The annual Belgian drinks festival embodies the spirit of camaraderie like no other.
It could be the season, the shortening days, or the year’s fast-approaching end which has made the sense of time passing uppermost in my mind. It’s been pushed further forward by the tasting of a number of venerable drams: the G&M Glenlivet which spent a mere 70 years in cask, Loch Lomond’s 50 Year Old, and a Glen Grant distilled in 1949, the latter tasted on my recent trip to Belgium where it sat alongside other aged malts with equally rich stories to tell.
They are exotic, they are often waxy, they speak of rancio. You can, to some extent, analyse the aromas by process: the length of the ferment, the clarity of the wort, the gentleness of distillation, the relaxed nature of their maturation in specific types of cask, but that doesn’t give all of the answers. Chance has played as much of a role in this strange continuum.
Unique journey: Each cask will mature whisky in its own, unpredictable, way
I know that we are meant to think that distillers are canny enough to deliberately lay down casks which will only be broached in half a century’s time. In reality, there is rarely any such intent. More often than not, these are casks which have been forgotten (or half-forgotten) in the back of a warehouse. It was good fortune that they were left alone.
Chance also plays its part in the creation of flavours. The moment when you put a new spirit in a cask is when the second part of its story begins, and it is one which you have less control over. Yes, you can say that this type of wood, combined with this character of spirit left for this length of time should give us something within a flavour spectrum, but the key word for me is ‘should’.
You cannot guarantee what will happen inside the cask. You seal it you put it away and you pray. But without chance there is no creativity. Chance and time gives you the curve ball, the oddities, the element of unpredictability, the ‘flaws’ – but it’s the flaws which make whisky interesting. This is not a spirit which aims for purity, but one which wears time grubbily and proudly on its sleeve. It is scuffed by its passing, as well as being smoothed and refined. It speaks of how air and wood and atmosphere have worked together to impart specific flavours on this one cask. Its neighbour will be different. Chance.
Venerable drams: The line-up tasted by Dave Broom during a recent sojourn at Belgium’s Spirit in the Sky festival
When it works – and there’s no guarantee that it will – the whisky is shifted into a different realm. Any whisky tells a story. The tales these whiskies relate are more akin to legends. I try not to approach them with any more reverence than any other whisky. In fact, I try hard to be impressed. But then you get a dram which has something in its depths which puts you in a different space, one which is almost mythical. The aromas are blurred by age, glossy with the patina of time’s passing. They emerge as if from a different dimension, wreathed in smoke and swathed in velvet, rich with fruits and wax and polish and a mysterious otherness which remains, tantalisingly, beyond our grasp. Sipping them is to enter a hallucinatory realm as the time spent in cask suddenly reveals itself. It speaks of the seasons long gone, the coldness of winter, the funk of autumn soil, warm summers and the freshness, just there. There can be a sense of melancholy, even regret, or defiance against the dying of the light.
They force you to think what has happened in the time spent in the cask, of the lives which have started and those which have ended, of fears and loves, joy and sorrows. You weave your own memories in with them as you enter this dream state watching the endless cycle of life spinning past as the whisky has sat. Maybe some of the shards of the world’s story have been embedded within it. It’s hard to tell. They are less spirits, more temporal missiles. It’s a privilege to try them. We should all try, because it is part of what makes this spirit so special.
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Hundreds of rare whiskies, some over a century old, made for a contemplative weekend in Glasgow.
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From the editors 03 January 2018
As the new year dawns, Dave Broom ponders the value of moving slowly – for people and whisky.