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 soup├žon 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!

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Cruising in the cradle of Pulteney: Part 2

Day 2 & 3: The boat trip, Old Pulteney, and the rock pools at John O'Groats

Day 2 began with a relatively early morning start, a taxi ride through heavy rain to Edinburgh airport, and a short flight to Wick. Connections and re connections were being made at all points North. At the airport, a reconnection with Jamie Milne (@DramblerJm), a reconnection with some sample drams (e.g. Balblair 04) and new connections were forged - there was a video production team present, tasked with putting together a promo for the Whisky Shop (reference supplied later), it was great to meet Andy Gemmell (@andydrink) & Niall Webster (@MrWebsterFilm). There was also a chance and all too brief meeting with Rachel Barrie (@theladyblender) who was en route to London. An uneventful flight, some interesting whisky related conversation, a reconnection with Steve Prentice (@steveprentice) who was joining us for the day, and a short drive to Old Pulteney distillery. 

Before the tour and tasting we were privileged to experience another connection, that between the land, the sea, history and whisky. Having been squeezed, prodded and poked into suitable waterproof gear, we sat, two by two, on a high powered speedboat (a 10m RIB - Rigid Inflatable Boat), and were taken out to sea as part of the Caithness Seacoast experience (if you get the it!).   

@samanthapeter @WhiskyCast @andydrink  @alembic_tweets @whiskydiscovery Pete Powell @DramblerJM @whiskyrepublic  @chrishoban @MrWebsterFilm @steveprentice 

This wasn't a random time filler but was an opportunity to make a connection between some of the whiskies we would be tasting and the elemental/human forces that both influence and drive whisky production at Old Pulteney, past, present ...and future. The swaggering sea and crafty currents, the sheer cliff faces, an undercurrent of sly rocks ready to ambush, salt spray, the coastal architecture, echoes of history, punctuated by the calls of herring gull, cormorant, kitiwake, and gannet, all served to create a sense that we were cruising in the cradle of Pulteney.

...and so to the whisky! We were in the privileged company of Malcolm Waring, the distillery manager, genial, passionate and knowledgeable about not only the liquid, but the bricks and mortar, the copper and oak, the very bones of Old Pulteney. There is something very special about the connections between time, place and dram. Tasting a selection of quality Old Pulteney drams in the place where they were created, with sea salt in our clothes, with their creator on hand to guide us, was one of those special moments.


We were treated to 5 single malts, the 12, 17, 21, 35yo, and the peated cask1990. On occasions such as this, it's not my inclination to take notes, my inclination is to "savour the experience". Having said that, the core Old Pulteney elements were all present to a greater or lesser degree, the intoxicating marriage of salt and sweet, the floral, nutty, vanilla notes of the 12, added hints of menthol and oak in the 17, the "boom" of the 21 with its explosion in a confectionary shop notes, all "cakes in the oven, jams on the boil, and salted caramels", the subtle, undeniable beauty of the 35 (think - relaxing in a worn, wingback chair in front of a blazing log fire, the air infused with exotic fruit, pine and menthol, offering extended moments of reflection), and finally the subtle peat notes of the 1990, hints of last night's fire as you indulge in an early morning chocolate. What a range! These were "dangerous" whiskies, if left to my own devices I would have spent more time with them,                             gradually curling up and drowning in a pool of my own reflections....

                   The video shot over the few days at Old Pulteney can be seen here: Old Pulteney distillery visit

After a quality meal in Wick, we were driven to our overnight accommodation. In the dark, there was little one could make of the surroundings suffice to say that the noise of wave on rock betrayed our proximity to the sea. As you might expect after another day immersed in all things whisky, our spirits were high, conversation flowed, whisky flowed, anecdotes were shared, stories slipped from eager mouths, and laughter became the music of the evening....that was until one of our group recalled a tweet exchange from a few weeks back in which I shared my amusement at the fact that an ex band member had posted video footage of my band from 20+ years ago on YouTube. What happened next was no surprise, a frantic fumbling for remotes, an assessment of the TV's wifi credibility, and lo, the surreal moment when a 50 something man is coerced (good humouredly it must be said) to sit next to a large screen TV whilst his much younger self ponces about on stage (if you're wondering, I'm the singer with the plait!). A younger version of me!

But that wasn't the only connection to past musical adventure. A quietly whispered, off the cuff comment from Andy Gemmell about the fact that he too was once in a music vid in the eighties brought out the feverish vulture in our by now bonhomie blessed group. More fumblings, more Youtubing and there it was. But which one was Andy? I'm not going to give it away that easily but here's a hint; if you cross Charlie Carole with Barry McGuigan you'll be on the right track. The Unsinkable Boxer

The following morning, 06.45, a solitary beach stroll in the clear, morning air, one of those meditative experiences that, unless some clumsy attempt is made to capture
it, will fade over time until it is lost forever, a very personal and meaningful connection for me....the rock pool. 

                                                                Day 3: The rock pool at John O' Groats.

 The slap and shush of murmuring seas, sure as lighthouse clocks, tick tocking on rocks festooned with discarded film reel kelp fronds. An orchestra of gulls, fleet and flocking, wearing their velocity like plumed morning dress, diving, inflicting transient holes into the whaleback swell. All rush, counterpoint, and whirlwind around the silent, pale silent, cathedral silent, deep silent rock pools. I am drawn to the limpet lined, limpid, morning light pools. Each step on the unpredictable rock and sea draws years from my bones and I become more sure-footed, angling my feet to accomodate the clint and gryke, crag and shear of the ancient rock. I'm losing my present, being usurped by the child, and I kneel before the pool, peering into the kalaidoscope clear, miniature, mirafiori cosmos, seeing in that mirror not the ageing man, but a boy....still....wide eyed in the spirit level water, a reflection of childhood long passed but now                                                                               thrust into the present, as powerful as mischief, as excited as wrapping paper, and as innocent                                                                           as a lion cub. 

Thrusting my hands into that telling water, cold as a baptism, turning rocks in that feverish search for crab and claw, an exquisite mingling of fear and excitement is fixed through my veins. The very act of connecting flesh and water serves to complete some magical temporal circuitry and I am sensing my childhood, "summer holiday" self, all short trousers and shrieks, smiles and sun lotion, bruises and discoveries, my childhood self, all shortness of breath, running and eagerness, fish & chips, my childhood self, fragile and reckless, all love and hate, all or nothing, all or nothing, all....or nothing, my childhood...... cut me and I will bleed innocence.

And so, there, at the bay of some immense horizon, beside this profound pool, a miracle of light and liquid, thrown from a slumbering, unfathomed leviathan, revealed in a twice daily act of anarchic, lunar creativity, I am father, man, boy and babe ...for a few glorious moments. 
(c) Alcock 2015


                                                                                                 Next post.....and then on to Balblair!