There is a perception that the world of whisky is one shrouded in mysticism; beasts and legends and deeply obscure tasting notes. And to a certain extent that’s true – there’s an awful lot of it out there and there are periods in whisky’s history where that has been allowed to flourish. But while everyone loves a good haunted mash tun story, there’s a risk that you put legions of potential whisky fans off from trying their very first dram because they think whisky is a complicated and mysterious thing, the preserve of wise old men with elaborate moustaches.
What is so cheering for us, as brand new whisky producers, is that the tide seems to be turning ever so slightly and more and more people within the industry are talking about throwing out the old rules, explaining the processes, and making the whole thing more accessible. This doesn’t have to mean dumbing down either, and in many cases it’s quite the opposite – greater transparency by producers means we can all get stuck in to meaty debates about fermentation lengths and char levels.
Stopping short of giving away trade secrets, one of the things I like most about showing people round our distillery is the demystifying element. I get to explain exactly how we take grain, water and yeast and turn them into delicious spirit. Much as I hated chemistry at school (sorry Mrs Jeanes, you tried your best) I love being able to explain to people that there are specific compounds that give you certain flavours in your spirit, and what you need to do to get them. One thing that crops up all the time is people saying ‘I’ve heard that the source of the water is very important for the whisky’s flavour, where do you get yours from?’ and they unwittingly set me off on my favourite myth-busting rant… but that’s a topic for another, even more controversial blog post.
For every betweeded old whisky expert swearing that you should never, ever add ice to a whisky, there’s now a whisky writer introducing people to the Japanese tradition of mizuwari; whisky drunk long, with soda water and ice in a highball. For every dyed-in-the-wool single malt purist turning their nose up at the very thought of blended whisky, there are pioneering producers like Compass Box who aim to reintroduce people to the absolute artistry of blending. And for every bloke that’s asked me, disbelieving, if I actually, really like whisky though? there’s a female whisky writer, brand ambassador, distiller, master blender or just straight-forward whisky fan.
This change, the hint at a quiet transformation, doesn’t mean we’re not all in love with the history and heritage of whisky – personally that’s still the most fundamental appeal of the drink, that you are sipping time. But it does show that we can be both – lovers of tradition, and innovators too.