I write this column in the days before the new year, as 2020 approaches at an exponentially quick clip, as time does when you both look forward to and dread something simultaneously. Anyone who hasn’t fallen off a turnip truck in the past month can understand my anxiety, what with The New York Times text message alerts jolting me with a shock of reality several times a day. But anyone who’s human – regardless of incidents with vegetable-toting lorries – can relate to my ready anticipation. The new year is, after all, a time of self-examination and of that most chilling concept, change.
But no change is immediate. Change is a process. And that brings me to the heart of this column.
Drinking whisky is a much more profound experience for me when I consider the many, many layers of expertise that have gone into making it
So much that we encounter daily, even the simplest things we take for granted, are often the result of a laborious process. Consider: the daily newspaper. There’s no way to actually calculate the total number of hours that go into producing, say, each Tuesday edition of The New York Times
, but I would bet it’s several 10s of thousands. No, really, think about it: all the reporters and columnists who research and interview and write; all the photographers who travel to sites to shoot; all the editors who edit and make decisions, sometimes highly consequential ones. All the designers who do layout, ad salespeople who keep revenue flowing, tech support people and printing press operators and delivery drivers and so on.
Process. It’s a beautiful thing. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I’d rather have sat and watched Vermeer paint Woman Wearing a Pearl Necklace
or Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid
than gaze at the masterpieces, however luminous and enchanting, today.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re bracing yourself for my declaring that I’d prefer to sit in a shadowy barrel warehouse somewhere in the tumbling hills of Speyside than drink the exquisite single malt that eventually emerges. Not quite.
But I can assure you that drinking whisky is a much more profound experience for me when I consider the many, many layers of expertise that have gone into making it: the coppersmiths who got sore shoulders banging away to bend the copper sheets to make a still and the coopers whose backs and trapezoids are equally aching from their labour. The farmers, the lorry drivers, the bottle-makers, the label designers, and so on, whose lives coincide that moment you pour a dram, a moment best immortalised by James Joyce when he pronouced, “The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.”
Even the discerning drinker can’t always wholly see the commitment and time that goes into it. And time is the most valuable commodity
I write this column from Islay, where I’ve spent the holiday and Hogmanay. (And learned Hogmanay is the Scots’ term for a New Year’s celebration.) I chatted with Jay Doherty one night in the Lochindaal, the pub/inn that’s been run by the MacLellan family for four generations. Members of the fifth generation currently tend bar. I met Jay about eight years ago when I spent a few weeks at Bruichladdich Distillery, where he’s worked as a warehouse man for the past eight years. We’ve kept in touch on social media, but even years of keeping up with each other’s goings-on and witty quips doesn’t come close to a face-to-face get-together.
Our conversation, like all conversations on Islay, eventually circled around to whisky. We talked about Bruichladdich’s Bere Barley, a malt made from a particular barley from Orkney. Its husk is tougher than other barley strains, he explained, making it tricky to work with. See, the rake and plough in the mash tun moves 2.25 rotations to ensure an even mix and aid in the drainage of the wort. In any mash, if the equipment is even a centimetre off while the mash is settled, it has the potential to clog the filters and interfere with drainage of the wort. Only two things can ensure a seamless process.
“You have to have the time and let things occur naturally. If you try to rush that and make even a slightly quicker turn of the mill, it won’t work. You have to have the expertise of the mash man that can only come with experience,” he said. “Even the discerning drinker can’t always wholly see the commitment and time that goes into it. And time is the most valuable commodity.”
And every process takes time.