The founder of the Irish whiskey dynasty was a Presbyterian born in Alloa, Scotland.
Snath, tang, rib, beard, swath and windrow. Terms as mystical to me as wort, grist, mash, bung and draff are to the vast majority of the populace. As Jim Beveridge pointed out when I chatted to him, to fully understand something, you need to have the right language. I’d add you also need to have the right skills, which is why I was standing in a field at the marvellous Weald & Downland Living Museum, the handle (sorry, snath) of my scythe in hand.
Yes, you read that correctly. A scythe. I can’t quite remember how the conversation had started, but as it involved my friend Karen (the world’s best-connected person), it potentially had begun with the breeding rates of puffins, careered through leather-working in the Cotswolds before alighting, somehow, on the revival of scything. ‘Always fancied a scythe,’ I mused, thinking no more of it. Two days later, a book on learning how to do it arrived.
‘Thought you might like this, K,’ read the inscription.
As usual, she wasn’t wrong, but hey… who actually owns a scythe these days? On my birthday I discovered the answer to that question. Me. I’m still not sure whether it was a subtle comment on the part of my wife about my advancing years, or a less-than-subtle hint about the length of the grass, but it came with a voucher for a day’s scything lesson at Weald & Downland, which is why I was standing, etc…
Old ways: Scything highlights why some traditional skills should be kept alive
We assembled our scythes and took a few hesitant swipes at the grass, then moved to the orchard, which was waist-deep in grass and nettles. Scything is a complex, yet gentle business. Back straight, knees bent (‘pretend you’re a sumo wrestler’), use the hips, not the arms, cut in an arc, always keep the blade on the ground, don’t push, let it do the work, sharpen every couple of minutes, don’t cut your fingers off.
It was a struggle. There’s a mass of movements to remember and you automatically flail around, hacking the grass rather than slicing it and leaving the pile (the windrow) to one side. Yet, somehow, over the hours, a rhythm started to emerge.
I became aware of every element without focusing on any specific one; scything without scything, if you want to be Zen about it. I began to listen rather than look, then something would slip and I’d revert to my default ball of confusion.
I began to see the parallels to whisky-making, the skills which are learned through touch, aroma and sound, so that your movements and decisions become second nature, almost intuitive. Whisky-making without making whisky, if you like.
You establish a muscle memory, like Jason Roy flinging the ball to take that last New Zealand wicket (though the match should have been drawn, surely?).
There are other parallels. We scythers – who sneer and shake our heads at wrong techniques such as those seen in the BBC’s Poldark (we also keep our shirts on, which is probably a wise idea) – have gone back to the craft because it is quiet, calm, better for wildflower meadows, and less destructive than strimming. It also keeps an important old craft alive.
Tried and tested: Some craft skills in whisky-making are essential to the process
Who, though, wants to go back to the old ways of making whisky? These days we have greater automation, the process is safer and more streamlined and, as we are told constantly, it all helps to deliver greater consistency. Why stick to outmoded practices when you have computers? Why scythe when you can fire up the lawnmower?
But while in no way disputing the talents of the highly-trained folks working at distilleries, or suggesting they don’t care about quality, I do wonder – if you are locked in a control room looking at a screen, if you can’t smell or hear what is going on in the distillery – whether you become distanced from the process, whether you inevitably start to trust the machine, not your knowledge and experience. Are skills being worked out of the industry?
More than one of the (rapidly diminishing) old guard have asked where the new distillers are coming from. In this boom time for distilleries and breweries, is there sufficient new blood coming in – and who is teaching tomorrow’s distillers the craft? Is a skills gap emerging?
The issue touches on the real need for apprentice schemes as well as graduate training programmes, which teach the practical hands-on skills of distilling. Understanding that is more important, I’d argue, that showing proficiency at filling in compliance forms and colour-coding your day.
You can’t turn the clock back and ignore the changes. At the same time, maybe whisky occasionally needs to pick up its scythe.
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