Dave Broom discovers shifting sands in the culture of perfume making and asks what whisky can learn.
‘It’s at its best like this.’ The glasses were raised at Clàs Uig. Perhaps in memory of the audacious German U-boat commander who slid into its waters to steal sheep, maybe just to the landscape, or to the wildlife we’d seen, to the waves, or just for being there and alive at this moment.
I hadn’t been deliberately depriving myself of whisky, but neither had I actively sought it out. Maybe that’s the nature of a holiday – you do the things you don’t normally get the chance to – so for me it’s rambles rather than drambles.
Clàs Uig: Dave Broom raises a glass to 'U-boat Bay', Islay
‘You’re here… on Islay… on holiday?’ say some when I meet them in the Co-op, the pub, or the ferry. ‘A working holiday?’ And they smile slightly and look at my wife and daughter as if to say, ‘Poor you – what a bastard he must be, dragging you round distilleries when you’re meant to be relaxing’.
But it’s true, we come here because we can switch off and not work (he said, writing this piece while they sleep, but the relentless nature of the web dictates against not remaining silent for too long).
Anyway, the glasses were raised. It seemed saltier, more attuned to the environment, the slow slither of seaweed mirroring the gentle viscimetry taking place in the glass. A hint of the moorland, a bracing gasp as if, on that first sip, you were immersing yourself in the waters of the bay. As thick as the sodden peat bog, as gentle as the curve of the seal on the rocks. Salt on the lips, an encapsulation of place.
The day after, we headed north through the islands of the sea, then onwards to Tiree, birds careening in our wake. Shearwaters – those enigmatic, wave-dancing acrobats, in the Sound of Islay the week before. If gannets take issue with the water, punching holes in its surface, shearwaters and fulmars caress it, using the updrafts lifting off the crests to help them in their endless loop of the oceans. There is no battle here, rather a fusion of mind, intuition and understanding.
For a second, it seemed as if my mind had pulled them into being. I’d been reading Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry and had just finished the chapter on shearwaters. As I put the book down, there they were.
Shearwaters are sea wanderers, cousins to albatrosses and fulmars. It’s long been wondered how they navigate themselves on their pelagic roamings, how they can find their way home to their chicks, or to food. Recent research has given a surprising answer. With larger than normal olfactory systems compared to other birds, these members of the tube-nose family achieve the seemingly miraculous by their sense of smell.
Prof. Nancy Devitt of UC Davis had long believed this to be the case but could never find the clincher to her theory until, in conversation with another scientist working in a different discipline, the topic of dimethylsulfoniopropionate – DMSP to its friends – arose. As it does.
It is emitted by dying phytoplankton and smells, Devitt realised, of newly-opened oysters. DMSP means phytoplankton has been eaten by krill, and the krill is being eaten by larger fish. The tube-noses, drifting above the waves, pick up the aroma of DMSP clouds at levels of 1 part in 10 billion and use them to find their food source.
For them, it is the smell of home. The birds flying up the Sound were impregnated in it; their chicks, cocooned in their burrows, would smell little but for the first weeks of their lives. An aroma lesson: ‘this smell means comfort and a full belly, seek it out’. It operates, albeit in a more intense way, in the same fashion as our own olfactory memories which are triggered when we smell a glass of whisky and the childhood memory – a snack, a sweetie on the way back from school, our grandmother’s house – snaps into focus. Our first navigations around the world are embedded in smell memory.
It would appear that aroma doesn’t simply show the shearwaters and their relatives where food is, but plays the vital element in how they navigate. Shearwater research by Prof Anna Gagliardo posits that different parts of the ocean have distinctive smells. What to us is ‘sea smell’ is in fact complex and multifaceted – each part as identifiable as a rose is from an orange. Aromas guide them, warn them, act as markers. A landscape which to our eyes is hard to read, whose only constant is that its features are forever in flux, is to a shearwater a tapestry of aroma, with each thread of scent redolent with meaning. Some tugging them home, others suggesting danger.
Briny minerals: The aroma of Islay whisky is often reminiscent of the Hebridean seaWe can get a sniff of that when we stand on the shoreline, or on the deck of a boat, maybe with a glass of Islay whisky. That briny smell, the minerality is also the aroma of those shucked oysters and scallops. For a second, we are like the birds. As they dip their wing tips into the sea, so we raise the glass to our noses. The sea doesn’t smell like the sea, but of the elements within it – the death pulses of phytoplankton and algae, seaweed pheromones and much more. And the same elements are detectable in the glass.
That whisky smells best here because it’s where that fusing of liquid and place is at its strongest – thanks partly to emotion, but also a literal (or littoral) link to place. It’s also there, ready to be drawn out, when we sit at home or in bars thousands of miles away across the oceans. A filament of aroma, bringing us back home.
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