Ghost In The Machine

If you have very tall, narrow-necked stills, you will produce  a very floral, elegant spirit. If you have very short, dumpy stills you will have a heavy, oily spirit – and there is nothing you can do about it. Laphroaig, for example, can never ever ever produce a light, floral spirit because they have short, dumpy stills. You can’t change it. That is how it’s going to be. We know that these Inverleven stills  are going to produce a floral spirit, because of their shape. 

  • Mark Reynier of Waterford Distillery speaking in 2016 

How much thought do we want to put into our whisky? How far down the rabbit hole of chemistry and engineering do we need to go to make sure that we fully know a whisky? Waterford is already pushing the terroir debate – that the location barley is grown in plays a part in the flavour of whisky – centre stage, so that is their focus. But what about stills – if you can argue that barley retains a unique geographic identity, even after enduring the various tortures of malting, milling, brewing and distilling, not to mind X number of decades in wood, then surely you can claim that stills play just as central a role. Or, maybe you don’t. Maybe it simply doesn’t matter, and that this is the great thing about whisky – without wanting to sound pretentious, it is a drink for thinkers, but it is also a drink for drinkers; you don’t need to lose yourself in some desperate search for meaning when you can just drink it and get pleasantly toasted. 

It’s like Johnny Cash. You can love him for his music, or you can love his music for him – love it that little bit more because you understand the myth and the man, the outlaw – all his songs then take on deeper meanings, about growing up poor, the desperation and anger. Consider his cover of NIN’s Hurt – a song written about self loathing, isolation, and living with trauma – which he transformed into a song about regret, sorrow, loss, and frailty. You can just turn up the radio when it plays, and as a bonus you can spend the ensuing ten minutes thinking about your own mortality.

Whisky, in the end, only has meaning because of us – we make it, we drink it, we write about it, we dream it into being; until that bottle is opened and consumed it is Schrödinger’s stupid cat. So you can argue about agronomics, still design, yeast and all that glorious technical detail, but we are the ghosts in the machine, bringing our unique tastes and thoughts and meaning to every drink. 

So a brief history of the Inverleven stills – tucked away inside the vast Dumbarton grain distillery, they became redundant in the early Noughties and Dumbarton was set for demolition. Enter Demolition Dave, who spotted the stills, told Mark Reynier, who then bought them. The stills – wash, spirit and a Lomand known as Ugly Betty – were dismantled and shipped to Islay, where Betty made The Botanist gin and the wash and spirit became garden ornaments. 

Reynier then sold Bruichladdich, bought Guinness’s Waterford Brewery, and after a quick polish, the Inverlevens became the Waterfords, the brewery became a distillery, and Demolition Dave became Dividend Dave, as he is now an investor in Waterford. So the question is this – will Inverleven spirit taste in any way similar to Waterford? Will those stills create some kinship between the vast Dumbarton and the bespoke Waterford? Probably not, as Reynier continued that quote I opened with thusly: 

So then the question is – how are you going to run them? And we have the facilities here to produce very, very good-quality wort and wash, clinically the best – you can’t do anything better. So then it is a question of how slowly we run those stills, and because we have all this space and the control we can run everything exactly as we please.

So I can drink this and try to trace some parallels to the samples from Waterford that I have, or I can abandon my romantic notions and stop trying to forge connections that only exist in my imagination. I’m sure still shape and design plays a role in flavour, but I would imagine it to be considerably less than inelegant elements like yeast. 

Anyway – to the whisky. Distilled in 1987, casked in Bourbon hogsheads, disgorged into 240 bottles in July 2015 at a healthy 53.9%. On the nose it is spicy and sprightly, the official notes speak of tropical fruits but I get more vanilla, spice, biscuit, mace and its more popular cousin nutmeg. On the palate; dry, then lots of honey, custard creams, but the heft of that strength has me adding water to a whiskey for what actually might be the first time in my life. Manuka honey, mead, meadows, liquorice. On the finish – long, possibly longer with the water added, but with that spice element all the ways through. More biscuit, malt, a whisper of summer fruits. 

I honestly didn’t know what to expect with this whisky – it’s worth a few quid and was given to me as a gift by a very old friend, so I could never sell it. I planned to open it for the launch of Waterford Distillery’s prog-rocking new release, but the plague put an end to that. 

So here I am on World Whisky Day, sipping it instead. It has meaning to me – it symbolises friendship, kindness, love. It’s greater meaning stretches beyond that – that something beautiful and special can thrive in an ugly place, persevere, and then return to life in another world. The Inverleven stills are dead, long live the Waterford stills, and here’s to the resurrection. 

Author: Bill Linnane

Freelance writer - or 'word whore' - with the Irish Independent, Irish Examiner, Irish Tatler Man, Evening Echo, and Distilled. Proud owner of the award-defying TripleDistilled.Blog, Ireland's Least Successful Blog™.

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