The Moebius

Shift work is inhuman. There is something utterly unnatural about being awake all night. There are some who thrive on shift work, but they are a minority – most of us do it for the money, or because it suits our homelife, but very few do it because they like it. I only did nine months shift work in my life and I nearly lost my mind. Part of it was my age – I was in my forties and had four small kids, so the combination of little sleep by day and a shift pattern that was all over the place, meant I had to get out. I can still remember the odd feeling of being at my desk in the wee hours. You’d look at the clock – it’s 3.15am. You’d look at it an hour later – it’s 3.25am. Time becomes a pliable entity as your exhausted mind starts to play games with you – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop – it becomes a loop. Half the time I wasn’t even sure if I was still awake, and would forget entire conversations, or imagine they were dreams. But at least I wasn’t alone in there – in an emergency department, you are never alone.

I like the idea of distilleries that can practically run themselves. Many of the modern ones do – as one distiller pointed out to me, machines make the best whiskey, and humans are really surplus to requirements for modern operations like Dalmunach. But there are older distilleries that spearheaded this drive to remove the human element from distilling.  Sat on the slopes of the Ben Rinnes range, the wonderfully named Allt-A-Bhainne was built by Seagrams in 1975 to create malt for blends, primarily for Chivas Regal, but it does appear in indie bottlings from time to time.

I was in a mini-bus with a group of German whisky retailers as we tooled past the strangely modernist building. They, being massive whisky nerds, asked the driver to turn around so we could go back and have a look around. And so we did.

 

The distillery is quite modern in comparison to some of the chocolate-box scenes at places like Strathisla. Allt-A-Bhainne has no warehouses, and it rattles out 4.5 million litres of spirit per year. Water comes from the Ben Rinnes, and the distillery’s name translates from Gaelic as Burn Of Milk. While bhainne has the same meaning in both Irish and Scots, the way we would pronounce the name of this distillery is different – ollt-err-vane seems to be the common way over there, while we would go with alt-a-vonya.

The similarities between the languages were the sole reason I bought this bottling of Allt-A-Bhainne a year or two ago, but I felt more inclined to open it after being to the distillery. It was a curious place – nobody was around, and those vents are like something from an old sci-fi B-movie, when set and prop designers thought that angular aluminium would be all we would ever need in the future.

So Allt-A-Bhainne has an ancient name, retro-futuristic design and one poor operator stuck on shift in that one big room where everything happens. My bottle came from Douglas Laing’s excellent Provenance range. Distilled in 2008 and aged in refill hogshead, this was bottled in 2015 at 46% and is non-chill filtered. No pressure in reviewing this one, as it was cheap as chips – 40 euro from Master Of Malt. 

Nose: Sulphur. Sulphur to the point that I actually thought it might be the glass (it wasn’t). It has all those ester notes – nail polish remover, must, bananas, white pepper, an astringent blue cheese note that isn’t entirely unpleasant. Like Sex Panther, it stings the nostrils – although not in a good way.

Palate: After the general brimstone of the nose I was ready for something unpleasant, but this is pretty uneventful. I can see how this would provide balance in a blend, but something tells me I would prefer to be drinking its counterpoint rather than this. There’s a little caramel, a little bit of the aspartame sweetness of a Creme Egg, and a lot of fuck-all.

Finish: Mercifully brief.

I seem to live my dramming life in a state of almost constant disappointment. So many whiskeys I have tried recently have just let me down – but at least this one was a cheap punt and worth a shot. It’s hard to know why this bottling isn’t as impressive as I had hoped – maybe I should just spend another ten or twenty euro and get something with more weight.

I loved A’Bunadh – now completely out of my price range – and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, so perhaps I do just need something bolder than this also-ran. I was keen to try it due to its odd name, interesting design and the fact that the distillery has no bottlings of its own, only under indie labels. Now I can see why. I’m not angry, just disappointed, which is why I am washing away the taste with a drop of the sourced seven-year-old single malt bottled by the recently completed Boann distillery. Bourbon aged, sherry finished, this is nothing new, or shocking, or weird, but is just a nice whiskey. I also love the sourced seven from Glendalough. I assume both seven year olds come from the same source (Bushmills?), as they both have a similar citrus note, although it’s worth remembering that this is coming from someone who had operations on his sinuses as a kid and thus has the olfactory capacity of Selma Bouvier. 

The Whistler Blue Note – for that is what Boann are calling this – is rich and creamy, lots of coffee, toffee, hints of aniseed, that citrus, a little Oxo cube on the nose, and a lot of smooth warmth, as opposed to the ugly heat from the Allt-A-Bhainne. It’s a reminder that while we don’t have the variety of distilleries here, and all our older stock comes from three places, at least those three places generally made – and make – great whiskey. That said, I do look forward to a dystopian day down the road when we have our own version of Allt-A-Bhainne – an odd, lonely distillery that produces odd spirit that exists purely to make other elements in a blend look better. 

Dunville’s, distilleries, Speyside, patience

Indo col 54:

St Malachy’s Church in Belfast is a survivor. Built in 1841 in what Sir John Betjeman once described as ‘a cheerful gothic’ style, it had its windows blown in by a German bomb during the Second World War, whilst also having the remaining windows sucked out when another bomb hit the nearby gasworks, causing a massive vacuum. Some of the windows were then filled in with concrete, which ultimately damaged the surrounding brickwork, and eventually more than 80,000 handmade bricks had to be replaced. Apart from all those woes, the church also had to deal with some especially pedantic neighbours.

St Malachy’s is home to the largest and possibly loudest bell in Belfast – its din was so great  that it started to bother the Dunville family, who owned the nearby Royal Irish Distillery. They claimed that the noise from the bell was disturbing the whiskey they had maturing in their warehouses, and managed to create enough of a headache for church bosses that they actually agreed to cover the bell in felt to help muffle the sound. Perhaps picking a fight with the church wasn’t the best idea for Dunvilles, as they went into voluntary liquidation in 1936, despite the fact that they were still in profit at the time. Many of the old Irish distilleries ended like this – brought down by a combination of bad timing, bad luck and the misfortune of having the canniest rivals they possibly could – the Scots. For almost a century, our Celtic neighbours have ruled the whisky world, and now we are in resurgence we have a lot of old scores to settle.

By now you will have heard that there is a whiskey boom here. All over the country distilleries are popping up, Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirits category in the world, and we are screaming back into the consciousness of drinkers like a rocket from the crypt. People are starting to talk about whiskey tourism, with industry body the Irish Whiskey Association even going so far as to say that they envision Ireland being a world leader in whiskey tourism by 2030. This is, of course, wonderful; everyone likes good news, especially when it involves the Irish doing well. However, it may take a little longer than 12 years to beat the Scots at whisky tourism, and all we have to do to realise this is to look across the Straits of Moyle to our old distilling rivals.

Scotland has two major whisky festivals – Feis Ile on the island of Islay, the location where Irish monks made the terrible mistake of teaching the Scots how to distill, and the Spirit Of Speyside, held in the true whisky heartland above the Cairngorm mountain range. While Islay has fewer than ten distilleries, Speyside has more than 50, many of them household names – The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Balvenie and Glenfiddich being some of the best known. They are the brands that permeate the consciousness of the average consumer. They have been in existence for up to a century or more, and have made their way into popular culture via cinema, art, and music. During the Speyside festival these titans of whisky and dozens more throw open their doors to their adoring public, and thousands flock from all over the UK, the US and Europe to be there. This, in a nutshell, is whisky tourism – people going to a place purely for the whisky, a sacred pilgrimage to the spiritual home of their favourite drink. It takes generations for a whisky brand to build up this sort of fanbase, because whisky is all about time. It takes three years for spirit to age in a cask before it can legally be called whiskey, but it takes far longer to become an icon. A ten year old single malt is considered to be entry level, and you will need considerably older stock than that to lure in significant numbers of tourists.

So this is where we are lacking – our new distilleries are going to be waiting for a decade or more before their stock starts to really make an impact on the global whiskey scene. Combine this with the fact that, outside of Dublin, we really don’t have any clusters of distilleries like they do in Speyside or Islay, where fans can walk, cycle, or simply stagger from distillery to distillery. If whiskey tourism is to work in Ireland, it will need more than just distillery visits, and that’s where we can learn from the Speyside festival.

I’ve been to the festival twice, in 2015 and this year, and it is an excellent illustration of how whisky tourism should work. Distillery visits and the drink itself may be the bedrock, but the festival is more about Scottish culture than anything. There were nature walks, ceilidhs, formal dances, incredible food, and treks into the mountains on amphibian Argocats. I went to talks on geology, a water tasting session, a distillery tour where we munched on malted barley, and more fine food than I should have eaten. There was breathtaking scenery, beautiful architecture, wonderful people and memories that will last a lifetime. This wasn’t a booze cruise – it was about losing yourself in heritage, history and tradition (whilst drinking some of the world’s greatest single malts, obviously).

We may not have mature distilleries that hark back two centuries, but we have all the other elements ready to go. In fact, Alan Winchester, the legendary master distiller of The Glenlivet – the person who told me about Dunvilles versus the bell of St Malachy’s – was singing the praises of the startling beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way, a route that is now peppered with whiskey tourism attractions. Seeing what the Spirit Of Speyside has to offer is a lesson in how whisky tourism should be done – rather than claiming we are going to beat the Scots, we should be learning from them and working with them. If a tourist is coming from Canada to visit Scottish distilleries, it’s a mere hop, skip and a jump to Ireland, where whisky fans can visit iconic distilleries like Bushmills and relative newcomers like the innovative Echlinville Distillery, who resurrected the old Dunville brands, rebuilding a link to our lost distilling heritage.

Irish whiskey’s return to the world stage will be as much about respect as it is about sales and economics – the great bell of St Malachy’s still rings three times a day, a reminder that when it comes to spirit matters – both liquid and divine – faith, devotion and a decent measure of humility are key to salvation.

Chaos Theory

Kurt Ballou in his studio.

Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.

ALDOUS HUXLEY, Do What You Will

When Kurt Ballou was in his early teens, his parents brought him across America in a camper van for the summer holidays. With no siblings to keep him company, music became his friend. He sat in the back of the van with his headphones on, listening to his favourite bands over and over, picking apart the sounds and how they worked – as music, and on him as a listener.  He played saxophone in the school band but soon moved on to other instruments, and travelled down this path until he and his friends formed a band named Converge in the 1990s. Their early albums showed promise, but it was with 2001’s Jane Doe that they really hit their stride – one that has shown no signs of slowing, 15 years and five albums later. They have been consistently excellent for the past decade and a half, with each album hitting a remarkably high standard, despite the fact that the music they make sounds like someone driving a schoolbus off a cliff. Converge play a blitzkrieg fusion of punk, grindcore, metal and D-beat, and the cacophony of their output should theoretically be a wall of white noise permeated by occasional screams. Thankfully, that summer of forensically dissecting music has worked wonders for Ballou, as he has produced their best albums (a fact he disputes, claiming he is an engineer, not the more showbiz role of producer).

There are numerous YouTube videos of Ballou talking about how he controls the hydra-headed beast that is Converge’s sound, breaking the components down, refining, stripping, and reconnecting them as one perfectly clean aural assault. But while Converge have maintained their incredible consistency, but have never let it stop them from evolving.

Their ability to change comes from an absence of record label pressure. Big businesses don’t like change, because consumers don’t like change. As a species we tend to romanticise the knowns of the past, and fear the unknown future. We prefer the reassurances of the familiar, the road more travelled, as we march along it under the banner of ‘consistency’. It is pandering to this mindset that has lead to an artificial colourant known as E150a being added to most whiskeys in the world. Apparently the public wants all of their bottles to look the same colour, in the same way we don’t want bendy carrots or any other evidence of the wonderful chaotic individuality of nature. Look at non-chill filtering – effectively a dystopian purging of natural oils to spare the blushes of drinkers in cold climates who might not like a slight clouding of their whiskey in temperatures.  That, combined with the addition of caramel, is effectively whiskey fascism – a demand that everything look the same. But, as Jeff Goldblum’s character points out in Jurassic Park, you cannot impose order on nature; chaos theory tells us that while the present dictates the future, there is still absolutely no way of predicting it. Whiskeys change – talk to anyone who drank a certain dram 20 years ago and they will tell you exactly what has happened in the intervening decades.

Change is inevitable in life, just as it is in the whiskey industry – consider all the variables; soil, climate, grain, yeast, spirit, cask, and all of the potentially ever-changing cast of human beings involved in the whole process – so maybe they should embrace it. This is one of the reasons I love the Aberlour A’Bunadh. Released in batches, it celebrates change. Like Converge, it has a controlled ferocity – there is that white noise, white heat of a cask-strength beast, but those years in the sherry butt has tamed any feral overtones; it is a beautiful, creamy malt, rich and sweet but with that white pepper kick on the finish. Bottled at around the 60% mark and aged between five and 25 years (more youth than age, though it isn’t too apparent), a drink of an A’Bunadh is like being grasped around the throat by a mechanised fist in a velvet glove. Even the bottle looks like it was designed for war; short and squat like an artillery shell, with a wide, roaring mouth.

There is, of course, a completely ridiculous back story to go with the A’bunadh, one that is told on the distillery tours; it involves time capsules, drunk workmen and a newspaper from 1898. It brings nothing to the drink itself, which has more than enough qualities to stand apart from any marketing narrative. However, if you do happen to visit Aberlour Distillery, in one of the main halls of the visitors centre is a large camera obscura photo of two hands holding a bottle of A’bunadh – the photo having been taken by Ted Dwane of Mumford and Sons.

Neil Ridley in Aberlour Distillery VC during Spirit Of Speyside 2015.

It was in this room that I first tasted this whisky, at an event hosted by Neil Ridley and Joel Harrison. They were pairing whisky with the music of Bowie and Cash, drawing parallels between the two, beneath this ethereal photo of a whisky, taken by a musician. 

While I loved the Aberlour whiskies, the music was not to my taste, because I like life a little bit louder. I always thought I would grow out of metal, a genre that is generally perceived to be pretty immature. However, I also never thought I’d grow into whiskey. For me they are two sides of the same coin – a desire to crank the senses up to 11. Most people recoil when they hear Converge, just as they recoil when taking that first sip of whiskey – the intensity of both is something to be reckoned with. But Kurt Ballou and Aberlour Distillery have the ability to take disparate, intense elements – high strength/loud noise, big flavours/massive riffs – and blend them to create a constantly evolving product without sacrificing standards. Because the only consistency we should seek is that of quality.

 

A bottle of Batch 55 A’bunadh is an exceptionally good value €55 on MasterOfMalt – and you can watch Ballou talking about the creation of Jane Doe here. And, if you want to challenge your hearing (and definition of what constitutes music), this is what Converge sound like:

You probably need a drink now.