Whisky Is A Time Traveler
by Josh Feldman
When I drink whisky I try to slow down and focus very clearly and intensely on what is going on in the glass – as the dram interacts with time and air and water and my shifting and evolving human palate. Part of that appreciation includes knowing the larger context which radiates in like a ring from particulars such as what distillery made it, the nature of the water, what proof, which grains were used, how they were malted and handled, the woods used in barrel aging and so on. Then on to the era, the people involved, the aesthetics and intentions of the crafters. Further out are the the land, sea, the odors of the air. Great whiskies clearly communicate a lot of sensory information about the place it was made and the cultural influences which bore on its crafting. Whisky is a distillate of mash, but it is also a distillate of the physical environment of where it was made and of where its components came from: of the fields of grain, the water, wood, fuels, breezes and the weather. It is also a distillate of the hands and minds that made it. The spirit, culture and decisions and actions of the people who designed and executed the recipe you end up tasting. The distillate is a concentrated essence of these physical and also human elements which are preserved in the glass bottle as a fly is in a piece of amber.
We inhabit a particular time and place. The exact meaning of both of these terms are controversial topics in the fields of theoretical physics and philosophy – but everyone has a clear and solid feeling of what it is. We also have knowledge of other times and other places. We read history, see accounts, visit museums and encounter artifacts and depictions. While the power of the abstract is vast, we relate most to the specific. Scientists have plumbed the reaches of the cosmos with theoretical models describe the physical nature of the universe back to within instants of the big bang. But our most intimate knowledge of distant times and places comes from direct physical evidence. These bits and pieces of other times and places take many forms: representations such as documents, records, photographs or artistic representations; or actual things holding the physical essence of time and place; sometimes both.
Things like this have been a source of fascination, desire, and obsession for me for as long as I can remember: they are time travelers with the power to take you back to their origins. Coins, documents, ancient artifacts, fossils, mineral specimens meteorites all provide direct experience of distant times and/or places. These things are time travelers because they were made in a particular time and place and they embody and convey that to us. Some connect directly and forcefully to the past. For example I have an ancient Minoan pot shard with a fingerprint on it. It’s a tangible physical connection to a moment in time when a potter gripped the clay over 3,000 years ago. The presence of the fingerprint brings home in an immediately obvious and visceral way that a human being touched this actual bit of clay when it was wet on a particular day, feeling a particular mood in a vanished time, a vanished culture, a vanished world.
Once you feel how an object can allow you to make a physical connection with the distant times and places you’ll find these connection points everywhere. My old lobby was lined with marble with clam shells in it. I was aware that these were once living clams in a living sea over a quarter of a billion years ago. I have a quartz crystal from New York’s Herkimer County mines with an inclusion that is water. You can tell it is water because inside the water is a tiny bubble. When you move the crystal the right way the bubble moves. The rocks there are dated to the Cambrian – over 500 million years old. I’m entranced that the little air bubble has been there, fighting the water and exchanging molecules back and forth with it for half a billion years. Inside chondritic meteorites you can see the grains of rock and metal that formed from the collapsing dust cloud that formed the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. These objects speak to me and I feel the distances of time with an almost physical force. At times this has been almost like vertigo. When the NASA rover Opportunity found hematite “blueberries” lying on a rocks on Mars I was viscerally aware that they had crystallized out of the evaporating Martian ocean over 3 billion years ago and had just lay there – undisturbed for unimaginable eons. Somehow that vast ocean of time that those little pebbles had just sat there on that rock seemed overwhelming, almost horrifying – out of scale with anything living or even comprehensible. Here’s a picture:
I work in a museum that has an astounding collection of manuscripts and books. One of the perks of my job is the occasional opportunity to closely encounter amazing objects such as medieval illuminated manuscripts. Over time, as I have learned more about the materials and methods of medieval illuminators, and of their culture, world view, and intensely complicated system of visual metaphor and iconography I experienced a transformation in the way I have come to see these manuscripts. At first I saw a depiction, like a cartoon. Now I experience being in the same place (i.e. in front of the page) as an illuminator centuries ago. I can see his brush lines, pounce marks, and drafting lines. I can sense his creative struggle and more deeply appreciate his genius and his deeper message. In the moment of reverie of such observation I’m, briefly, no longer in the room, or even my time. I’m at the cloister, centuries ago, as his hand is creating the manuscript.
Well, whisky is a time traveling physical talisman too. I am moved when I taste a meadow and summer’s day from a far off time when drinking certain old whiskies. Here is a tasting note from a dram of Dallas Dhu 12, purchased in 1998 and sipped in 2012:
“Nose: Heather, flax, honeyed sherry, vanilla oak notes. There’s a distant herbal vegetal note like milkweed sap that is bracing. To sum it up I would characterize it as wildflowers in lush grass near some oak woods on a dry hot summer’s day. Given the context (that the distillery closed in 1983 and that I bought the bottle in 1998 on the eve of my wedding) this is an echo of summer’s day from a time far off, when I was young… when things were different”
That feeling I’m describing is an awareness that this whisky was distilled when I was a senior in High School, a year before I moved to the New York City and met the girl who would one day become my wife. Before jobs, children, or even whisky, has entered my life. The sun was shining on that barley and that meadow was there. Tasting that dram literally takes me there. It’s not mysterious in any way. Yet it is absolutely magic – real perceptual time travel that anyone can experience with a simple shift in mental perspective.
Not every whisky is a great candidate to take you through time and space. Blends can be delicious but the definite sense of terroir is lost. For example, when I drink Johnny Walker Black Label I enjoy the sweet heathery Highland opening, the firm malt foundation, and then the whiff of peat smoke and oak in the finish. But the lightness and glossed sameness of each encounter I sense the blender’s art in barrel averaging and expression blending as a way of making beauty exactly like the way a number of faces computer averaged looks very pretty – but not like any one human’s actual face. For examples see:
These averaged faces are attractive, but they are not real. Real faces have imperfections that reflect their actuality, their history, their individuality. These faces are more attractive than most people, but somehow cannot match the great beauties who have real character. The same thing goes with whisky. Barrel averaging and blending produce a smoothed impression, more perfect and beautiful that the average barrel, but without the depth of character and individual fidelity that you can find in a great cask. You’ll know a dram that takes you time traveling because it will be speaking to you before you’re even aware of it.
However, to really time travel with a dram, it’s all about awareness. The cues to time and space in whisky are subtle, underneath the more obvious factors such as spirit, sweet and wood. Our minds have evolved to constantly pick out the most salient feature in any circumstance and skip the rest. In normal situations this is a benefit, otherwise we would be overwhelmed by the flood of sensations that surrounds us most of the time. In order to really experience a dram fully it is necessary to eliminate distractions and let the dram fill up your perceptions.
A wonderful blog post on this topic is Jason Debley’s Slow-Whisky movement:
It’s an essay on the zen meditative approach to drinking a dram. The ultimate goal is, for me, to understand the whisky on its own terms as it evolves in the glass through interaction with air, time, (and water – if you go there – and I often do) and progresses across your palate. And then to understand how this in-the-glass evolution and the on-your-palate progression fits into the larger context of your perception, desire, tastes, and cognition. This should lead you to a deeper sense of your dram’s significance in a larger context.
However, Jason’s excellent article leaves out one important technique that I find vital for detecting the minute details necessary to fully plumbing the depths of a dram: that is detailed observation for representation, i.e. writing out your tasting notes. Writing out your tasting notes is a very useful enterprise. I got the idea from sketching what you see in the telescope’s eyepiece in amateur astronomy. In astronomy, you are supposed to sketch, not just to keep a record of what you have seen – but also as a way to induce you really LOOK. When you observe merely to satisfy your conscious mind you gloss over details. The evolved ability to identify the salient detail and not bothering to perceive the rest is very active in the visual sense. The act of recording the observation causes you to observe more deeply – to actually pay attention to the subtle details that you may not have bothered to really notice visually, but suddenly need in order to flesh out your depiction on the paper. All this goes double for tasting whisky. Like astronomy, whisky tasting is best done in solitude, at night, in the quiet still and dark. And like the astronomy eyepiece, the whisky glass is circular porthole into the depths of time and space and the deepest mysteries of the universe. The act of sketching actually forces you to truly OBSERVE. Thus take notes when you critically taste. Tasting (a fusion of the sense of nose and tongue) is tied deeply to the limbic system – the most primitive interior “reptile brain” beneath our cerebral cortex. These areas of the brain are more tied to the subconscious than the conscious. This can be a drawback for awareness – but also a secret strength. Certain smells and flavors can powerfully evoke distant memories and visceral sensations, seemly mysteriously, by exploiting these limbic pathways. Thus it is extremely difficult to put words to flavors and smells – but the act of attempting to do so forces you to focus on the details of what is flying beneath your radar. This is the power of meditation to increase awareness: they key to observing the most subtle cues connecting what’s in the dram to what’s in your mind and body.
When you really listen, you’ll find that the whisky is telling you a story.