Knowledge and enjoyment are all too easily confused. Within any pursuit there’s habitually an expectation that acquiring greater knowledge on a subject should, by implication lead to greater sense of gratification when experiencing it. The knowing and understanding of a thing providing a heightened ability to appreciate it. Whilst there are times that this is certainly the case – eureka moments – all to often the manifestation of knowledge vis-à-vis enjoyment can be little more than boorishness or snobbery. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
Whisky enthusiasts have become increasingly enthralled by the notion of transparency. Sourced liquids, contents of blends, labelling, the origin and provenance of ingredients…the list goes on. And in many cases, rightly so – there are numerous arguments as to why greater levels of information provision are beneficial to both consumers and to producers themselves. But over the last few years I’ve started to notice some quarters of the fandom using transparency as something of a beating stick – either towards distilleries or, perhaps more worryingly towards their fellow enthusiasts.
Recently I saw a thread online which was loudly proclaiming a boycott on all brands using E150 colourant – and particularly those who were using it, but not labelling it. “Whisky fans deserve better than this”, “whisky with fake tan is no better than crap supermarket fare”. All very well and good – until someone pointed out the countless list of bottlings where this is still the case – many of which are exceedingly well-known, big global sellers. The argument degenerated – moving away from the benefits and pitfalls of transparency onto the direct enjoyment of whisky. The implication being that no matter who you are, you had to acknowledge that whisky modified with colourant was inarguably diminished and therefore less enjoyable. And that a failure to recognise this ‘fact’ was proof perfect of a lack of appreciation/knowledge/character. Wow.
There are countless other examples – more recently tending to focus on ingredient provenance. And none of them are particularly pretty. But regardless of which facet of production or labelling is being dissected, it is still an error to conflate awareness with personal satisfaction. And it’s an even greater mistake to seek to weaponise knowledge to either force a viewpoint or to grandstand it in front of everyone else. I’ve said it before – whisky enthusiasm, particularly single malt enthusiasm is but a niche within a niche. The passions, interests and requirements of this sub-set of a vastly greater number of ‘whisky drinkers’ cannot always be directly compared to that of the wider world. We are not the market. We are part of the market.
Preaching, patronising and poleaxing those newer to the hobby will not win friends and influence people. Indeed, at best it will result in a new generation of drinkers who, far from having greater knowledge, possess a poorly formed world view – that can only ever look within the confines of its own bubble. Topics such as transparency *are* important – but equally these are mile markers on a much longer and broader journey. They are not and should not be a starting point. No one, but no one is going to be enthralled to start their exploration of the wider world of whisky with circular arguments on provenance. All things in good time.
Of course, there are myriad examples when knowing things about a whisky can be directly tied to its enjoyment – moments where the pieces of the puzzle all fit together – and the understanding of distillation or maturation regimes can be directly linked to the aromas, flavours and textures that a spirit possesses and presents. But at the same time, there’s equally just as many moments when not knowing can present the drinker with an altogether different type of experience. One unfettered by preconceptions.
Whilst I’m naturally one of those people who seek to understand and to link my understanding back to my own sense of personal enjoyment. I’m often happy to do this backwards. After the fact. Enjoying the times when my lack of knowledge, or lack of information to be able to apply my knowledge provides moments of unexpected pleasure – or confoundment. Not only is that an entirely valid method for enjoying whisky (there’s a reason why blind tasting is still popular) it also is one which comes without the baggage of familiarity.
Today’s review segment stems precisely from this kind of experience. Of tasting before reading.
Continuing our coverage of The Whisky Exchange’s ongoing series of single cask releases bottled under their own name comes a 1997 Bunnahabhain – matured in a single hogshead (#5448) for 22 years. On the surface, so far so run of the mill. However, upon tasting it turns out there’s more under the hood here than just another two decade+ indy release from this increasingly popular distillery.
Nose: Immediate moist peat – wet autumnal leaves, dampened bonfire, petrichor and sweet bituminous smoke. Reduced berry fruits together with burnt toffee sit with pangs of coastalness – pebbles and sand. Dilution offers smoked apricots and brillo pads alongside forest-tinged bracken, water-logged bark and moss.
Taste: Viscid and packed full of asphalt. Road and roofing tar, leather satchels and resinous oakiness sit with palpable salinity from rock pools and brine. Liquorice and walnut oil join caramelised pan sugars, whilst ginger cake adds sweetness and menthol cools on the in-breath. Reduction merges wood smoke with industrial lubricant and brings with it a salt beef sandwich whilst unlocking cask pepperiness.
Finish: Lengthy and persistently tarry. Smoke, salt and sweetness – all glued together by alluvialness.
Whilst this 1997 Bunnhabhain is far from the most intricate of expressions I’ve sampled from the distillery - through not reading the press blurb before sitting down to write my notes I was pleasantly surprised by it on a number of levels. This expression comes from a small but growing number of well-aged independently bottled moine (peated) releases. And the quality of this style of distillate when left alone for a decent amount of time in a high-quality cask is notably exceptional.
The distillery has released a fair number of younger examples of this profile – but is only recently starting to show off how their modern take on the heavily peated distillate adapts to longer maturation periods. The result here is wonderfully impactful – losing little of its potency over two decades, but amalgamating brilliantly with the cask. A cask, which though noted only as a hogshead brings with it substantive sweetness – perhaps a refill sherry or even a rechar? Who’s to say - but either way I find this as deftly composed as it is delicious. At a lower price I wouldn't hestiate to pull the trigger. Sometimes there’s something to be said about a little less knowledge.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange
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