I want to start this blog post by warning you that it is really too long to be a blog-post. It is also full of amateur theorizing and the action fizzles out a little in the middle. So if you have a meeting to get to or a class to attend, feel free to skip around. Otherwise, here it is…
Printed on the cover of my journal- in bold white against the diary’s fire engine red- is the moniker “Keep Calm and Carry On”, a slogan originally intended to prop up British morale during World War II. While this phrase remains my motto, the winds of panic recently filled my sails, casting me to the shores of Scotland, down the English Isle to London, and finally to Ireland (where I have at last found the time to update my blog). I will explain why I am in Ireland (instead of Ghana) in another post, but first, how and why did I venture back to the UK? The gale began when my friend asked me how I was managing the 90 day limitation for staying in EU countries under the Schengen Agreement. I deftly countered with “huh?” and “Schengen what-now?” If I still wanted to attend the Terra Madre conference in Italy, I had one week to leave France. After five weeks at the vineyard, I set off early Monday morning for sunny Edinburgh, (fermenting expert).
This is how I found myself in one of the most hauntingly beautiful cities in the world with but one obligation: to seek out and explore the fermented food which most embodies Scottish identity. I was looking for a food or beverage whose history was inextricably intertwined with that of the Scottish people and the place itself, something ancient and indigenous, but also a substance which now bears the markings of scientific, technological and industrial innovations. After all, Scotland has had a disproportionate effect on the development of industry and science in the west. From Adam Smith to David Hume (and for those who have studied physics: Maxwell, Watt, and Kelvin) Scotland has been the home to paradigm exploding economists, philosophers, scientists, and some darn good poets. Considering these criteria what else could suffice but the Water of Life itself: Whiskey.
Whiskey, the fluid fire which loosens the screws constricting body and mind, might not be directly responsible for such free thinking as Hume or Adams, but as Robbie Burns (lived in Edinburgh) once put it “Freedom and Whisky gang thegither”. “Not so fast”, you might say, whiskey in Scotland is no revolutionary force, it is a moral failing, it has been the nurse and curse of an oppressed people, it has long cushioned a political-economic order which both fails the vast majority while enabling the privileged few! Or, you might believe, as David Daiches (also lived in Edinburgh) has articulated "The proper drinking of Scotch whisky is more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed."(1969). Whiskey, like so many other fermented foods, opens possibilities in human thought and action which force us to pose moral questions, to negotiate those distinctions and contradictions which lie at the heart of modern life: tradition versus innovation, power versus sovereignty, enlightenment versus intoxication.
With such heady thoughts in mind, I wandered up the street from my hostel and accidentally struck gold when I stumbled into The Scotch Whiskey Experience. More than a sweet band name, this ‘experience’ is really an adult Disney World, mixed with a splash of museum. It begins with something like the Scottish version of the tea-cup ride, only replace the tea cups with barrels. Now, cut away one half of the barrel to allow the rider a view of a holographic ghost (of a fictional 18th century distiller) which guides you as you spin through gigantic models of tanks and casks, explaining the process of whiskey making from malting to fermenting to distilling to aging. Following this harrowing adventure, the SW Experience includes an informational video complete with complimentary scratch and sniff comparison sheets that allow you to smell the different aroma profiles for each of the four different whiskey regions in Scotland. Then pick one you’d like to try and sip it while perusing the largest collection of Scotch Whiskey in the world (purchased from a Brazilian pharmaceutical CEO, this is a pretty remarkable collection). Some interesting tidbits:
Every second some 39 bottles of Scotch Whiskey are sold around the world.
Whiskey brands often mix many different types of single malt scotches to create a unique and balanced “blended” whiskey. Like wine or cheese, single malt’s have different flavors every year and in order to maintain a consistent taste profile for the blend, distilleries have to employ a master blender. It takes upwards of 15 years to become a true master blender, and if a company employs more than one their proprietary knowledge is so great that they are often not allowed to travel together.
Adding water to whiskey helps release aroma, and when professional judges taste whiskey they water it down to 20% abv.
The ‘experience’ was similar to my wine tasting class in Bordeaux, combining history and attention to developing a discerning palate. But, by the end of the tour I was left with the feeling that I had been suckered again. This was clearly a slick production-the brainchild of a marketing genius- an ‘experience’ deserving of the travelers favorite problematic disparagement “inauthentic”. I later rethought my position, but at the time I was determined to get underneath what I saw as the tourist-varnish, so I diligently pursued a conversation with the bartender (an actual whiskey fan) who gave me a tip “you want to see a distillery? Head up to Edradour in Pitlochery”. So early the next morning I boarded the train bound for the highland hills where I expected the ‘real’ Scotch Whiskey experience to be waiting.
From the railway station in Pitlochery, the Edradour distillery is a two mile hike. The path winds along wooded lanes and fields dotted with the occasional grazing sheep. That morning the fog rolled out of the valley and the sun’s rays pierced the receding tide of downy fleece, offering glimpses of the towering mountains girding the valley below. The distillery itself is charming. Located in the same farmhouse facilities it started in over 150 years ago, it is the smallest distillery in Scotland and still only makes 12 barrels a week (it makes in a year what most distilleries make in a week). The collection of houses straddles a burbling brook and the distinctive smell of biscuits (from the fermenting yeasts of course) wafted across the grounds on a light autumn breeze. I think I was even humming as I approached the tour guide.
The tour began with a two minute documentary video and thirty seconds in I felt my quest for an ‘authentic’ whiskey experience slip away. A syrupy montage of taster’s choice moments, afternoon sunsets, soothing voice over narrative, and lots of shots of men in overalls, this piece of propaganda (which I have discovered to be ubiquitous on distillery tours) struck me as so bluntly nostalgic that even Martha Stewart would have puked. Over 100,000 visitors pass through Edradour a year, and it shows. From the beautifully redone tasting room with some of the best graphically designed informational posters I have ever seen, to the spacious gift shop (where the tour finishes of course), this place knew its market and knew how to sell. I was disappointed at first, but as I read through the panels in the tasting room a new concept dawned on me. I was not experiencing the ‘varnish’ hiding a true or authentic age old tradition, I was actually encountering the very heart of the process by which traditions are created, interpreted, re-interpreted and sustained. Furthermore, these trappings of the advertising world were not covering up the real meaning of whiskey for the Scottish people, as if this were a static and essential relation, no what I had here was the refined techniques of cultural transmission by which communities continuously recreate and re-affirm the meaning of an artifact. Perhaps I was even participating in the making of meaning itself!
Looking back with new perspective, I thought how the video at the beginning of the tour communicated more than just nostalgia. The combination of images, music, and narrative assured the viewer (whether successful or not is another question) that despite changes in brewing, distilling and distributing technology, the timeless quality of distilling whiskey was ensured by the continuity of practices and values with those of the good old days. One look at the old copper stills, the ancient Oregon pine washbacks, and the medieval barns housing the distillery confirms this assertion. However, this claim becomes problematic considering that the distillery was once owned by Pernod Ricard (one of the largest alcoholic beverage companies in the world) and only recently bought by an independent bottler in 2002. In all respects the business is fairly modern, most strikingly so in a business plan which emphasizes the contemporary commitment to a diverse array of value added products. Thus, claims for authenticity are necessary to set this small producer apart, and these claims are anchored on one hand by tradition and on the other by the careful selection of scientific explanation.
Nowhere was this message more skillfully crafted than in the informational panels lining the walls of the tasting room. With titles like “Why Whiskey Tastes Like it Does” and “Single Malts-The Tasting and Sensory Experience” these aesthetically stunning posters appropriated science and tradition, melding them into coherent arguments for quality and resolving (or eliding) the tensions I just mentioned. For example, they explain how the surface area of the copper still impacts flavor by acting as a catalyst in certain chemical reactions, precipitating certain flavor/aroma compounds from the boiling wort. Details were glossed over for brevities sake but exact measures were included and scientific names/terms of art from organic chemistry (such as ester, ketone, and aldehydes) littered the prose. My favorite panel explained that, “Fermentation is an important source of flavours: higher alcohols, fatty acids and esters are all formed during the fermentation process” and went on to describe how the boiling wort produced more fruity esters at the beginning of the boil and more aromas of biscuits, porridge, and leather near the end. Probably the best example was the panel on tasting whiskey which calmly assured the consumer that “a complete whiskey tasting follows a logical and traditional (italics mine) sequence- colour, nose, body, taste and finish, each stage revealing more about the whisky being assessed, building progressively to a satisfying climax”. The message being: drinking whiskey is neither immoral nor insensible, rather there is a logically coherent narrative, which, if practiced correctly is both historic and natural. Thus, the moral tensions of drinking alcohol (intoxication) are resolved as well.
I left the tiny distillery enthused by my newly formed idea of what an ‘authentic’ whiskey experience could be. As I wandered down a different, but equally pastoral trail back to Pitlochery I thought to myself: Is the role of whiskey in society more complex than such ‘experiences’ portray it to be? Of course. Is there is a ‘more authentic’ role for this ferment in culture than what I had seen? Again, maybe, but this was starting worry me less, and as I got back on the train to carry me home to Edinburgh I am pretty sure I was humming again.
P.S. I wanted to look up what some famous Scotts had said about whiskey, and I found quite the collection of witticisms, not all of them appropriate. Here is also a great whiskey site. Check out this video of a master blender doing his thing…highly entertaining if not unbelievably silly…