I am Spartacus

I am Spartacus

The passing of a star brings thoughts about whisky

Thoughts from... | 27 Mar 2020 | Issue 166 | By Liza Weisstuch

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I can’t help wondering what working musician or actor under the age of, say, 60 will have a repertoire vast and dense enough to warrant the kind of cross-generational outpouring of appreciation that came when actor Kirk Douglas passed away on 5 February at the age of 103. Think about it: De Niro, Pacino, Mick Jagger, Dolly Parton, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder. You’d have to have fallen fresh off the turnip truck to not know who these 70-plus year-old icons are.

Douglas even slipped into the American collective consciousness in September 2018 thanks to Cory Booker, Democratic senator from New Jersey and short-lived presidential candidate. During a highly publicised congressional hearing relating to the contentious Supreme Court Justice nominee Brent Kavanaugh, he made a bold political move to break the rules and release confidential documents. Girding himself for the moment, he declared, “This is the closest I’ll ever have in my life to a ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.” I suspect not a single person failed to envision the steel-faced (and steel-weaponised) Douglas delivering his pronouncement of invincibility in the 1960 film. That moment transcended pop culture. It was straightforward humanity.

My fan-girl babble (both for the mythical actor and the bold, righteous senator) is simply a twisty-turny lead-in to tell of the afternoon I spent reading tributes to and appreciations of Douglas written and broadcast across media and publication genres. An homage in Esquire compiled his nuggets of wisdom, each one instructive and, befitting his legacy, universally applicable. There are two in particular that I can’t get out of my mind: “In order to achieve anything, you must be brave enough to fail”, and also, “The learning process continues until the day you die”.

This is the closest I'll ever have in my life to an 'I am Spartacus' moment

These thoughts turn over and over in my head as I think about distilleries I’ve visited over the years. Recently I stopped by a small operation in a bucolic pocket of the United Kingdom. It’s clearly on the ambition-blazed path to growth, big time. As if to prepare, nearly everything at this moment is automated. Everything except ageing is fixed.

Yes, of course it’s common understanding that more than 60 per cent of a whisky’s character comes from the ageing process. And yes, of course distilleries work to find a recipe to commit to and make its signature. But I wonder how different a trajectory would be if everyone started with more old-fashioned hands-on tinkering at every stage. Yeast matters. Fermentation times matter. I have heard distillers say, upon starting a distillery, “I know how I wanted my whisky to taste.” Do they? Really? Playing around more means more opportunity to make mistakes that might change preconceived notions and, hence, the path of development.

I was similarly reminded of this when I came across an article in Sifted, a Financial Times-backed digital publication. The title was provocative: “Can A.I. make a better ‘whisky’ than the human nose?” “Not quite yet,” the subhead replied, “But here are some ways tech is changing the drinks industry.” The article looks at how Mackmyra’s master blender and chief nose officer Angela D’Orazio might taste up to 200 whiskies in a day. Like anyone who’s trained in any field, knowledge springs from the ground tilled by mistakes. And unawareness. It’s not too risky to assume that Angela’s profound expertise comes from years of trial by error.

The article goes on to explain how, working with a Finnish tech firm and Microsoft, a team fed stacks of data into an A.I. machine – cask type, age, tasting notes, medals – in an effort to get a quantifiably ‘good’ recipe. Very few results it calculated were passable. Not only can a machine not be flexible, it cannot expand on its knowledge. Sussing out a nuanced aroma, Granny Smith apple versus Fuji apple, or even campfire versus campfire embers, is not conceivable by data analytics alone. Creating whisky is a dynamic process, an exercise in dialectics.

That brings me back to the Douglas nugget, “The learning process continues until the day you die”. A universal star, timeless wisdom.
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