His voice is slightly awry. Strong, yet fragile, it possesses a flawed purity, giving it a welcome honesty. It allows the words to come across more as timeless narratives, nakedly emotional, binding myth and reality. Alasdair Roberts makes the old ballads sound new and therefore stranger than they already are. His own songs have the same quality. Once heard, they are hard to shake off. As a result, Roberts and that old bard Robin Williamson are on heavy repeat as I work.
The binding spell of the music creates new connections in this listener's head. Williamson's "The barley's hum will fuel the tongue", that must be about whisky.. mustn't it? The same goes for Roberts' 'Firewater', a song about the impossibility of understanding someone, "how can I ever know you?" he asks, then adds "where is the firewater?" It is this (whisky.. in my reading) which will help him in his task, allowing him to build "our library of aethers".
It might not be referring to whisky at all, though what any song is 'about' is always a moot point (though one should never point moots). It is what the reader or listener takes from it which matters. The making personal is the most important element.
How can I ever know you? The song's question nags away.It's at its heart, it's at the heart of this whisky writing lark. How do we explain this aethereal substance? How can it be categorised? By score, though that's erratic and ultimately meaningless; by database, though that reduces the poetic to the world of the spreadsheet and the accountant; by region, though that's a flawed concept. Doing it by flavour is a possibility, but only if we can create a shared language that allows for personal interpretation.
There is an inherent absurdity involved in trying to categorise the evanescent, yet at the same time there is a need to create, as Roberts would put it, a library of these aethers. Put your nose in the glass, inhale, taste, think. Repeat with the next.. and the next .. The aromas dissolve in air, molecules transformed into pictures in your brain. Then they fade and as they do, so we forget. We flit through our memories, find the shared experience, grab the pictures and turn them into words, like shamans finding meanings in the mind's imaginings. What we need is a way in which to hold on to this transitory experience, find a method of locking it down successfully enough to be understandable to everyone. It is this which will act as the trail of white pebbles through the moonlit forest.
Remember your first dram? The first, stumbling, halflaughed response when someone asked you what it was like?
"It tastes like whisky". It's a fair starting point. Now imagine you're now standing in front of a wall of bottles at a bar or a supermarket. Do they all taste like whisky? Yes. Do they all taste the same? No. How then can anyone learn what the difference is between them all?If we cannot construct the library and allow people to cross reference with ease, to play among the bottles with confidence, then we are all at the mercy of luxury-obsessed marketing departments who think that fancy bottles and fancier price tags are all that is needed, or the snake-oil salesmen who say, 'trust in me, let me take the stress out of it...make my opinion yours,' and opinions are, as Robin Williamson says in another of his songs, no more than fingernails.
So it's a balancing act. Guide yes, dictate no. Create a structure, but one which is sufficiently flexible to allow for individual preference and allow everyone to make their own connections no matter if they are novice or anorak. It has to be flavour based, because flavour is the only language we can all agree on. Anyway, flavour is what sets one whisky apart from another. So, give people a map which shows the difference between flavours, while avoiding saying this is better than this. Knowing that this whisky is different from this one and similar to this one is all that is needed. It's on its way.
Watch this space.