Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Column: Deep Culture: Whisky Spiritual: Ivo Furman

Globalize THIS
Amongst things I find spiritually uplifting (like listening to Otis Taylor or hearing the muezzin at 5am) I'd say that single malts hold particular importance to me.

Meaning the "water of life" in Gaelic, "uisge-beatha" is a drink that is produced from a variety of grains including, barley, rye and corn. Of concern to us in this article is Scottish whisky, which is made out of a distilled mixture of barley and water. Quite like wine, the taste of single malt whisky depends on the terroir, or location, in which it was distilled. There are four main regions in Scotland, each with a particular style: Speyside, Highland, Islay and Lowlands. As a general rule of thumb, Islay single malts usually have a "peatier" smoky taste to them while Speyside is known for smooth, clean tastes. While the Highlands and the Lowlands both are more geographical definitions rather than particular styles, the Island subregion of Highland whisky is known for its salty "sea" taste.

So enough of my cocktail party trivia; why is it that I find whisky to be spiritual? To begin with, whisky is one of the few drinks that capture the essence of geographical area, every sip conveys the rugged and harsh Scottish homeland. It is honest, unlike most other hard liquors that attempt to standardize the drinking experience (look at the claims of rum, vodka & gin in providing a 'pure experience'), scotch brings along the 'emotional baggage' of its origins. It is a rural personna, proud of its origins and displays this in every turn and sip. I've always liked things with personality, attitude and I'd say that scotch does both with swagger and panache.

Turning our gaze on the global economy, I'd say that the current trends would be of localization and generalization. This is the same with food and alcohol. As international demand for certain products increase, the producers often have to standardize the experience of the product. This often leads a brand creating a concept for the entire market of products. For example, in Turkey, people will often say "Bacardi" while refering to rum products. This is a double edged sword, as it creates associations with brands and not products. This in turn standardizes consumer expectations of these particular products.

Taking a look at all the major alcohol markets will confirm my observations; vodka becomes "Smirnoff", gin becomes "Gordons" and rum becomes "Bacardi". When put togather, I find it strange that all three almost connote the same values of sophistication, hedonism and wealth. Yet it is strange that all these drinks were traditionally considered working class at the turn of the century. It is the case of the noveau riche trying to hide his wretched origins in a cosmopolitan environment.
Major source of Scotland's spirit exports.

On the other hand, certain markets have had an "inward" turn of localization. Whisky is certainly the forerunner of this trend. Until the late 1980s, whisky was under the monopoly of blended scotches such as Johnny Walker, JB and Chivas Regal. Such whiskies blend single malts from various regions to create a uniform tasting experience. With the advent of globalization, peripheral distilleries in Scotland (just look up Talisker distillery on the web and you'll understand what I mean) began finding markets for their own localized style of scotch previously isolated from the rest of the world. It is no great suprise that the market share of blended scotch has been steadly declining with the rise of single malts. So hence the second trend of products offers a "local" experience, which is essentially devoid of the connotations present in global brands. The image of the farmer, the peasant speaking in his local dialect is the image conjured up in such products.

In conclusion, no, I do not feel like an anti-globalist revolutionary when sipping on some single malt. The rise of the single malts depends on globalization just as other brands do. However, what single malt whisky offers is a metaphor for a more positive attitude on globalization, where the local can be democratically introduced to the international populace.

As a final touch to our little conversation about the nature of whisky, I'd like to recommend two that I hold very dear to my heart. Next time you visit the bar, ask for a 10 year Laphroaig ("beautiful hollow by the broad bay") [15 year is also recommended for this very peaty whisky] or a Auchentoshan Three Wood ("the Christmas pudding of whiskies") and hold a toast for globalization and the wonderful people of Scotland. Cheers.

Ivo Furman


Paul said...

I tried the Talisker last night for the first time. It was truly amazing.

Also had the Oban scotch.

Tast the terroir.

Evgeny Savin said...

In Israel we call every foldable knife "a Leatherman", every cellular phone "a pelephone" ("pele" standing for mirracle - the name of the first company to launch cellular communications) and say "economica" for bleach (god knows why). This kind of phenomena brings to about a gradual decline in the vocabulary of an average individual and can eventually cause one to loose his ability to speak or even think without eploying some of those "coca cola" terms.

It's therefore always a particular pleasure of mine to encounter Drumnodrochit that is just not very far away from Ballacnulish and restore some of that verbal originality in the process.