Last night I was reading an issue of La Cucina Italiana, the magazine for people like me who wish they could cook good Italian food, and was fascinated by an article they had about pasta making. Here was yet another process (like wine or whisky-making) that had once taken great skill, but with the advancement of technology had been made easier for mass production and lower prices. Not that this is a bad thing either because a box of spaghetti for 99 cents is a necessity. However, if it were to come at the expense of serious, traditional, handmade pasta then it would be a serious issue. Luckily, we have people in this world who are passionate about what they do and are dedicated to doing things the old-fashioned way.
Before I get too far off track here, I want to talk about what "hand-crafted" means because I'm hearing that term get thrown around pretty often and I'm not always sure people know what it means or why it's important when it comes to booze. To continue on with details from the pasta analogy, the mass-production of pasta led to three major problems - 1) water and flour were mixed too quickly which didn't allow the proper starch enough time to form, 2) the pasta was shaped with a teflon lie (the official word for pasta shaper) which created a smoother surface and caused the sauce to slide right off rather than cling to it, and 3) in order to dry the pasta faster it was heated at over 200 degrees which actually cooked it bit. Purists claim that water needs to be added to flour slowly and mixed for more than 30 minutes because that creates better texture, that hand-rolling creates a less-smooth, porous surface therefore soaking up more sauce, and that pasta should be dried at a temperature no higher than 160 degrees because cooking it before it's time to eat it will remove essential flavors. The conclusion is that hand-crafted pasta has a better mouthfeel, tastes better with sauce, and tastes better in general.
Does the same analogy apply to whisky? You bet. At Springbank distillery they're malting their own barley on a concrete floor just like it has been done for over a century. While the malting is nowhere as consistant as a commercial vat, the inconsistancy is what leads to character! Peter Currie believes it's the slow floor malting process coupled with the old Springbank grinder that results in the heavier, chewier Springbank texture. The process is never quite the same and neither is any expression of Springbank, but that's fine because at least its constantly delicious. Springbank is willing to trade consistancy for quality because quality is what counts. Taking the time, energy, and effort to do things right and to do things well is a lost art these days. Like so many others, I'm a victim of my generation's positive re-enforcement upbringing, which created millions of kids who thought they did everything amazingly well (heck, we got trophies and awards for it!) therefore, didn't need to work hard to master any particular craft. When I read about these pasta makers, I suddenly felt an overwelming admiration because I knew I lacked that desire to focus and specialize.
Italy's great pasta experts didn't learn about making "pasta artiginale" in a classroom or in a book and they don't have a certificate or trophy that proves they know something. They know about proper pasta because they grew up in a kitchen with a grandmother or relative who taught them tradition. Like many great wine making regions, Campania was the best pasta making region because of its climate (which allowed proper drying year round) and its proximity to grain fields and natural spring water, the only two ingredients in pasta (so they had better be good!). Over time these people mastered the mixing process, the drying process, and the cooking process to a level of detail that would make today's instant-gratification generation squirm just thinking about it. These techniques were passed down from generation to generation and it was the world market that ruined them. That there can still be a person who knows so much about pasta is incredible, however. So many of us in the world are satisfied with "good," but it's nice to know that there are people who are driven to go further and make things with as much precision and perfection as possible, even if it's much harder and much more expensive. We would all be drinking Glenfiddich all the time if that weren't the case.
After reading that article I began to think about the other side of this equation. Just because something is "hand-crafted" doesn't intrinsically mean that it's good. For example, if I go into the kitchen and make some fresh pasta right now does that automatically mean I'm going to succeed? This goes back to the usage of "hand-crafted," which has become a synonym for "quality" when it really means "focused-attention." We need to be specific about how something hand-crafted is actually better than something that isn't. There have to be uncomplicated examples that are easy to understand so that people have the necessary information to actually care! More importantly, we can't give people the confidence to start marketing "hand-crafted" products when they have no actual experience with tradition, otherwise we end up with this and we do not want anymore of this. We're already seeing an overconfident generation of beermakers, winemakers, and distillers begin to enter the market with products that are simply inferior, but are defended and justified by the hand-crafted mantra.
There's a big difference between "hand-crafted with know-how" and "hand-crafted" and this generation is dangerously blurring that line. Charles Bukowski once wrote about writing, "if it doesn't come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don't do it. Unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut, don't do it." We need people who are driven by passion to continue the "hand-crafted" artisan products. We don't need people who got straight A's, who once won a science fair, or who's mother told them they were good to invest in a pot still and maybe give it a try. There is simply too much to know, too much to master, and too many chances to fail for someone to just pick up the gauntlet and try it out for a month. There are intricate steps that only an Italian grandmother knows and she doesn't have a blog you can read, a course you can take, or a cookbook you can follow. If you don't believe me, read the latest issue of La Cucina Italiana and see just what it takes to make good pasta.