The entire distillery workflow is usually framed in linear terms. Afterall, whisky making is the very definition of a process - a continuous, planned and predictable movement from ingredient transformation and distillation through to maturation, bottling and finally on to the point of sale. A constant and consistent conveyor belt. Rinse and repeat. But this one-dimensionality is not always the case in reality. There are many variables, junctures and difficult decisions involved in the creation of whisky that do not take place on production floors. Distilleries as businesses are faced by an ever-changing array of assessments and choices. Outside of “what are we making and how?”, there are other pertinent calculations that need to be made – least of all “how much are we making, when are we making it and how long are we planning on keeping it?”
The old adage suggests that there’s no accounting for taste. But the psychology of why people actually like things is unquestionably complex. Taste is just a method for filtering the world. Of attempting to apply order to chaos. Perhaps the original thing that humans applied the notion of personal discernment to was food – once sustenance moved from being purely a mechanism for survival, choice suddenly came into play. Apparently we now face upwards of over 200 food decision each and every day. Blimey. Whisky is in essence no different to any other taste decision – it’s a combination of exposure (I.E. awareness), culture and individual personality. And like all other choices, none of these are inherently static or fixed.
The trouble with writing about whisky is that it’s not easy to do well. Those that excel have both the technical knowledge and the innate ability to take their readers on a journey of discovery. They stimulate conversation and illuminate explanation through a seamless amalgamation of entertainment with education. However, not only are these individuals increasingly in short supply – in some quarters the need for them is being questioned. 240 characters or a well-framed photo is now apparently deep enough for many folks. But contrary to diminishing attention spans, I would strongly posit that whisky requires conversant observation and grounded analysis. When a drink takes a long as it does to create, it shouldn’t then fall purely into ephemerality. If you are proclaiming a spirit (and the industry that crafts it) as complex then surely its scrutiny can and should be equally multifaceted.
Barley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Barley was as dead as a doornail.
The core motivation behind independent bottlers has never been to sell whiskies at prices considerably discounted over distillery’s own outputs. That fondly remembered scenario of inexpensive IB releases is now steadily moving out of focus of current day drinkers – but at the same time perceptions that this pricing disparity was *always* the case are actually something of a distortion. And indeed, down the line I suspect we may well all look back on the period of time when IB bottlings were relatively ‘cheap’ as something of an oddity – a gilded age unlikely to be repeated.
Whisky’s intrinsic relationship with the concept of the passage of time is a deeply-rooted yet oft-times rolled-out trope. Outside of the obvious physical requirements of making something and then for all intents and purposes leaving it alone – the industry has perennially gathered around the notion that ‘good whisky is worth waiting for’ – at least for three years. Whilst nowadays time is all too often wrapped up into the idea of the age statement – its application and its historic utilisation cuts far deeper. If you look back to the earliest whisky advertisements of the late 19th Century (all for blends and many that you’d nowadays mark as NAS), you’ll see the regular employment of words such as “old”, “slowly”, “patiently” and “unhurriedly” – all to some degree of truisms of the whisky making process itself - and none having left the modern-day lexicon. But nevertheless, throughout the spirit’s long history the idea of time has been repeatedly deployed to plant the acorn of an idea that it is synonymous with whisky.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that throughout the course of today you’re going to hear one thing repeatedly said about this year’s TWE Black Friday release - “It’s just a Caol Ila.” I’m also going to go out on a limb and tell you why I believe that this all too regularly intoned, throwaway dismissal does a disservice to one of the world’s most versatile distillates.