Saturday, 4 February 2017

An appreciation of the "whisky tree"


They have existed for millennia, stoic, wordless yet
whispering witnesses to the evolution of humankind; non-judgemental, beneficent donors breathing out in order that we may breathe in. We bequeath them with biblical names, instilling in them some mystical powers that hint at reverence and respect for the aged, all knowing, and prophetic monoliths. The Joshua tree (a messenger from the great Mojave), Methuselah (a 5000 year old bristle cone pine tree secreted in California's White Mountains), the Judas tree (killer of both apostle and bee), the tree of life....and so on. We treat them with both respect and disdain in equal measure, burning and burnishing, cutting and caressing; in many ways, we see them in terms of what they might become and not for what they are. 

From a "tree as lumber" perspective - we might see a chair, a table, a door, something functional. From a "tree as art" perspective, what we might view as beautiful is almost limitless - altarpieces from the Gothic era, Aboriginal and African tribal art, baroque woodcarvings, Islamic pulpits; artists working in various mediums have engaged with wood as their artistic muse to wondrous effect (see Gaugin, Moore, Hepworth etc). 

The Blood Altar

Trees connect us to ourselves, to each other, to our immediate surroundings, and to the earth at a global level; is this not a thing of beauty? There is not enough space in this piece to extol the many and varied virtues of trees in general - the focus of this piece is on one particular tree. But before we let our minds stroke the fine grains of this most venerable beauty, I'd like you to consider the following question. What relationship do you have with wood? Before you dismiss the question I'd just like to say that, unless you inhabit a soulless and plasticated world, you do have a relationship with it, you might not realise it, you might never have thought about it although if you are whisky lover, you will probably have considered its place within your whisky experiences. 

Pause for a moment and consider how often you come into contact with wood on a daily basis. What are the different forms, the different structures, the varied uses, and the role that it plays? It could be the table you eat off, the chair you sit on, the doors that you open; it can support and resist, it's the handle on your vintage walking stick, the beam that spans your roof; it can shelter and warm, it's your cabin getaway and your moonlight it not a beautiful thing? There are those purists who maintain that for an object to be considered through an aesthetic lens, it simply has to "be" and not to function. I disagree entirely.....trees have form, function, history, and beauty.

          ...and then there was oak:
 "Live thy life, young and old, bright in spring, living gold" (Tennyson "The Oak)

The Wilberforce Oak

The place of oak in British history is well documented...but its history goes back much further than that. Herodotus, (484-425BC), widely regarded as the father of history, refers to the oak in his recounting of the foundation of Dodona (an ancient Greek oracle overshadowed by its more famous namesake, Delphi), the Romans adorned themselves with crowns fashioned with oak leaves when celebrating their many victories, and so on. Closer to home, whether based in romance or reality, there is a forest of examples of the role of oak in our evolution as a group of nations. The Wilberforce Oak - said to be the place where, in 1787, William Wilberforce outlined his strategy for the abolition of the slave trade, to Prime Minister William Pitt; the Pontfadog Oak, where Owain Gwynedd stood alongside his welsh army in 1165, preparing to face Henry II's incursive forces; the Boscabel Oak, the boughs of which shielded King Charles II following his                                                                             final defeat at Worcester in 1651. ....and then there was Robin Hood!

Such events are now located to a dim and increasingly distant past. For many people, understandably, oak has no role in their lives, for many, it is an insignificance, but for certain groups, it continues to have importance and within the whisky community its importance has never been more acute.

The cask: form, function and representation (or "how I learned to love the barrel")

Can a whisky cask be a thing of beauty? This is a tough one and requires a rudimentary understanding of the nature of beauty. I'm playing a little fast and loose with the philosophy of aesthetics here but I'm going to explore this question in relation to three dimensions: those of form, function and representation.

In terms of form, whilst there is some variation in size and shape of cask, the form is relatively standard. If you like the convex shape, the discoloured metal banding, the scruffy matting around the bung then you're off to a good start! Appreciation becomes more complex when we explore function and representation. 

At its simplest, the cask functions as a receptacle for the liquid, nothing more, nothing less...but it isn't simple is it? The cask functions as instigator of chemistry and alchemy, it is the silent partner to the high achiever, a mentor to the novice, it rests in the dunnage whilst the budding star within hones its lines, develops its character before blossoming into the world as "flower" not "weed".

It is an exploration of "representation" that unveils the true beauty of the cask. As an object, the cask is clearly an example of craftsmanship and if craftsmanship can be viewed as the transfiguration of material through skilful union of grace and harmony, with function, then the cask fits the bill. 

The craftsman, in this instance, the cooper, has transformed a thing of beauty, into a thing of utility that then exudes other qualities, creating life from what was once alive and revealing beauty in what was masked. The cask has been fashioned by the cooper using both power and finesse and each cask represents the culmination of years of training and tradition, the passing on of skills from father to son, and family to family.

It also represents our relationship with nature; the command and companionship that we have with our surroundings. We exert our command of nature by felling these giants and yet we must be mindful of the need for regeneration, renewal, and sustainability. It would be fair to say that the growth within the whisky market caught even the most seasoned of the whisky community by surprise and therefore, attention to sustainability has lagged a little. However, as one who has a firm belief in the inherent goodness of humankind, and perhaps more pertinently, someone who recognises that there is good future business in trading wood, I am confident that oak will not become an endangered genus.

On a more romantic note, the cask represents a glimpse into both the past and the future. Each cask is a distillation of time, a snapshot of a world that was. What was I doing when, on the 23rd October 1958, my Glen Grant new make was entering the cask? Well, the reality is that I was being born! As I was entering the world, the liquid was entering its oak cocoon where it would remain for the next 50 plus years. Casks speak of the past whilst holding the secrets of the future. For those fortunate enough to own a cask and to be able to take periodic samples from it, the cask (and whisky within) offer insights into future possibilities. How is the whisky evolving, what direction is it taking, when might it reach its peak? Anticipation can be a really positive experience and casks offer that experience in generous measures.

Every oak cask is unique, every grain of the oak within each cask is a ripple in time, and every cask is a guardian of that most complex and enjoyable of liquids. They are indeed things of beauty.

This piece was first published in Whisky Quarterly magazine.