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It’s my own fault, of course. I’ve rambled on for ages about how whisky (anywhere in the world) has links with culture and place, which run deeper than the surface gloss of brand. So now I’ve been asked, politely, to prove it.
Sōetsu Yanagi: Philosopher and founder of Japanese ‘folk craft’ movement mingei
This has led me down some pretty interesting rabbit holes of enquiry, looking at how certain cultures ‘read’ the idea of quality and beauty; the logic being that if whisky is a cultural product, then its creation has parallels with other areas of craftsmanship (don’t get me started on the whole ‘craft’ issue… well, not this week anyway).
It’s a vast topic which bifurcates into various other realms, such as the manner in which these crafted objects can be appreciated for their quality which, again, provides us with some salient points regarding how we assess a whisky.
One of the key texts was Sōetsu Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman. Yanagi was a Japanese philosopher and the founder of the Japanese ‘folk craft’ movement (mingei) in the 1920s, which brought a new focus on the quality and beauty of simple, honest objects made by craftsmen working in a centuries-old tradition.
Yanagi argued that ‘seeing is a born facility, knowledge is acquired’, and that intuition is more important than clinical application of theory. Often our spontaneous response – that tug of appreciation led by the eyes and heart – is overwhelmed by ‘the owner with the foot-rule [who] is immediately busy with a dozen questions as to age, authenticity, previous ownership, technique and the like’. In other words, appreciation is easily blurred by an analytical approach.
He doesn’t dispute that the questions over provenance are important and should be asked. Rather they should be used ‘only if they lead to better appreciation of the object’.
We know what is good. ‘The ancients did not follow the judgements of others, they did not love a piece because it was old, they just looked at it directly [with] unclouded, intuitive perception.’
I couldn’t agree more. The key when tasting whisky – there’s some on the table behind me as I write – is to look at each glass honestly, openly and without any prejudice. The age (if given) is a guide to assess the interaction between cask and spirit, the distillery name is a clue as to the character from that place, but elements like these are always in the background.
Ultimately, the liquid is the liquid; the only thing which matters is how you react to it. For all the analytics, at some point you have to say, it speaks to me… or it doesn’t. Shelve prejudice; see it honestly and with open senses.
As Yanagi wrote: ‘Put aside the desire to judge immediately, acquire the habit of just looking. Do not treat the object as [one] for the intellect. Be ready to perceive passively without interposing yourself.’
Okakura Kakuzō: Author of The Book of Tea
His urging was hardly new. In his 1906 treatise, The Book of Tea, Okakura Kakuzō wrote how ‘a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago [that] “people criticise a picture by their ear”’. In other words, they listen to critics, they follow fashion and they shelve their own judgements because others who are allegedly better-versed in the subject have decreed what is good… and bad.
If this is to be the case, then doesn’t it make things slightly awkward for a whisky writer? After all, we live in an era where the foot-rule of scores rules, and where age, distillery name and era all seem to matter more than the liquid.
Don’t get me wrong, we still need critics, but those of us who read and use them – be it on art, music, theatre, food or whisky – have to ultimately judge the object with our own senses. As Kakuzō wrote: ‘We classify too much, and enjoy too little.’
Read the words, not the numbers; take advice, but trust your palates and intuition – and enjoy.
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