The crunch of leaves beneath your feet and the cool, crisp morning air are sure signs that we are now well into autumn. (Well, if you live north of the Equator, that is. Our friends living in the southern hemisphere, currently revelling in the joys of spring, should skip to the foot of this article.) As the trees swap their green cloaks for shades of red, gold and brown, fill your glasses with these autumnal Scotch whiskies, recommended by Dave Broom.
‘The summer-flower has run to seed
And yellow is the woodland bough;
And every leaf of bush and weed
Is tipt with autumn’s pencil now.’
– John Clare, Autumn
The garden is in a state – as usual. I’m trying to convince the wife that I am going for the tamed/untamed Japanese look – the tomato plants have shut down, the fruit is gathered. Seed heads rattle in the wind, leaves gather on the lawn, but there is life still. The green tomatoes go for chutney, the seed heads are left for birds and insects. I like the fact that keeping some trash around the garden apparently helps wintering beasties. Some see this as laziness; I see it as being considerate.
Autumn is the paradoxical season. We have passed through the explosive anticipatory energy of spring, the drowse and laze of summer and are now faced with a reality check. Now the work starts, the harvest needs to be gathered. It is a time of richness, yet also of ending.
It also means cracking open bottles which reflect the extra layer of complexity which autumn brings. Autumnal whiskies are those you will enjoy out-of-doors from the hip flask; they are the ones to take when you return home slightly chilled, but invigorated; they match the replete warmth of after-dinner.
These are whiskies whose colours mirror the season, while their aromas take a cue from William Blake's To Autumn:
‘The spirits of the air live in the smells of fruit…’
Hedgerow fruit: brambles, hips and haws, and those which have hung long on the tree, concentrating their sugars.
Some whiskies are external, reminding you of the outdoors. Others are internal: their impressions are of a house’s interior. If spring and summer are about picnics and beaches, now we are walking through the woods, kicking up fallen leaves and damp humus, smelling fresh mushrooms, berry-picking and carrying our foraging indoors into a world of polished oak.
Cragganmore distillery: Housed off the beaten track, its whisky feels even more autumnal
For all that autumn brings harvest time, clear days and sharp air, it also brings with it a tang of melancholy. The year is turning; we are one step further on in our lives. It is a season when we notice time passing, give space for reflection. As Clare puts it:
‘For every leaf, that twirls the breeze
May useful hints and lessons give;
The falling leaves and fading trees
Will teach and caution us to live.’
Autumn whiskies reflect this as well, being more contemplative in nature, often showing greater maturity. They are longer in the wood, there is waxiness and beeswax, and that edge of decay known as rancio. Sherry casks, for the first time, now begin to make their presence felt.
For Clare, autumn offers:
‘…varied tints of nameless hues, –
Shades endless melting into shade.’
This is matched by the gentle, layered richness of autumnal whiskies, with the extra depth that you only get from whiskies at peak maturity.
What are they? They tend to be cask- rather than distillery-driven, but Cragganmore for me always carries autumnal shades. Even its location, off the beaten track, seems to have a melancholy aspect.
Royal Brackla, especially the 16- and 21-year-old, Tomatin’s new oloroso, older examples from Tomintoul, Dalmore, The Glenlivet 18-year-old, Macallan up to 18, middle-aged Glenfarclas and, on the islands, Highland Park 18-year-old – all share an autumn air.
Let them flow and release memories of time well-spent. Don’t regret the year; enjoy its bounty and prepare for winter.
Tomorrow: An autumn menu of seasonal food delights, and whiskies to match, from Martine Nouet.
If you’re a southern hemisphere-dweller bemused by all this Keatsian talk of autumn’s mellow fruitfulness, you might like to revisit our series of spring whisky articles.