In Lee Child’s The Hero, the author talks about stories, how the mythology of ‘The Hero’ has worked its way into our tales and myths and is now a core part of being human. Those stories that we have told since we lived in caves and ran across plains have since evolved to the likes of James Bond, Batman, Aphrodite and Atticus Finch – figures who will outlive and outlast us because of the stories and mythology around them.
Even with real figures, those who have pre-existing stories and surrounding mythology. Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Boudicca, William Shakespeare – all have stories and legends surrounding them and continue to live on in our hearts and minds not only because of what they achieved, but also what we say they achieved.
Alexander the Great likely never cut the Gordian Knot, Shakespeare was not Queen Elizabeth I writing in disguise, Cleopatra probably never unrolled in a carpet to present herself to Julius Caesar and Boudicca and her daughters would never have ridden a scythe wheeled chariot to war against the Romans.
Even though these stories aren’t true, and some of these figures aren’t real, we remember that in our lives, depending on your love for them, you might remember and think of them daily. These stories serve to inspire us and make stories of our own.
The whisky industry has had problems with romanticisation in the past. Even today, some of these myths continue and alter our perception of the drink and, while there is a problem with that, it is not as much of a problem as you may think. See, our drink is built on these stories and fantastic lies. The truth matters, of course, and should always come first, but when talking about whisky we should not downplay those myths and legends so quickly.
There are myths of course that have no place and should be dismissed: the idea that you should never add ice to whisky, the idea that you should never add whisky to a cocktail, that colour indicates age and age indicates quality, older is better, all Scotch is peated, Irish Whiskey is matured for three years and a day, or worst of all – whisky is only made in Scotland, Ireland, America and Japan.
All of these are myths that have no place within our discussion and harm our industry more than it helps it.
But a story, a story helps. A story gives us all a level playing ground. When you read stories about whisky, they help you understand the feeling of the moment and make you think of whisky stories of your own. All things need stories to grow and continue, to lock a place in our minds. Your association with a particular flavour or tasting notes comes from memory of course but can link to a story.
Tasting notes tell a story. The enormous quantity of tasting notes online across shops, YouTube pages, blogs, reviews and more all help form these stories and add to the overall effect. These differences in opinions and thoughts add to a whisky rather than detract.
Without stories something becomes lost and forgotten, but the stories that we make by tasting whisky, talking about it, writing about it, laughing about it, this means that the whisky will live on.
Years ago, I moved to Scotland. The flight from Australia to Edinburgh is long and tiring, and I was bleary eyed on the bus from the airport to my hostel at 11.30am. The city was strange and foreign. Dumping my bags at the hostel, I needed some food and drink to calm my jitters. At a nearby bar, I asked the bartender for a pie and a Glenmorangie. She slapped me in the face and told me I could get the whisky when I learnt how to pronounce it correctly, ‘morangie like orange.’
I attended a tasting a year after which looked at the whole Johnnie Walker range. One of the folks sitting next to me was taking the time to explain how they get their names. The way he had been informed, the Johnnie Walker Red is comprised of whisky taken closest to the wood, the Green slightly further in, all the way to the Blue which is taken from the very heart of the cask. All of us were too dazed to explain to him his error and so, after a few minutes of laughing and trying to speak, we moved on.
I’ve hosted many a tasting in my time, some of them old and rare tastings. On one occasion, there was an eight-year-old independently bottled Convalmore, distilled, matured and bottled before I was born. I took time to explain the history of the distillery and what we were about to drink, the rarity of it and, as I peeled off the foil, the top of the cap came away with it while the rest of the cork dropped into the whisky. I had to decant it with a tea strainer behind a counter… I don’t know if anyone noticed.
All the above stories happened and they’re all memories that make the whisky endure for me.
Whisky is built on more than just the taste. The production of it – malting, fermentation, distillation, maturation, blending and bottling – all of these come together to make our drink but, in the act of drinking it, talking about it, these are the moments that make our drink what it is.
That bottle of Convalmore which I ruined was likely the last, if not one of very few left in the world. Simply drinking it, I would have had the memory of the whisky and its taste, something that would fade as I taste other whiskies. But, by having the story attached to it, I will always remember it as the time I handled what was likely one of the rarest bottles I’ll ever touch and managed to almost completely ruin it. Without the story, the whisky would be nothing but a distant memory. Now it’s something I think about often and laugh, always remembering the whisky.
With those stories, the whisky lives with us and can outlive us. It becomes more than something on the shelf somewhere, it becomes attached to us. The whisky remains and the memories are what link them to us.
In short, whisky becomes something more than a drink. It becomes a story. And stories are always worth listening to.