I may not read the notes but I am comfortable placing a degree of trust in the person behind the tasting notes (this can often carry more weight than how he or she might describe the whiskies). My position is that I simply don't have the time read that many "reviews".

I would apply some of the points made in the previous category to the issue of quality. It is clear that there are many whisky drinkers who have developed an expertise in flavour identification, I love hearing them dissect a whisky in terms of its constituent sensual delights. Over the years my understanding and enjoyment of whisky has benefitted from their sage guidance, and I have become more confident as a result of their endeavours. However, if, in the moment of nosing/tasting a whisky, someone says they are getting hints of pineapple for example, when others don't, who is anyone to say they're wrong? One of the many beauties of whisky is its egalitarian nature, the fact that any drinker can, and should, feel free to venture their opinion of it, and the fact that each sip of whisky that is taken is an experience that is unique to the “sippee” (I know it’s not a word but I couldn’t resist!). Yes, there are similarities, yes, there are connections, and yes, there are taste parameters round which most whisky drinkers would concur, but at the bottom of the glass, it’s the drinker’s prerogative to make of it what they will. One of the functions of the guide is to instil a degree of confidence in the drinker in order that they feel able to express their opinions.

For me, one of the most challenging issues relates to the scope of tasting notes. In their most basic form, they tell us little or nothing about our broader experiences of the whisky. They offer the opportunity to locate the whisky in terms of our general likes and dislikes, (we may know that we like sherried whiskies or heavily peated drams), we may get to the position where we can make reasonably educated guesses in terms of the geography of the whisky (e.g. This is a Speyside dram), but what about the feelings the whisky evokes, the memories that percolate through to our consciousness, the connections with history, with nature, and with our fellow drinkers; there is spirit within the spirit.

I know that there are those who are, to say the least, sceptical of the more prosaic tasting notes, those descriptors that veer away from the concrete and into the experiential. There are those (who I might guardedly call "whisky technicians") who take a reductionist perspective and who are intent on demonstrating their acumen and status within the whisky community by trying to pin the whisky down to a very specific set of tasting markers. Then there are those who "lose themselves" in the whisky, who open up the full and glorious sensory and cognitive experience, who steep themselves in the enjoyment of this, the most glorious of liquids. I firmly believe that, on a continuum of tasting notes, from the "literal" at one end, to the "esoteric" at the other, there is room to be playful, to occupy a middle ground where we can be creative, where we can acknowledge the impact of the whisky on our imaginative juices, where we can surrender to the experience as opposed to treating it as if it were some sort of test or marker in our level of credibility, in essence, where we can have fun!

I will leave you with an example of a tasting note I offered during a recent Tweet tasting which I'm sure it will perplex, amuse & irritate many readers. However, it's a playful example of my response to a dram that, many months later, still captures very clearly for me, my experience of it at that moment.......and I can still taste it!

             "I'm in a tanning factory (leather not UV), smoking cigars whilst crushing chocolate covered raisins with a plum"

NB This is a slightly extended piece that was originally written for Whisky Quarterly Magazine (Issue 2). It will be shortly be available as a free download.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Balblair - The pride & the passion: Part 3

Well, I'd seen it on TV. Having enjoyed "The Angel's Share" I knew that various locations had been employed in creating Loach's enjoyable whisky romp (e.g. Glengoyne, Deanston), and here we were, at Balblair. 

Nestling in a dip, surrounded by gentle, undulating hills, pocked with sheep, this picture book distillery sits next to a railway line like a non animated Thomas the Tank engine set. I can see it now, the uncensored episode "Thomas takes in a dram or two" in which Thomas, after overindulging in one of Balblair's many wonderful expressions, gets into a ruck with the Fat Controller and finds solace (and his latent sexuality) in the pistons and nutty slack of Hiro, the old Oliver Island (Japanese style) tender engine. What an episode!

One of the first things that struck me as our small group gathered in the minimalist reception area was the sense of family that pervaded the atmosphere. It's difficult to pin down how or where that feeling emanates from; it could be the smiles on the faces of the staff, the playful quality of their voices, their relaxed, enthusiastic manner, or the fact that there is, literally, a strong family connection embedded in the personnel at Balblair. Whatever the underpinning reason, it made for a welcoming beginning to our exploration of all things Balblair. 

...and then there was John MacDonald! The genial, agreeable master distiller had a whisky twinkle in his eye from the moment we met. I'll be expanding on my views of distillery personnel later but suffice it to say that John affirmed and strengthened my overwhelmingly positive perceptions of distillery staff that I've met. He was interesting and interested in equal measures, honestly sharing his knowledge and passion with our band of eager enthusiasts. We talked yeasts and fermentation times, crops and organics, histories and futures before enjoying some quality local produce (foodstuff not liquid).

The tasting & the expressions.

The evening was set aside for a tweet tasting from the distillery but before it began John popped out and returned with a small bottle of Amber liquid that he asked us to try as he was interested in our views. How exciting, a mystery dram, with no hints as to age or origin, a small sample was poured into each of our Glencairns. I was sat opposite John Ross (@jgr141 - top bloke & shift operator at Balblair), and in hindsight I should have thought it a little suspicious that, when the small bottle was passed round, he smiled and declined to pour himself a drop stating that he'd already tasted it. Anyway, we began to nose and taste, I was getting a big hit of salt and hints of fruit, a small sip confirmed the, shall we say, "unusual" notes emanating from the glass. Unusual but to me, not completely unpleasant, it did have one or two redeeming qualities. This view wasn't shared by one of our esteemed group who, after a small sip, sprayed the room with the contents of his mouth mixed in with the words "What the fuck is that?!" Well, the liquid in question was "Fishky" - a whisky matured in a fish barrel (I was right with the salty notes!). It was an interesting detour & in hindsight, the whisky twinkle never left John MacDonald's eyes....

It is not my habit to take notes during a tasting of this nature so the following brief account was kindly provided by fellow traveller, Chris Hoban of Edinburgh whisky fame (Cheers Chris) Edinburgh Whisky Blog

We started off by tasting 3 cask samples from the 2000 vintage to see the breadth of flavour Balblair have across one year. Each of the casks showed the spirit in a different light. Cask 1350 showed the classic Balblair in an ex Bourbon cask (tropical fruit, marsipan, lemon cheesecake and a mineral note) Cask 0191 showed more spice, ginger, orange and a bit of smoke, as the cask used to contain peaty whisky and Cask 1345 showed lovely sherry, Christmas cake notes and rum raisin notes. Each one showed fruity notes, a mineral note and a general freshness, but in different ways. We also tried the Balblair current new make which was malty and very fruity. It reminded me of the tour earlier, particularly smelling the washbacks (such a fruity fermentation, it was almost like an American IPA), then we tried some 1960′s Balblair new make which had fennel notes, oily notes, tangerine, spice, vegetal notes and a brine. Quite a change in style from today’s new spirit. 

What a fine selection of expressions they were!

Whisky in the "schema" of things.

By and large we navigate our way through life with the aid of schemas that we have constructed on the basis of how we expect things to be. 
A schema is the basic building block of intelligent behaviour, a form of organizing information that we use to interpret the things we see, hear, smell, and touch (Singer & Revenson, 1997).When a waiter approaches us in a restaurant we don't immediately think "who's this guy and why is he sticking a list of food into my hands? We have a schema of how waiters behave. When we take a taxi in a busy metropolis we do not generally ask the question "Does he/she know where they are going?" He/she is the taxi driver and we expect them to fulfil our expectations of what a taxi driver does - i.e. Get us to our destination in the best time by the shortest possible route. I can hear you shouting "If only!" And I can attest to some exceptions to this, the most vivid for me being the taxi journey from a Glenfiddich launch event a couple of years back, to Paddington station which culminated in the taxi driver doing a cost benefit analysis in relation to either accepting what I was offering for the journey (£15 less than he was asking) or calling the police (and the time that would take to "deal with" the situation). Whilst this was not a typical experience it allowed me to expand my "taxi driver" schema by including the fact that a minority of them might be dodgy geezers!

John MacDonald & Mark Gillespie 

Consider your ever expanding schema of “whisky/whiskey”. Many years ago it could possibly have been “brown liquid that gets me drunk”, it might have evolved into “well I know there’s whisky and bourbon”, and on to “blends and malts”, and then “well there are Speyside whiskies and Islay whiskies and so on... Many of you reading this will have an extensive whisky schema (that continues to expand in response to innovation and experience). Our schemas expand on the basis of the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) nuances that we encounter. Not every waiter behaves in the same way, nor do all taxi drivers but they still fit into our general schemas of "waiter" & "taxi driver". 

When I think of my interactions with the distillery personnel I have encountered I cannot help but feel somewhat wistful. I'm not a seasoned veteran of distillery travel and yet there is a pattern emerging in relation to the people that I have had the pleasure of meeting during such visits. This may come across as an homage, maybe even a little sycophantic but that is not the is written with respect for the work done by the artisans, the custodians, the whisky men and women on whose watch great whiskies are conceived and nurtured; those many individuals who have a role not only in keeping the spirit alive, but in nurturing it, keeping the momentum, empowering the spirit within the spirit. Not just the master blenders and distillery managers but all of the distillery staff.

What is my schema of "distillery personnel"? Well, to date, it's extremely positive. It's as if they inhabit a world free from capitalist clutter. Clearly this is not the case, these are businesses, organisations that operate on the basis of profit and loss, and whose existence is dependent on market forces. However, there are certain characteristics that set them apart from mere business men and women or factory workers. There is an absence of cynicism and artifice (in its negative connotation). There is a deference in relation to the slumbering liquid, a sense of respect that falls short of reverence...but only just! There is good humour, it's almost as if they are in a constant state of pleasant surprise at the rise and rise of "their" glorious liquid. There is a humility that hints at an understanding of their role as custodians of a valued heritage and their place within a long tradition of artisanal creativity; a tradition spanning families, villages, towns, cities, countries and now sitting proudly within a global context. They 
convey a sense of calm and peace in an environment where a focus on the clock is of the utmost importance. It's as if they have a different relationship with time than other mortals; as if the organic nature of the process wields some ethereal cosmic grip on their psyche. They never appear rushed but simply "in time" with their surroundings.

...and then there's the passion! Their passion permeates the distillery air, enveloping all those that encounter it. Now if you were to ask me which I prefer, someone with an extensive knowledge or someone with passion, I would always choose the latter. Knowledge is something that's acquired relatively easily, you watch, you listen, you read, and you remember. Passion on the other hand, has much deeper roots, it taps into the very essence of who we are, it's located beyond the surface, beyond memory and recall, and it connects us to those things about which we are passionate in a way that simply "knowing" about them cannot. The combination of passion and knowledge is about as infectious as it gets.

Those distillery staff that I have met to date are not simply inhabiting the land on which they toil, they are of the land, steeped in, cured in, matured in and married to that all embracing environment in which the glorious liquid is produced.

NB. A romanticised account, quite possibly, fanciful, I think not. I'm sure these guys have their "off days" (as do we all), but I've not encountered one yet....and what's wrong with a bit of romance anyway!