FROM THE VAULTS
As a way to describe the sensory appreciation of a fine dram, the musical term Glissando fits rather neatly. In this feature for Unfiltered issue 28 in July 2015, Richard Croasdale tuned in to the mysterious arrangement that makes whisky such a fine accompaniment to music
Hans Offringa has written two books celebrating the links between whisky and music
Studies have shown that memories associated with music and aroma are among the most deeply rooted and longest lasting.
Dementia patients who may no longer remember their loved ones will often still respond to a favourite perfume, or songs from their childhood.
This, of course, tallies with our everyday experience; music, flavour and aroma have an uncanny power to transport us to another time or place, drawing out our emotions as freshly as the day we originally experienced them.
“Suppose I asked you if you could remember the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen, or of the library at your school, something will probably come into your mind immediately,” says [SMWS honorary ambassador] Hans Offringa, whose two books – Whisky & Jazz and Bourbon & Blues – explore the historical and emotional links between music and whisky.
“These memories can also become combined – one of my favourite things is listening to the jazz great Dexter Gordon with a glass of Lagavulin. There’s something that feels spiritually very similar between the two; they’re gentle giants. So now, every time I drink Lagavulin, I hear Dexter blowing that beautiful tenor sax.”
Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the long association between whisky and music; we drink and sing and share a common experience, marking a special point in time and in our memories for posterity.
According to SMWS Tasting Panel chair Robin Laing, a well-known songwriter and expert in Scotland’s folk music tradition, both whisky and music provide a useful link back to our personal memories, but also our shared cultural memories.
“I think whisky’s particularly relevant if you’re interested in traditional music and song,” says Robin.
For Robin Laing, whisky and music combine to provide a link to shared cultural memories
“If you look at these songs, they tend to be narrative; a lot of it’s about storytelling. Jim McEwan at Bruichladdich is a true storyteller, and something he often talks about is how each dram carries the stories of the people who made it. It’s a way of tapping into that history and heritage.
“There’s also an impulse...I don’t want to say ‘drunk people sing’, but the Scots have a few drams and like to sing a song that recalls and celebrates their shared history. When I was a teenager, all the annual events – Burns Supper, Hogmanay, Highland ceilidhs – people would share a few drams and entertain each other with a song. That’s a Scottish tradition dating back centuries.”
Hans takes this even further, arguing that whisky and traditional music have come to embody a spirit of defiance and shared struggle.
“Whisky and musical genres like jazz and the blues were all created under the suppression of a neighbouring majority, which looked down on both the craft and the craftsman,” he says. “Illicit stills in the Highlands flourished because of English suppression, and out of that came the most exceptional spirit.
“Jazz and the blues, meanwhile, came out of the traditional folk music brought by African slaves to the Americas, and was for a long time considered raw and uncultured by the white majority.”
Despite having long since received the cultural recognition they deserve, Hans believes whisky and much ‘traditional’ music retain their rebel spirit, making them natural bedfellows even for those who are not consciously aware of the connection.
Ultimately though, enjoying whisky and music should be about just that: enjoyment. So does one affect or even enhance our experience of the other?
“Absolutely,” responds Hans. “A great dram combined with a great song create their own kind of harmony, which resonates in the very deepest parts of our souls. These are the sensory connections that will outlast other memories, and rightly so: this is the good stuff!”
*Job titles were correct as of time of writing in 2015 but may have changed