I’ve just finished todays work on an article someone contacted me to write, one delving into the history and etymology of the words whiskey and whisky. I’m not finished, not by a long shot, but pouring over blogs, books, articles and texts dating from the 21st century to the 18th it gets me thinking. I’ve put it away and will finish it tomorrow but the thought rattles in my mind, what does whisky mean? Not in the sense of a word but rather in the sense of a drink, what does whisky mean, and what does whisky mean to me?
I have a favourite book series that I read once a year or so. During it one of the main characters, The Fool, gains the ability to touch an item and glean insights from its past.
He glanced down at his bandaged fingers. “Not pain. Very sensitive. I can feel the weave of the threads in the bandages. ” His eyes started to get distant. He smiled. “I can see the man who wove it, and I know the woman who spun it. The sheep on the hillside, rain falling on their thick wool, and the grass they ate . . . wool is from grass, Fitz. A shirt woven from grass. No, there is more. The soil, black and rich and . . . ”
From Assassins Quest by Robin Hobb
The character is cautioned not to dive too deeply and stay too long otherwise they will be lost forever in the history of all things that went into making that one little bandage.
That is whisky to me. I’ve written previously about the joys of making it and tasting it, and in another recent project I’ve been diving into the history of whisky across the world and each countries alcohol, whisky or otherwise and that idea of getting lost in history is all too familiar. When I have a glass of whisky, sit down and sip it, I can’t help but think about what went into making it.
Aristotle first theorised distillation in the 2nd century, the idea of separating sea water into salt and water. The Arab’s first discovered distillation, using it for perfumes, medicines, and through traders, monks, and knights distillation spread through the entire world. What we recognise as whisky today is unrecognisable from what would have been whisky at that time, or as whisky from just a few centuries back.
So much goes into a glass of whisky. When I sit down and think about a dram I find myself becoming The Fool, wondering and falling into the history of the glass. What suns graced the fields that grew the barley, the corn, the rye, the wheat? What was the story of the farmers that grew it? Where did they come from, where did they go?
Fermentation, distillation, those washback, if made of wood then where did it grow, we people, empires did those trees see rise and fall? Who sheltered beneath there branches before eventually they were cut down to craft a washback?
Those stills, rich copper, where did it comes from? Forsyths is a famous name of still makers but theirs is not the only one. Each and every still maker has rich lives, learning their own little kinks as they became masters of their trade.
Every distillation in every distillery is different, and those people working in the distilleries make them living breathing beings, great giants billowing steam and working to create a fantastic liquid. Every difference in breath makes for a different whisky.
When we lie the whisky down to sleep in the barrels, it takes on the characterises of that wood, being nurtured and kept by the wood, guiding it through its life to become something unrecognisable to when it first dropped in. These were trees that stood and watched the world fly by nurtured the whisky and told it those stories that made the wood what it was, what went into them previously was another being entirely and shapes each whisky in its own way.
And of course blending. Those Masters that have knowledge beyond what any of us can imagine, and have crafted all those drinks we hold dear. How many whiskies have they taken the time to dream, to blend, to taste, only to raise an eyelid at the results and head back to the drawing board?
Recently labels have become more and more extravagant, labels like those of That Boutique-y Whisky Company speak of fun and delight at the sheer existence and fact that you can be a part of this world of whisky, labels on Macallans are ever changing but retaining the regal look of the drink, labels such as Glenfarclas remain steadfast and plain but reminding you that you are buying what is on the label.
Until finally the drinker. We sit, we savour, we remember the drams of the past, mull over our whisky in front of us right now and think about those of the future. Every piece, every part makes all the difference and influences us in a way, for better or worse, and the story of each whisky is something to be savoured and dreamed over.
I have a love of puzzles, the building of something piece by piece until the glorious picture is laid out in front of you, though finishing the puzzle seems to me the saddest part of it. Once you have finished the puzzle you know how it fits together and in that knowledge lies the sadness that you have learnt this thing and will never learnt how to make it again.
I once told my partner that every whisky is an ever changing puzzle, a million pieces that each come together to make what you have in the glass before you, though as whisky is constantly growing and changing the puzzle will never end, and we always learn.
It’s art, living and breathing that you hold in the glass, art that can be collected, art that can be shared, art that can be savoured and drunk. It’s a special little thing we can sit down with and become The Fool us we delve into its scents, its secrets, its sensitivity. Its taste. Its meaning.
Whisky is part of that great art piece, hundreds of years behind whisky, thousands of years behind distillation, too many years to count behind drink itself. And that art is not yet finished, year by year, day by day, the art that is whisky grows and flourishes in new countries, new styles, new ways of thinking.
That is what whisky means to me. Every time I sit down with a dram I am drinking something that has such untold history behind it, and I can sip it and sit in thought. And I can’t wait to see what happens in whisky next.
If you’ve read this, thank you. It’s always nice to have articles read, but this time I’d like to hear from you, what does whisky mean to you? Write a comment. Send an email. Hell, start your own blog and write an article, if you don’t want to do that write an article and I’ll put it on here for you. Let me, and everyone know what whisky means to you, and what you’re excited for next.