by PHILIP WHITE
This was first published in The Independent Weekly in December 2007
Different people deserve different sorts of whisky. When George Grainger Aldridge invited your correspondent to assist in the judging of the first Cookoutback camp oven competition in Blinman fours years ago, two things swirled to mind.
The first was Cheong Liew. He should judge too. The Master.
The second was malt whisky. George should have some Lagavulin. Being spread so thin and dry beneath the galaxies of the north, the poor bugger needed some concentrate. We would carry him a bottle. So his blood wouldn’t thin.
Moist whisky sots have been known to break the gospel law: “and when ye pray, chant not vain repetitions as the heathen do”. Contrarily, such good heathen mumble the mantra of the miraculous distilleries of Islay, a sparse lump in the ocean north of Ireland near the Mull of Kintyre: “Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnhabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Port Ellen.”
Repeat it, over and over and over. It heals thirst.
With a fair deal of confidence, Cheong, Katie Harbison and your reporter sailed north through Gepps Cross. No Lagavulin at that bottle-o. None at Angle Vale. No chance of it at Mallala. “The rep’s been crook”, somebody said.
So we went up the hill to Clare. None there, and that was our last chance. So we bought a green label Johnny Walker, a blended malt from the Highlands, near the Spey.
We forged our dry passage north to Craddock. That took hours. Cheong agreed with my recommendation of Coopers’ Stout. But there on the shelf, looking a touch Joan-of-Arc-ish , stood a lonely bottle of Laphroaig.
“Cheong”, I said, “see that bottle? That’s Laphroaig. That distillery’s almost next door to Lagavulin on Islay. It’s not as peaty, but it’s a lot closer than that highland.”
Whisky can be made from grain spirit, which is white alcohol from the still, as in vodka, not yet stained by oak. Better is malted whisky, which includes a touch of the slower fires of hell. Not just to boil the fermenting grain mash in your copper pot still, to get that stiff white spirit vapourising, but the wetted grain is smoked way beforehand.
Dried new harvest barley is soaked in water, then spread on a raking floor until it sprouts. The tiny root works its way up the outside of one side of the grain, while the stalk heads the opposite direction up the outside of the other. When these are equal in length, and the same length as the grain, like a tight little S, the starch within has politely converted to sugar to drive that growth. You need sugar to make alcohol.
This growth is most perversely arrested when the shot grains are spread by rakes on the smoking floor, which is a big tin floor with millions of tiny slits cut in it. Way down below is the peat oven, where you set fire to peat. The seeping smoke kills the grains, and caramelises that juvenile sugar. That becomes alcohol in the rough ale mash you ferment to concentrate in your still.
In the isles, where there is bugger all shrubbery, but heaps of whales’ breath, the peat tends to be sea spray and iodine-flavoured, like the salty leather underpants of a smuggler. Not that they wear ’em. The heathery highlands are full of florals; that peat is pretty, like Marylin Monroe’s bathroom. Lagavulin is the most extreme in t’other.
The friggin’ publican refused to sell the bottle. He offered us a dram, but wouldn’t part with the bot. Eventually he said it was the policeman’s favourite drink, and gave us a slug beside the stouts, whether we liked it or not.
Which we drank.
Way up further past Wilpena, on the dirt, it began to rain. The track got slippery. Katie had finally popped a stubby, in confidence of arriving, and Cheong and I were working gently on the Johnny. We came over a crest, right into a police roadblock. “I’ll surrender” I said, “and catch you up later”.
We skidded to a halt. It had to sound confident. “Might I help you officer?” I asked as the window slid down.
He got a faceful of our smoke, and my peaty breath, and said “Maybe. Are you the bastards who’ve been drinking my malt?”
We finished the Johnny once he’d knocked off, later in the Blinman, with George.
WINNERS OF 1 OCTOBER 2006 CAMPOUTBACK: Flour – Kirsty Goss Team, Barossa. Meat – Ian Klingberg Team, Port Augusta. Overall – Kirsty Goss Team.