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Memory and the Middle Cut

‘Life through the Worm Tub’

Memory and the Middle Cut

I have been exceedingly fortunate in my explorations into Scotch whisky thus far to have had the opportunity to engage in dialogues with many fascinating people. Be they distillery personnel, brand ambassadors, retailers or folk like you and me who just passionately love the stuff, an encounter with another person whose life has embraced whisky in a meaningful capacity invariably results in new insights and perspective.

Let me give you an example: when Lukasz Dynowiak (Alembic Communications and Edinburgh Whisky Blog) invited me to join his phalanx of whisky bloggers set to descend on Inver House distilleries last year, I found myself sat across the aisle in our toothpaste tube of an aeroplane on a lurching leap up to Wick beside a Mr Keith Wood. In the act of elaborating upon my whisky adventure my deep-seated and only dimly-understood convictions concerning whisky’s essential magic crawled to the surface of our discussion. As the tour progressed, an affinity in our respective approaches to drams became clear and I have been reading Keith’s superb Whisky Emporium ever since. Indeed, it is partly on account of his personal testimonies which every so often emerge in and colour his tasting notes that I have been inspired to post up my own every so often.

Rather than leave it at that, however, we felt a little whisky scholarship was in order. Keith, newly inducted into the order of Malt Maniacs, and I searched the scrolls for scientific study into olfaction and personal memories, using any conclusions we found to illustrate how whisky has catalysed with a profound and primordial part of us. Why was not of prime importance – I simply had to devote more time to reflecting on the ways in which malts have cross-referenced my life experiences so far, and share them with another individual whose sensory archives dwarf my own.Caol Ila

The distillation of our meditations is this combined blog post, in which we discuss the boundaries between the personalities of Scotch Whisky and our own, and how our willingness to blur them can result in extraordinary, almost out-of-body, experiences. Read Keith’s version here.

Though hardly essential in all matters, with certain phenomena it is satisfying when science can confirm what you long suspected. ‘[O]lfaction,’ Messrs Rubin, Groth and Goldsmith stated in their 1984 study concerned with the relationship between how our separate senses cue contrasting categories of memory, ‘is somehow different from more commonly studied senses of vision and audition.’

This, I feel certain, will hardly astonish my whiskyphile readers. Who among us has not perceived the heightened degree of intimacy tied to an evening of enraptured dram-snuffling? Whiskies impel us, quite irresistibly, to personal meditation and every so often the consequences can be quite revelatory. If this weren’t the case, if whisky in the glass were no more loaded with subtle powers of suggestion than whisky on the page or screen, we would all be content to limit our encounters to reading tasting notes or watching Ralfy bounce enthusiastically around Scotland on YouTube.

As human beings we are programmed to pay close attention to these most immediate and invasive of sensory cues. Aroma and taste, as though armed with a search warrant, can pluck the deepest and murkiest echoes of our lives from their obscurity for its own arcane ends. Like connecting the blood-stained cleaver under the sink to the grisly murder perpetrated the previous day, our brains forge an indissoluble and significant link between stimulus and past experience. Though no longer of quite the same evolutionary necessity, this ancient mechanism is still most definitely switched on. The study found that an odour cue was more likely to retrieve a unique and well-preserved recollection than other forms of cue: ‘previously inaccessible memories’ were recalled for the test subjects as a result of nosing a selection of aromas, memories that had never been consciously contemplated or discussed prior to their unveiling during the experiment. In addition, though not conclusively proven, these rarer memories were for some rated as more pleasant than those conjured up by images and words.

Allow Keith and I to describe how whiskies have rifled through our personal mental photo albums and why, non-scientifically but all the better for it, we found it to be such a breath-taking ride.

GlenfarclasKeith: I often reflect on this phenomenon as whisky aromas often return long-forgotten memories immediately to the fore. My first experience of this was whilst nosing a Jack Wieber Caol Ila and I was summarily returned to a cold and damp day in the Yorkshire Dales some 30 years previously. You will also see from my tasting notes page that I swear there is an Islay jetty inside every bottle of Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Laphroaig. This is thanks to those peaty aromas mingling with ones of wood, sea-air, surf and that je ne sais quoi which is Islay personnified. Likewise, Highland Park takes me away into the wild Scottish countryside with heather, bracken, hints of smoke and the great outdoors, reminding me of many walks across Bens and Glens. Finally, people often talk about ‘Christmas drams’ and I also have my own definitive one; Glenfarclas Quarter Casks (1987) which was truly surprising as it offered an amazing array of aromas when the bottle was first opened. These included leather, aged oak and musty books, but after the bottle had been opened a couple of days these were replaced by sherry and dark fruits like plums, currants, raisins and figs. This overall experience immediately transported me to an Olde English country house on Christmas day, just after lunch when I might be relaxing in my favourite deep-buttoned leather chair, surrounded by old first editions lining oak shelves and with a glass of sherry or port in my hand. This, for me is the magic of malt whisky!

Another, more recent one which took me totally by surprise; The whisky was an Independent Port Ellen called Old Bothwell which my dear friend and fellow Maniac Oliver Klimek brought to the table in December last year. This had a very maritime character but with only extremely faint peat, more akin to “the great outdoors” with fresh, sea-air in abundance. For some reason I was immediately transported back to some childhood days out at the coastal resort of Scarborough during the school holidays. It was a special treat for me when my Mother would take me to one of the local coastal resorts for the day on the train. Scarborough was special because at that time it was far from being a tourist trap and had a great promenade along the sea front from the new to the older part of town, under the watchful eye of the castle. Anyway, the countryside and maritime character of the Port Ellen immediately evoked those childhood days out from more than 40 years ago.

Port Ellen, twinned with Scarborough - in Keith's mind.

Port Ellen, twinned with Scarborough - in Keith's mind.

Evocative, non? I marvel at the period of time Keith describes – twice my present age! Please note I am not suggesting my esteemed collaborator is in any way of an excessively senior disposition, rather that his extra years work to his advantage with regards to this phenomenon. Keith’s agglomeration of experience is so much broader than mine. To use a 21st century analogy, his iPod has many thousands more songs stored on its harddrive which must, I can only suppose, make the act of hitting ‘shuffle’ liable to throw up many more surprises.  Allow me, then, to present an example of which tracks single malt has selected from my more limited jukebox of private sensory memories.

I should say that only rarely – thus far – has a malt recalled its distillery, a function I had hoped my experiences on the Odyssey would enable more consistently. Often my jogs of memory derive from the most innocuous and randomised assortment of landscapes and circumstances, though whisky is never too far away from the original recollection in one of its many forms. One example is a tasting of Ardbeg 10-year-old in late 2008, and the ensuing reawakening of an open-air encounter I had had nearly a year previously at the Torranbuie Cottage near Strathdon in wild, wooded Aberdeenshire. In the process a meaningful connection was made between two largely unremarkable moments: one from my innocent life Before Whisky and the other what had been twenty minutes spent analysing just another dram another dram. There sudden, unforeseen conflation, however, shed new splendour on both. I was walking to the porch, then, on this late October afternoon which was rapidly freshening. The cool mountain air seemed to draw out greater pungency from the bracken, grasses and damp earth. Meanwhile, I became cloaked in the smoke from our neighbour’s log-burner which had pooled in the space between the two houses beneath the pine trees. Back in 2008, and as the Islay malt slid down my throat and the finish developed, the same quality of wood smoke wafted about my palate. A Northumbrian summer melted from my physical sight as I was transported back to the last days of my single malt Dark Age. Soon afterwards on that holiday, I would stumble across The Glenlivet distillery, my state of sensory obliviousness enlightened irreversibly.

The Whisky Country of my imagination.

The Whisky Country of my imagination.

Handing the floor back to Keith: This is one of the truly unique powers, perhaps what some would call mysteries of Scotch malt whisky and although these are purely personal recollections, I will continue to write about them [on the magnificent Whisky Emporium] when they occur in the hope that others will also be encouraged to ‘open their minds’ and let their imaginations enjoy the mysteries of single malts.

I wholeheartedly agree, Keith, and promoting sensitivity to those aspects of single malts over and above flavour-finding - to what that process can reveal concerning our own engagement with the world – was at the back of mind whilst producing this piece. I second any move to get out there and open ourselves up to the depths of our own personal histories, and how whisky can navigate them with such inspiring sympathy.

Just a hint of smoke...

Just a hint of smoke...

*      *      *      *      *

Keith WoodKeith was born in the summer of ’59 and discovered his love of whisky at a rather young age, in fact he was a mere toddler in his teething process when his mother discovered that his pain and discomfort seemed to ease if she rubbed a little whisky on his sore gums. Sadly, her own pain and discomfort didn’t ease quite so much as he tended to scream for more!
 
A lifetime of enjoying drams through four decades from the mid 70′s to present, then writing about his passion for whisky since late 2009 was rewarded in December 2010 when he was invited to join the Malt Maniacs as a certified member, although some say that he should have been ‘certified’ many years ago!

His Whisky-Emporium website is now his main hobby and home to his whisky musings, tasting notes and lots of whisky-related features.

Posted in Comment, Sensings | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2 Responses to Memory and the Middle Cut

  1. Keith says:

    James,
    excellently written and it has indeed been a great topic to address, in fact one of our other bloggers from that bus has contacted me to say he was already planning a similar article and will publish it in due course.

    Kindest regards and thanks again for teaming up to look at this extraordinary phenomenon that is part of the magic of single malt whisky.
    Keith

  2. saxon says:

    Keith,
    Many thanks indeed for your seal of approval: I thoroughly enjoyed uniting Whisky Emporium and the Scotch Odyssey Blog with ties of whisky consensus.
    The whole process has rendered me that much more conscious of this extraordinary physiological quirk, and confirmed for me that I do indeed need to take out the Glencairn more often!
    All the best,
    James

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