The Whisky of Theseus

So, there’s this bloke Theseus. This geezer was larger than life. He fought against and defeated various different monsters and foes, completed tasks, was the son of one of the Gods (let’s say Poseidon) and was the founder and hero of Athens. I wonder what he drank, but, more importantly, he had this ship.

The ship is what we’re talking about. Theseus took it on his adventures and, upon returning, the people of Athens preserved the ship. Being made of wood, parts rotted and fell away. This meant they were replaced. Here’s where we get to the metaphysical question and paradox of the Ship of Theseus, is the ship that has been repaired and replaced over time the same ship? Is it still The Ship of Theseus? Is an object with all of its parts replaced still the same object?

This is a question that has confounded philosophers for millennia, it is one of the oldest thought experiments and questions in Western Philosophy. I don’t have anything on the likes of Plato, Aristotle or Heraclitus, I’m just Somewhiskybloke, but I’ve enjoyed thinking about this paradox and how it pertains to whisky.

There are multiple things to consider here: does a whisky remain the same when the source of barley changes? When a recipe does? Fermentation time, distillation style, maturation, when does for instance a Highland Park whisky cease being a Highland Park whisky? The product of today would bear next to no resemblance to the whisky of a century ago, so when does a ‘insert distillery name here’ whisky stop being a ‘insert distillery name here’ whisky? There are multiple avenues to venture here, but likely you’ve guessed where I’m going with this. What about closed distilleries?

The whisky world was stunned when Rosebank, Port Ellen, Brora and Hanyu all announced that they would be reopening (I’m aware that this is old news but hear me out). These are mythical distilleries, their bottles fetch a high price due to the scarcity of the bottles and the cult following that they have attained – as an aside, Somewhiskybloke is of the firm opinion that all of these distilleries are thoroughly over hyped, overpriced and an example of FOMO and marketing jumping on something. So, with the announcement that the distilleries were coming back… wow, people lost their shit.

But, while we’re informed by the companies and peoples involved that the whiskies will be as close to the original as possible, it certainly raises the question of whether or not it will be ‘Rosebank’ whisky. Think about it in terms of Macallan; their new Teletubby land of a distillery is state of the art, one of the largest in Scotland and is a scientific marvel but it’s a different distillery. While the name Macallan will grace the label (and add an extra £30) will it still be the same liquid? Many in the community believe that it will be different and this is of a distillery that had the existing stills and distillery to copy from and bring the knowledge across.

Those distilleries that are reopening have little to go on. Hanyu’s stills and equipment were dismantled. Port Ellen was, for the large part, demolished and Rosebank’s stills and equipment were stolen. While Ian Macleod Distillers may have the original plans of the distillery and intend for the everything to function as it once did, is it really the same?

While the name and location will be the same, can they be considered the same distillery, the same whisky? When these bottles grace the shelves eventually will the established date state the date of the original distillery or that of the new founding? If it’s the original date, it’s misleading. If it’s new founding then why use the original names? It seems they will be used to appeal to nostalgia, FOMO and investment rather than making whisky for the sake of making and enjoying it.

So where do we go? It seems dishonest and conceited to name these distilleries as the original distilleries considering the time and difference between what was and what will be. So do you run the risk of naming yourself ‘X’ when ‘X’ no longer exists or is there another way?

I mentioned earlier the differences that come between material changes, stills changes, over time, through parent companies, through production changes. But what intrigues me is the issue of the people. People are the heart and soul of a distillery, while the still might make the spirit if there’s no one to turn on the steam (or flame) then there’s no whisky. Arguably a person creates more difference to a spirit than the distillery does, especially when you consider that a person has the ability to run a fermentation for longer, to take the cuts at different points, to trip and dent the stills there-by making a slight difference but a difference none the less. So why for these reopening, revived, resurrected distilleries why don’t we celebrate them?

So, when they replaced all the pieces of Theseus’ ship, did it remain Theseus’ ship? I propose that it would pass on to the person who replaced the parts, ‘The Ship of Sophia’ perhaps. So, why not do the same with these resurrected distilleries?

Consider the following. In a decade or two from now, if you head into a whisky store or visit an online shop and you see a resurrected whisky, I’m sure there will be something on the bottle to let you know this is the new as opposed to the old, but why not celebrate the people at the distillery while you can? The companies resurrecting these distilleries won’t get rid of the name of the distillery to use another, they’ve spent too much time and money to secure that name. But, they could always add something.

By all reports, Georgie Crawford will be the Master Distiller of Port Ellen and Stewart Bowman the Master Distiller of Brora (I cannot find out who will be the Master Distiller for either Rosebank or Hanyu). Would you rather purchase a bottle of Port Ellen or would you purchase a bottle of ‘Georgie Crawford’s Port Ellen’? Plain old Brora or ‘Stewart Bowman’s Brora’? You could even have the names of all the teams on the back there, when someone moves on to bigger and brighter things, the label could change to reflect that, naming the new member or master distiller. Wouldn’t that be better? We have reached a point where distillery names are well known but, as we begin to get to know the people behind the distillery, celebrating them should be first and foremost on our minds.

It’s time to recognise that whisky is more than the distillery name on the label and ought to praise those behind the whisky itself. As these distilleries will not be what they once were, for better or worse, it’s time to move on and spotlight those who make the whisky. And if Georgie or Stewart ever build a ship, let me know. I’d be keen to see what they’ve done with it.

If you enjoyed reading this, why not give me a follow on Twitter at @Somewhiskybloke? There you can stay up to date with what I’m drinking and what news I’m ignoring while trapped in the wonderful whisky bubble.

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