Knowing the Clearac

What does oak do for whisky? Now, I’m not about to embark upon yet another exposition of the science at the heart of the maturation process, the like of which can be found in every other magazine or blog. I’m not even going to refigure my many previous eulogies composed to exalt the profoundly powerful impressions shuffling through a dunnage warehouse elicits, or at least not entirely.

Instead, I’m going to begin with the claim that oak is PR, that it is the romantic dressings to whisky’s true inception. This thorny reality is that, for most single malts, their start in life betrays the clatter, hiss and heat of industrialism. When whisky floods through the spirit safe, what can really separate it from gin or vodka to the lay consumer? It is new make, a white dog; it is brutal and challenging. But it is honest, too.

The spirit safe: incubator of formative flavour.

Ten years later, however, with a bit of money thrown at some wood, the sales and marketing team can recoup some of their investment with packaging that declares, with all the sincerity of a sickly maitre d’, that your whisky has been matured in the ‘finest oak casks’. In the vast majority of cases, a lot of it has been thrown into whatever American oak hogshead has arrived into the filling store, or has been delivered to the central warehousing complex if new make is put into cask off-site.

Not enough, to bring this tirade to some sort of point, is said about the process at the distillery and the practiced nuances required to ensure the right character of spirit goes into the wood policy lucky dip. It seems strange to praise the maturation regime, one which few – if anyone – understands completely, whereas mashmen and stillmen have consistently precise calls to make to ensure that the whisky is up to scratch. My week at Balblair testified to this, and so too did in-depth visits to Benromach and Bruichladdich where infinitesimal adjustments to malt batch, peating levels and wash density must be made to guarantee that the appropriate flavours will sing out years down the line.

New make after a bit of ex-Bourbon blusher.

Dave Broom, in his World Atlas of Whisky, explains this accrual of marginal gains (to quote British Cycling) exceedingly well. Distillers must assume control over those parts of the whisky-making process which will yield to their influence. Though 60-70% of a single malt’s flavour will be owed to the cask, that 30-40% of direct distiller interference is keenly contested. To return to the dog metaphor, it is like training a two-month-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier that will ultimately have to adjust to a new owner. The example set at the beginning will prove critical. For Broom, our readily available single malts cannot be comprehended without that most limited and secretive of substances: new make. In the nature or nurture debate, a spirit’s encounters with oak incorporates and rejects both sides to varying degrees in order to assume its eventual character.

Recently, the Whisky Roundtable discussed new make, and so too did Joel and Neil in an excellent article for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Unfiltered magazine. More distillers are marketing single malts in their infancy to the delight of mixologists and whisky geeks. I still think, however, that more distilleries should provide a measure as part of their end-of-tour tastings. How better to bridge the gap between the smells of the distillery and the mature product on the shelves? New make can babble brilliantly, echoing the grist, the wort, the CO2 at the washbacks and those complex, heavy and heady aromas of esters and congeners coming into being at the spirit safe. Glencadam did, and that remains my favourite new make: puckeringly sweet and clinging, some of the soft yellow and green tropical fruits from the stainless steel washbacks could be detected.

Last week, however, I tried Auchentoshan’s new make spirit. Triple distilled, this was joyously intense with strawberry jam and pear on the nose, yellow citrus on the palate. Water pulled out plum yoghurt and sticky pot ale, a combination which recalled the delicate balance of waste and gain at the heart of distilling. In the mouth, I found cider apple and coconut. It was a fabulous insight into the selection process that three stills necessitates and how a delicate but full-throated flavour can be teased into existence and magnified.

When surveying the classifications of single malt species, knowing the new make makes a big difference. You always begin with a highly individual and complex animal which, whether dressed in Pedro Ximenez or Carribean rum or Sauternes, can never completely change its spots. To not hide those spots is another challenge for the distiller altogether.

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‘The World Atlas of Whisky’…

World Atlas of Whisky… Or Why I Love Dave Broom

The World Atlas of Whisky stands aloof from its peers. Released amid a deluge of other whisky titles, Broom has deconstructed, cogitated upon and reconstituted the subject of cereal-based distillates in a manner and to a degree I have come across nowhere else.

‘At first glance,’ Broom suggests, ‘the creation of a whisky style may seem like the triumph of technology’. But he has looked again: dusting off, picking apart, shaking about and inspecting from all angles facets of the whisky debate to discover that ‘in truth it lies at the interface between science, economics, creativity… and landscape.’ In other words, everything is infinitely more complex. Production processes? History? Regional continuity of styles? Don’t make him laugh. ‘What is whisky?’ he asks. ‘Anything you want it to be’.

So, having stripped away all of our landmarks and comfort blankets, what does he offer the novice and initiate in exchange? Broom, quite ingeniously, directs us straight back to the crux of the matter: flavour. When contemplating a whisky, Broom urges us to ‘concentrate’ – not on extraneous details of geography and other easily digestible but specious ‘rules of thumb’ – but on the spirit as it converses with you. Dave can help with supplying the minutiae of how your malt, bourbon, Irish pot still whiskey or whatever it happens to be was crafted (and he does, in anorak-pleasing comprehensiveness) but such processes only begin to make a tangible bit of sense once we get round to ‘sticking our noses in the glass and inhaling.’ We all, Broom promises, have the ability to understand the flavours in front of us. ‘A whisky’s character is expressed through the pictures in the taster’s mind’, he asserts; whatever we imagine when provoked by our dialogue with whisky is our truth, and it can and ought to sustain us in our private sensory explorations. Broom’s employment of technical vocabulary is descriptive, there only to inform the larger, richer image that is flavour in front of which the reader is left to make their own qualitative judgements.

This is not to say that Broom is forever impartial and objective, however. When he is not performing an explicatory role he indulges an artful evangelism for those spirits whose technical genesis belies, intensifies or even contradicts the personality of the final product. His entry for Linkwood distillery is one example amongst countless others that are so beautifully composed and strikingly phrased that they compel a reciprocal ardour and curiosity in the reader. Crucially, though, Broom always marries enthusiasm for a particular quality with descriptions of how that quality came about. For example, Broom may marvel at how ‘Linkwood’s new make smells of the skin of peaches, of light apple blossom falling in an orchard; in the mouth it sticks and seems to spin in a ball in the middle of the tongue’, but he can attribute this fruitiness which he loves so much to the clear wort and long ferment and the complex mouthfeel to the intensive copper contact in the ‘Rubenesque’ stills. It is never the case of extrapolating some arcane aroma and basing a grandiose proclamation upon its equivocal existence but deducting effect from regimented cause. You can go away, try a Linkwood and in consequence appreciate where these notable characteristics have derived from. Whether they are to your liking is not for Broom to prescribe.

Perhaps the element of the book I value most – even above its written style, its abundant information and its passion – is the unprecedented endeavour to analyse the new make spirit of each site. He calls it the distillery’s ‘DNA’, the result of the distiller’s specification and skill of execution unadulterated by oak. Perhaps it is here that Broom’s willingness to factor out, subvert and democratise facile terminology as I mentioned at the beginning is most demonstrably seen. Legally, it isn’t ‘whisky’ and some of his tasting notes don’t appear to reflect any substance we might recognise as such (‘Chinese cough medicine’; ‘wet chamois’; ‘meaty’, and ‘feral’) but it is boldly, squarely, obsessively concerned with flavour.

I would recommend Broom’s tome to all those who possess even the vaguest interest in beverage appreciation, and not just that of whisky but wine, beer – any other liquid you can think of. By comparing spirits according to flavour and not process or location, Broom has rendered the subject far more accessible; he has struck upon the correct terminological approach, the most enlightening blend of tones that illuminate how it should be that nearly 100 different Scotch whisky distilleries – and the many many more across the globe – contrive to produce subtly different but ultimately distinctive styles of spirit from the same raw materials.

At last there is a work that can both inform, empower and liberate the whisky neophyte, exploding the nonsense some in tasting clubs, magazines and the industry itself expound, airily typecasting some distilleries and even whole areas as ‘this’ or ‘that’. It is, I repeat, a much more complex world but one which only makes sense when we reject misleading received reason and promote our senses as the primary tools of navigation.

Dave Broom, The World Atlas of Whisky, Mitchell Beazley. £30.

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