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When was the last time you paused and thought about what malt whisky is made of? I know that, like good children at primary school, we can all recite by rote: ‘Water, barley, yeast’ (with the teacher’s pet at the front of the class adding, correctly: ‘And oak, Miss’), but when was the last time you actually paused to think about what you just said?
A cereal, a fungus and an omnipresent liquid; oh, and a tree. As a recipe, it’s startlingly simple. In fact, you might think it is an unprepossessing combination.
Seeing it laid out like that reminds me of the story of the person asking for directions to a town in Ireland. ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here’ being the considered response. A wise one too, I hasten to add.
It seems barely possible that ingredients as basic as these can combine to produce a palatable drink. What is even more miraculous is how they interact to produce a myriad of flavours which ensnare us with their complexities. There is mystery at the heart of it all.
Yes, distillers have their part to play – this is not spontaneous (even if some might just test that theory out) – but what they do is nudge and cajole, control and guide, rather than force.
There’s no gussying up – no acidification or tannin addition, no chaptalisation or spinning cones. Despite the industrial-looking equipment, whisky-making is a natural process.
The secret is unlocking potential, allowing the flavours to rise and develop. It is an art of concentration and selection, of interplay and balancing.
The end result is a spirit which can speak to the soul like no other, a distillation of place, time and people, and it all comes from such humble beginnings.
Whisky, for all its boldness of flavour and attack is, at heart, modest. That in turn means that its makers have to have a respect for the ingredients. There is no place to hide when you are dealing with the original trio.
Simplicity itself: All of us making a living from whisky are servants of the spirit
The same term, ‘humble’, is also the word which which springs to mind whenever you encounter anyone engaged in whisky’s production: from malting to distilling, coppersmithing to coopering, and blending.
As a nation, we Scots tend to be self-effacing (we talk ourselves down rather than up), and whisky people take this to the Nth degree. They are modest, lacking in arrogance or ego when it comes to what they produce.
They go about it quietly, letting the spirit speak. ‘It is a team effort’ … ‘I just helped it along’ … ‘It’s the whisky that’s important’ … ‘It’s quite good’ (the last © David Stewart MBE). They serve the spirit.
It’s a lesson worth remembering when we pick up a glass. The moments of maximum enjoyment of whisky, for me at least, are also the simplest ones.
Not fancy dinners or gilded palaces of sin, no lights and lasers, but friends, glasses, a bottle and talk. Little has changed in that scenario since whisky’s earliest days.
The same applies to selling, talking or writing about it as well. Those of us fortunate enough to make our livings in this way need to always be aware that we are at the service of the whisky.
We can make it fun, crack jokes, play with it (in fact, I’d say all are essential), but we all need to remember that all we are doing is simply passing information along.
People come to our shop or bar or class, or read our writing, not because it is us, but because they want to learn about whisky.
As soon as we think we are more important than the story, the moment when ego takes over, then that simple aim is lost. We are servants of the spirit as well. We are all learning as well, sitting quietly at the feet of the people who know more than we do, asking why and then passing it on in a way which entertains and informs, but focuses on the whisky itself.
We all have to remain humble.
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