Whisky Blind Spots and Tullibardine

Blind Spots

As September draws on, I’m finding myself in a somewhat reflective mood. My son, the whirlwind of fandoms that he is, just turned eight. This milestone, marked with cake and a trip away, triggered a thought that I hadn’t even been aware of. This month marks 10 years since I started my first “proper” job in the realm of whisky. Before that I had a firm footing in the drinks industry, pouring pints in many, many bars and hocking 3 for 2 wine in off licences all over Edinburgh. But, it was in September 2009 that I started my job as a tour guide at the Scotch Whisky Experience (as is the way here at EWB) and my love of that very particular drink started to blossom into what it is today.

It was musing on this memory that I realised something that I had never thought of before; being only the sprightly age of 32, whisky and the world that surrounds it has been an ever present feature.

In fact, when I compare it to the usual milestones someone passes as they age, it’s quite staggering that I’ve chosen to stay around whisky for almost a third of my life.

The more I pondered it, the stranger it seemed. I found myself scouring the dusty shelves of my memory, looking at the decade of whisky tastings, distillery tours and informative conversations, trying to find a reason for my constant involvement. I thought on the people I had met while working with whisky and the things I had learned along the way. What it was that made me so drawn to the subject?

It was then that I had a spontaneous cognitive jerk. I was reminded of an event I had attended earlier this year and my thoughts as I made my way there. It was just another musing at the time, but looking back now it was perhaps the exact thread I was looking to pull on. As I looked back and started to tug, I realised that I had been looking at the situation from the wrong angle.

It wasn’t the things I had already learned or knowledge that I had amassed that made me love whisky. It was the things I didn’t know. The gaps in the knowledge were what I enjoyed chasing. The whisky blinds spots.

Aurora

Aurora in Leith

Tullibardine and Aurora

The evening in question had been hosted by Tullibardine at the Leith based eatery Aurora. The concept was simple enough – an exploration of Tullibardine’s core range matched with a menu devised by Aurora’s chef patron Kamil Watek. It sounded good. In fact, it was better than that, it sounded great and best of all the whole thing was just a short walk from my flat.

It was on my way there that I began to wonder – just how much did I know about Tullibardine? If somebody asked could I point it out on a shelf behind a bar? Yes, easy-peasy. Could I describe the character of the distillery to someone new to whisky? I suppose I could, using broad and not very exact adjectives. I had a good idea what it was but I wasn’t 100% certain. Would I be able to confidently find the distillery on a map of Scotland if needed? Maybe, I thought. But, then again when did maybe ever smack of confidence? I considered this on my approach and concluded that if I had been attending the evening as the host rather than as a guest I would have been tremendously unprepared.

As it happens the host for the evening couldn’t have been more prepared. Tullibardine’s master blender Keith Geddes led us through the core range of whiskies from the distillery as each plate of paired food arrived at the table, and answered our many questions between the courses. Before the invitation for the evening arrived, I did not know the name of Tullibardine’s master blender. I did not know how he went about making whisky and what his opinions were on the more controversial topics that tend to crop up in these discussions. Afterwards however, I knew Keith was as passionate about the whisky he was making as you would hope, and why he chose the particular whisky making practices that he did. I was in the dark about all of this before having the chance to talk to him, shedding some much needed light on the inner workings of Tullibardine.

Tullibardine

Tullibardine’s Single Malt Whiskies

As the evening wound up, I came away thinking about how much I had managed to learn about a subject that I considered myself pretty knowledgeable on. This, I thought, was a good feeling.

The next day I resolved to do that which any self-respecting geek would when presented with gaps in their knowledge – I started a quest of research in order to fill them. I had already known that there had been a brewery on the site of Tullibardine long before the distillery but I hadn’t known just how long before (since 1488, as it were). I hadn’t known about the closure of the distillery between 1994 and 2003, and how a massive re-casking programme was needed as the ageing stock had been sitting in tired oak all that time. There was a lot that I didn’t know; and it was brilliant. I got to read about a distillery with a turbulent history, a whisky that has passed through the hands of several notable blending companies, and about how they plan to shape their future. It was refreshing and it was enjoyable. I was revelling in the extent of my ignorance.

That is the crux of all this. Even after 10 years of reading and writing and talking and listening, I’m nowhere closer to knowing “everything” about whisky. In fact, I doubt I’ve even really scratched the surface and I’ve a way to go until I get to the really good stuff hidden away underneath. The stuff only the real “experts” get to know.

That’s why I’ve stuck with whisky as long as I have, because of it’s inexhaustible expanse of learning that never ceases to capture the attention. History, science, economics, folklore; what other subject can cover all of those in a single evening and will still have you leaving with more questions than you arrived with?

So, here’s to another 10 years with whisky. Here’s to reflecting on those years in the future, and seeing how far (or how little) down the whisky trail I’ve managed to get. But, most of all, here’s to all the things yet to be discovered. All the facts, figures and dates yet to be committed to memory. Here’s to the wonderful joy that is the blind spots in all of our whisky knowledge just waiting for us to take the time to find out what they are.

Jason

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