Two great figures of Port and Scotch whisky, connected by their personal prejudices.
How important are our senses – specifically those concerning aroma and taste (flavour) – in giving us a map to understand the world? We are assailed constantly by scent molecules, all of which influence us in some way, but it is their presence and clustering in specific places which gives us that mysterious, somewhat opaque French term: terroir.
It’s this resonance of place – the spirit of the spirit if you like – which interests me most about whisky these days and, once you get into that mental space, you’ll find connections everywhere.
An examination of how sound and place are linked was behind a superb recent piece by Jez riley French on the Caught by the River blog. Jez was writing about yoik, the Sami people’s traditional form of singing and the oldest vocal tradition in Europe.
Yoik, as he outlined, is about singing in open air and using the landscape, the echo, the curves of rock, the wind and cries of nature, to mould the song. The piece is alive and fluid, allowing the song to exist in, and be crafted by, space and time.
The yoiks are about landscape, myth and animals and, as singer Ánde Somby outlined, when singing the latter in open air, a transformation takes place between man and animal, loosening the boundaries between one and the other.
It made me think of the last time I walked between Sligachan and Coruisk on Skye, heading into the belly of the Cuillin, red deer voices belling in the glen, the rattle of stone underfoot, susurration of cloth on heather, clink of scree and slip of boot, pipe of buzzard, wind in the grass. Total engagement.
It’s a topic that has long engaged poet/musician Richard Skelton, whose work is an all-enveloping examination of landscape, mostly through music, whose physicality mirrors the complex, layered nature of specific landscapes.
In his most recent works he’s turned his attention to peat lands – to the exhumation of bog bodies which have been pressed, preserved, tanned and decalcified by the weight of time.
Lost vegetation: peat is much more than just a flavouring agent for whisky
Peat. Yes, that stuff which scents whisky and to which we give little thought. Peat is an active ingredient in whisky, but has deeper links to place and culture. It warms, dries, perfumes and preserves.
Why were these bodies buried in bogs and not interred on high mountains? To bind us to the earth? An exchange? Replacing the cut turf with flesh?
When we light peat, we ignite memory: of phantom woods and lost vegetation, of millennia of cultivation, of feather and bone, insect and plant. As Seamus Heaney wrote in Bogland:
‘Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.’
A reductive view of whisky says peat is used as fuel to dry barley and add phenols to the grain, which help form the spirit’s final character. True, but there’s more.
Peat offers linkage to the earth and the past. The peat bog is a map whose markers are myrtle and cotton, sphagnum sponge, sundew stick and midge itch.
It holds entombed bodies and half-bottles rammed into the bank, shattering on the spade; it echoes to laughter and song and the planning of that night’s DJ set in the village hall.
Its sounds are rain and wind, the improvisations of skylark and oboe burble of whaup, the grey drift of hen harrier and gaze of owl. When we sip a smoky dram, this becomes part of us, but do we realise it?
We walk through landscape, our eyes open to ‘beauty’, our ears and noses stoppered. We sip a dram, our minds focused on process, unable to move through the border which separates A Drink from location, yet that is what malt whisky (peated or not) is about: a distillate of place.
Drinking it is our version of yoik.
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