As I lay dozing in bed this morning, thoughts of Scotland fluttering around in my brain, a few questions came to mind about single malt and this crazy obsession we all share. When you go to Scotland and tour the distilleries, watch the process, taste the booze, meet the people behind the curtain, and dine with various industry folk, you are continuously pelted with information that needs to be stored and processed –searched for patterns and for themes. My internal computer is only now finalizing some of this deciphering and is beginning to ping me with its conclusions. Here are some of the issues I've been pondering.
- We are not all the same and we are not all motivated by the same concerns. What motivates me about single malt (and booze in general) is the understanding. For me, it's simply a fact that whisky tastes better when you know something about it. That being said, information and education are not what necessarily drive other people towards single malt. Prestige, conformity, fun, tradition, money, and disease all play a role as well from time to time.
- If whisky tastes better when you understand it, how often are we actually, truly getting it? I've read all the books, met with all the brand ambassadors, watched all the videos, even began a series of podcasts, but I don't think I really "got" anything until last week. Go through Michael Jackson's fantastic Whisky book and there are various chapters about how water, barley, yeast, malting, peat, fermentation, distillation, aging, warehouse conditions and countless other minutiae leave their mark on the whisky's final flavor. I'm not sure, however, that all of these processes are equally important for each distillery.
For example, we learned on Islay that during the brief closure at Caol Ila last June (in which they installed new equipment) they couldn't afford to actually stop production. Therefore, they kept distilling down the road at Bunnahabhain, using their own recipe, water, and employees to do the job elsewhere. Granted, they can't call it Caol Ila, but it's all going into Johnnie Walker anyway, so it's no matter. In my opinion, the beauty of Caol Ila is in the aging and the blending, not the actual distillation. When they send tankers full of that juice over to the mainland for filling and warehousing, the team at Diageo works wonders with it. It's the marriage of casks and the art form of flavor enhancing that make Caol Ila what it is.
With Lagavulin, I'd say their cooperage is the most important component of flavor. That toffee/butterscotch note on the back of the 16 year makes that whisky what it is. It's not vanilla from new oak and it's not burnt sugar or cakebread from sherry residue. It's the result of Diageo's cooperage program that strips the barrels of any wine remnants, then re-chars the inside of it, bringing out the flavors in the wood itself. To me, the essence of Lagavulin also comes from the mainland, rather than from Islay. It begins in Diageo's Cambus cooperage plant and it leaves a major mark on the whisky.
Kilchoman's new make is so special, you'd be crazy to think that the distillation process isn't the most important aspect of that whisky. Oban's slow, 90-hour fermentation gives it so much mellow fruit that everything else becomes rather insignificant at that point. Springbank's inconsistency comes from its inconsistent malting process, and the funky, earthy notes in the sherry cask malts are derived from that funky, moldy warehouse they're stored in. Glendronach's tap water tastes like Glendronach, so I'd say that water plays a major component there. In each distillery that we visited, specific parts of the overall process seemed to carry more weight than at other places. If someone were ever going to write a new book about whisky distilleries, this would make a fascinating theme (No, I'm not doing it).
- There's a lot of insecurity in the whisky world. There's a lot of false confidence. There's also a huge divide between the last generation and the new one. The old school guys, like Iain McArthur at Lagavulin, are who keep the true spirit alive. They're humble, hard-working, kind, and they'd never say a bad word about any other distillery. The new generation is cocky, forward-thinking, and bold, but without experience. They wouldn't hesitate to take a swipe at a competitor in front of other business folks. I definitely came of age with all of the negative attributes from the new generation - arrogant and sure of myself. I'm hoping, however, to become more like Iain, like John MacLellan at Kilchoman, like Des McCagherty at Edradour – guys who quietly do their jobs well and know that's enough. Young people tend to think the world won't notice you if you don't point yourself out constantly. People do notice, however, and not always for the better. I've certainly noticed the difference.