“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





17 August 2008

Smuggler's jocks and auld crofters

by PHILIP WHITE - This was first published in The Independent Weekly in July 2008

“Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Isla, Kilchoman, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Port Charlotte, Port Ellen” … long-time readers of this writer may recall his mantra… Just off the record, he’s also been known to shout “Bruichladdich!” whilst approaching climax, triggering jealous howls about betrayal and infidelity from his fierce lover, who is not called Bruichladdich.

Fair enough, the beauty of Bruichladdich considered. Most lasses would be jealous; lads, too. They’d all want a share.

But this mystic Gaelic recitation has nothing to do with women. Those names belong to the malt whisky distilleries of Islay, a low, wild, sparsely-inhabited lump of stone and sodden grassed peat in the North Channel between Ulster and Argyll. These whiskies are very, very masculine. Think smuggler’s jocks, and auld crofters with gaps in their teeth where briar pipes live, smouldering through the stiffest spumy gales.

Learning this chant, in any order, for recitation at well-chosen moments, will leave observers wondering which sort of sacred and/or profane Druidic message and/or curse the speaker’s delivering. Recite it whilst jumping the queue at a bus stop, taking the seat of a Japanese student, confusing debt collectors, or convincing arresting officers that the forms will be far too difficult to fill in. Stare ’em in the eyes.

Malt whisky is made from barley. Ideally, one soaks dried local grains in local water, spreads them on a sprouting floor, and rakes them regularly until they shoot without mouldering. At this point, their starch is converting to sugar to provide the energy required for growth. Sugar is required to make alcohol. Before the grains burn all their sugar growing shoots, distillers arrest it by slowly roasting the grain with peat smoke.

The black, peaty water that oozes from the Islay soil imparts its iodine-rich aroma to the grains, a flavour further concentrated by the smoke, which is derived from peat - decaying vegetation - moistened for centuries by North Atlantic spindrift. The maltster exaggerates this by using peat from deeper down, where it’s less floral, and richer in phenolic oils. The lignins, the stiffeners in plant cell walls, rot, imparting their brown coal (lignite) flavour to the soil, which is sufficiently oily to smoulder away in a peat lug.

As the barley is dried and burnished, its sugars are trapped and caramelised. The grain is then milled to a rough flour, which is stirred into more local water, yeasted and fermented. It’s fast: only two days. It almost explodes: the most violent biochemical event your writer has witnessed was a ferment at Highland Park, on Orkney. A three-metre tall oak “washback” tank vibrated like a mighty engine, spouting great gushes of alcoholic barley milkshake through the breathing slots in its heavy lid. Scary.

This rough ale is then concentrated in a pot still, where it trebles in alcohol. The resultant weak spirit is distilled again, giving a very powerful alcohol, which is aged in old oak barrels, blended, and diluted with more local water to give a finished whisky of forty per cent alcohol or more.

Inexpensive whiskies are dilutions of such malts in simple unpeated grain spirit, which is like vodka. The best of these is Teacher’s Highland Cream, which has more malt whisky than most other blends, so it’s slightly more expensive than the discount brands like Johnny Walker red, Black Douglas, Dewars, Ballantine’s, or whatever.

Because great aged malts can cost well over $100 a bottle, they’re out of reach of most of us. So your writer, a brazen whisky sot - it’s genetic - has devised a cunning method of blending his own malt-rich tipple which tastes like it costs twice as much as it does. It’s a larger than usual initial investment, but provides a delicious result.

Buy two bottles of Teacher’s and one Laphroaig 10 year old pure malt. Tip them in a jug, stir them gently, and put your blend back in the bottles. Imbibe at cellar temperature, with a little rain if you must.

A good way of learning the Islay mantra is to buy a bottle from each distillery, in order, and practice their names as you tipple gently through the winter, learning their amazing natures.

To refresh his memory by plunging into such a cycle, this writer recently bought an Aardbeg 10 year old ($82.49; 46% alcohol). The bouquet was perfectly Islay with its acrid peat reek, and austere, iodine-like medicinal tang. It had a pleasant fleshy soapiness, too. But the flavour? (Insert abrupt monosyllabic Middle English curse.) Corked. Even the most profoundly confounding complexity that all the Druid spooks of Islay could instill were ruined by that lump of diseased Portuguese oak bark in its throat. That catty, rats’ nest ammonia-like taint of the dreaded trichloranisole beat the Celts hands down. Expensive tragedy. It’ll be interesting to see how the lads at the bottle-o respond when the Aardbeg returns for replacement.

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