CHEONG LIEW WITH THE AUTHOR AND SHERIFF JAMES BOURNE AT THE FRONT BAR OF THE NORTH BLINMAN PUB photo MILTON WORDLEY
Chasing Malts In The Outback
by PHILIP WHITE
So Johnny Walker’s green trip’s over. Bugger. Green Label is no more.
The Green Label was a slippery blend of four fifteen year old malts, whose nature was most forcibly taught this writer by a policeman a few years ago in outback South Australia.
George Grainger Aldridge, the cartoonist and painter whose work decorates DRINKSTER, spends a lot of time painting in the blistering Flinders Rangers, in our far north bush country. When he’s not hiding in the Hawker pub, sketching locals, you’ll probably find him in another outback treasure, the Blinman. A few hours further north - depending on the weather and the track - this one’s not as posh as the Hawker. It’s so far north, in fact, it’s actually called the North Blinman Hotel, which is interesting, considering there’s nothing at your actual Blinman.
Because of this, the North Blinman is called The Blinman, which saves a whole syllable worth of precious spittle in the dry air. And few souls who aren't dangerously thirsty even mention The Blinman.
One of the attractions of the joint is the cool of its empty swimming pool. When respectfully climbed into, it’s a perfect spot to drink and sing. Deprived of water, which is too scarce for swimming, its acoustics are ideal for doggerel, balladry, and lies, and because its bottom’s the closest thing to sea level in the mountains, it’s a favoured site amongst those outback wanderers with the strongest tendency to fall.
THE EVENING BEFORE ... COOK OUT BACK CROWDS BEGIN TO GATHER AT THE NORTH BLINMAN PUB
George was the driver of Cook Out Back, a now defunct festival of scrub gourmandy dedicated to the adoration of the bushman’s major epicurean tool, the cast iron Dutch oven, or camp oven.
Toasted bushies from all over the Red Center, and pretenders from the push would compete over two days for a $5000 prize, awarded to the individual or team who cooked the best tucker in this rustic device. Many would book a year in advance, just to ensure they’d secure their place in the fifty official campfire sites. These were evenly spread on five terraces dozed into the hill adjacent to the pub. To avoid bushfires and damage to the local vegetation, volunteer stockmen supplied hot coals to the competitors; for reasons of occupational health and safety, each individual fire was kept within a big steel wheel rim from the wrecked pioneer wagons which lie abandoned in those harsh, beautiful parts. One day they would cook with the supplied standard issue flour, the other with the supplied saltbush mutton and vegetables. They were welcome to add their own selection of herbs and spices.
The food was amazing. One bloke chose against wasting his flour on the standard bread, scones or damper. He made fettucini, and cooked it in bush herbs. Perfect!
I was a member of the judging team. We’d sit at a table in a tent between the pub and the terraces, while the competitors queued outside, awaiting their turn to present their offering.
GEORGE GRAINGER ALDRIDGE, UNAWARE OF THE UFO, ON THE HIGH PLAINS OF GLEN OAK STATION, FLINDERS IN BACKGROUND
Having performed this august task the first time, I suggested the team should next year include Cheong Liew, the famous chef from The Grange restaurant in the Adelaide Hilton. As he’d never before been so far bush, Cheong was in like Flynn. Kate Harbison, a seasoned bushie and former police officer in the Northern Territory, was our driver.
As we left the city, I suggested that we should take George a bottle of Lagavulin to ease his tensions. This particularly peaty 16 year old malt whisky from Islay was a favourite elixir for those hard parts, and shouldn’t have been too hard to procure. But as we wound our way north, calling at each likely victualler, we soon tired of the repetition: “Sorry cobber, we’re out. The rep’s been crook.”
Our concern sent us on a major diversion to the Clare vignoble in the North Mount Lofty Ranges, where the thirst of the vignerons would surely see secure supplies laid in, but no. The only Scotch offering of pedigree was one lonely bottle of Johnny Walker Green Label. This, I explained to my colleagues, was a blend of malts from four of the distilleries owned by Diageo - Talisker, Caol Ila, Cragganmore and Linkwood – and while it was a handsome, bracing drink, it lacked the smoky Druid-and-Vikin reek of the boisterous Lagavulin, which was also owned by Diageo.
We were close, but not quite on target. We bought the bottle.
Hours later, on the hearth of the Flinders, we stopped for a cold beer at the Carrieton pub (above), which is pretty much all there is of Carrieton. The spirit shelves there were empty, apart from a sole bottle of Laphroaig.
“We’re in luck,” I said. “Laphroaig’s from the same wee island as Lagavulin, and it’s much more like the Lagavulin than our Green Label Johnny. Laphroaig’s only ten year old but it’s really smoky like Lagavulin: all iodine medicinals and peat lug reek.”
I asked the publican how much he wanted for that one lonely bottle: probably the only one between Broome and Blanchetown.
“Can’t sell it,” he said, pouring more beers. "Won't sell it."
We complained. Surely he’d prefer our cash in his till? We’d pay generously.
“Nup. Can’t let it go.”
Eventually, he gingerly explained that Laphroaig was the local policeman’s favourite tipple, and that was his last bottle.
We understood, and desisted. At which point, out of sheer embarrassment, he insisted on pouring each of us a hearty dram, on his account. These went in agreeably; we bought a slab of coldies, and returned to the track. Even our bush-hardened driver felt at this point it was time to crack a traveler, as the likelihood of breathalysers diminished with the width and condition of the roadway.
GEORGE'S T-SHIRT LOGO, IN WHICH THE CAMP OVEN FLIES ON THE WINGS OF WILPENA POUND, AND HIS STUBBIE HOLDER ... THESE ARE PRECIOUS COLLECTOR'S ITEMS NOW
So north we churned, happily addressing our tinctures, chatting away. I rolled up a couple of racehorse specials, and everything was just tickety-boo. But an hour or so short of Blinman, after the road had run out of tarmac, it started to rain. This happens very rarely north of the Goyder Line, which was now half-a-day behind us. The track quickly became bog slippery, and began to challenge our four wheel drive. We slid over a crest, straight into a police road block. Impossible! Two vehicles, two officers, flashing lights, and a barrier. We almost skidded into them as I frantically stowed the university tobacco, and our driver jammed her beer somewhere discrete.
“I’ll deal with this,” I stupidly consoled. “Leave it to me.”
I wound my window down as the policemen we’d nearly killed approached my passenger door. He put his hand on our roof, steadied himself, and leant forward.
Through a billow of smoke I said “Can I help you officer?”
“Yes,” he shot back. “Are you the bastards who’ve been drinking my malt?”
THE AUTHOR WITH DEAN RASHEED ON HIS ARKABA STATION IN THE FLINDERS ... SOME OF THAT ANCIENT GEOLOGY REAPPEARS IN THE SEVEN ACRE VINEYARD, SIX HOURS DRIVE TO THE SOUTH, AND AGAIN IN McLAREN VALE EVEN FURTHER SOUTH Flinders photo DENNIS VICE
What’s a bloke to do? I fumbled around for the Johnny Green, pulled its cork, and handed it through the window with another cloud of smoke. Damn!
“Sorry mate. We tried to buy it but the publican wouldn’t sell it. We didn’t want to deprive you. It was him who insisted on pouring them. We only had one shot each. Anyway, here, have a try of this one … it’s not so smoky but it’s pretty smooth … ”
He took the bottle and stared at me like I was a piece of camel shit.
“Surely,” he spat, “surely a man of your standing would appreciate the difference between Highland and Islay malts. I mean, sure, this might have a dribble of Islay in it, but it’s mainly poofy Highland florals … none of the smoke a malt man needs … ”
He shook his head, and handed the offensive bottle back through the window.
“Now get on your way, then get off the track. I don’t want to see you on the road again today.”
I wound the window up as the policemen dismantled their barrier and turned their flashing lights off; we were mobile the second they made a gap. As we squished off, we could see them pissing themselves with laughter.
“What happened back there Philip?” Cheong asked through a nervous giggle. I had to say I didn’t know, but gradually we realised the publican must have been on the two-way to confess his guilt and we’d been the target of the perfect bush joke.
That evening, the same copper walked into the Blinman bar, put his gun behind the cash register, and helped George and the rest of us sink that Green. I ended up in the swimming pool, enjoying the echoes with a local aboriginal headman, Joey McKenzie, who plays a cool guitar and sings through a voice softer’n a rabbit shelterin’ in a holler.
Anyway, the news that Diageo has stupidly chosen to cease production of the Green hit my inbox last night, and I’ve been mourning. And remembering.
“Johnnie Walker Green Label, a blend of the four single malts, Talisker, Caol Ila, Cragganmore and Linkwood has been discontinued by the House of Walker,” the death notice reads ... “In the long term this will strengthen Johnny Walker’s overall offering as producers of premium malt and grain blended whiskies, as Green Label was a malt blend ...
“To give it a send-off, Johnny Walker will be hosting The Last Tasting where those fortunate enough to receive an invite will also walk away with a bottle of Green Label, signed and numbered by master distiller, Jim Beveridge.”
So the economic ratchnerlists strike again, leaving their striding dandy dashed against a roadblock in the Scottish highlands. He should have seen it coming. He hit his first one down here.
Three weeks after our highland incident, back in the East End of Adelaide, I nudged the rubbing strakes of the front bar of The Exeter, sharing the odd cold one with the South Australian Minister for Police. Village life, you know. As I related the yarn, suggesting the officer should be promoted immediately for his commitment to community involvement and sensitive consultation in bush policing, a group of American wine writers and merchants edged closer. Dan Phillips, their host and guide from The Grateful Palate in San Francisco, must have mentioned my line of work, so their curiosity had led them close enough to overhear the story.
“Promoted?” One scoffed. “Shouldn’t the guy be sacked?”
I introduced him to my buddy.
“This is Patch,” I said. “He’s the Minister for Police. Ask him.”
Journalistic ethics prevent me from relating the contents of private conversations with people of such authority, but let me assure you the Minister’s response was entirely supportive of his officer, if measured, and the Americans left thinking the whole thing was complete bullshit,as in simply Not True.
I mean how could the Minister for Police be drinking with a bloke like me in a joint like that without a consort of armed bodyguards?
Diageo is the world’s fattest liquor company. It had a market capitalisation of £34.5 billion ($55.22 billion Australian) at Christmas, making it the 12th-largest company on the London Stock Exchange. This tower of testosterone-driven Booze & Babel was the creation of the brutal boardroom bullies Anthony Greener and Philip Yea of Guinness and George Bull and John McGrath of Grand Metropolitan, who determinedly fought to merge their companies.
In the whisky racket, Diageo owns the world’s biggest whisky brand, Johnnie Walker, a vast blending vat of bits and pieces from the other distilleries and brands in the same corporate corral. These include the malt distilleries Auchroisk, Banff, Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Brora, Buchanan's, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Clynelish, Convalmore, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glen Albyn, Glen Elgin, Glenlossie, Glen Ord, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, Linlithgow, Lochnagar, Knockando, Mannochmore, Mortlach, North Brechin, Oban, Port Ellen, Rosebank, Royal Strathmill, Talisker, and Teaninich. A few of these are mothballed, and sit merely as barrel houses full of ageing whisky. In the macho tug-of-war of takeover and collapse which is eternal in Scotland, beautiful distilleries open and close like a schoolbus door.
To fill these staccato manufactory gaps, Diageo’s opened a giant new distillery with fourteen pots at their Roseisle maltings, and are extending Cameron Bridge Grain Distillery in Fife to make it Scotland’s biggest. They back this up with the Port Dundas Grain Distillery in Glasgow, and run the North British Grain Distillery in Edinburgh in a JV with The Edrington Group.
To a company which produces the world’s biggest-selling vodka (Smirnoff), distilleries like these monsters are very handy. Grain whisky is, after all, vodka with no oak and no smoke. The economies of scale intrinsic here would make any economic ratchenlist pour a bucket of Briuchladdich and bawl with joy.
Diageo pulls whisky from all these satellites to blend Justerini & Brooks (J&B), Bell's, Black & White, Vat 69, Singleton, Haig, Royal Lochnagar and Dimple, as well as Johnnie Walker.
Amongst their other ethanol businesses you’ll find Bushmills, Smirnoff, Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Gilbey’s, Seagram’s, George Dickel, José Cuervo, Pimm's, Baileys, Bulleit, Captain Morgan and what we thought was our very own Bundaberg. Not to mention Guinness.
Given that mess of headaches, I suppose they could drop Johnny Walker Green without feeling much sting. But Christmas saw the two top teeth of the striding dandy land in my water glass: Johnny Walker Blue Label ($200), and its shotgun rider, the Gold Label ($100).
The carpentry aside, the main layers of gustatory assault are neither subtle nor refined. They’re not horrid or anything, but they’re not reflective of the sort of genius the company hopes we believe they own in figureheads like Jim Beveridge. One wonders what his postion would be if he’d been born Trevor Smith.
To add the essential flesh, there’s a pleasing ooze of orange crême caramel; maybe even a hint of crêpes suzette flaming in curaçao. But that raw timber brutalizes both.
Then there’s the reflection of spiced mead: cassia bark and nutmeg. Oak again.
So. I dunno. I’ll drink nearly anything from Scotland, but this over-priced drambulator makes the brash honesty of Johnny Red begin to look more accommodating. I mean, I could sit here with you, knock a bottle over with a smoke and some glamour craic, and probably enjoy every single drip of it, but when I’m poking my nose in solitary like, I think the lovely cobber who bought it as a gift for me was ripped off. Teacher’s ($40) comes to mind.
On the other hand, while still overpriced for its quality, the Blue Label is a work of real beauty: truly smooth and burnished, elegant and sinuous. While the propaganda bunker goes on again about smokiness, I genuinely think that’s beside the point. This great whisky’s cute baby peat florals and venerable leatherwood honey make a bloke come over all runny in the middle, shut the fuck up or gurgle like a brook whether there’s anybody there or not.
Jim Beveridge is supposed to have said: “I think of blending as being like the process of writing. Is the final book just a series of words, a lot of facts and information, or has it been put together with care and attention so that the end result will relate to the person who reads it? If it does, then that, you could argue, is magic blending, like writing, like any creative process, is much more involved in the world of ideas, with trying to connect with the whisky drinker. I like to think that we have made that connection with our whiskies.”
Well, Mr. Beveridge, you have connected with me. Look what you just squeezed outa me.