A trifling 420 million years ago a millipede crawled out of the North Sea onto Stonehaven beach. No doubt its poor wee teeth were chattering. Have you ever had a dip in the North Sea?As far as I can work out, the discovery of its fossilised remains – the oldest remains of any air breathing animal – means that life as we know it started in Scotland, joining that illustrious list of great Scottish inventions such as the decimal point, the overdraft, the bicycle (and pneumatic
tyres), the three-stage rocket, geology, morphine, suspenders, the traffic cone and elephant autopsies.Pardon the smug tone, but that’s some record.It also makes Matt McGinn’s song, The Wee Kirkudbright Centipede a work of some prescience. What else would you expect from a man whose works are revered by that famous Springbank drinker Bob Dylan?If only Matt were still with us. The Wee Stonehaven Millipede would have been perfect for his genius. 420 million years? That’s one of those scary numbers which is impossible to imagine. It’s as long as Friends has been on television (another Scottish invention, by the way. Television .. not Friends.) It does however make me feel relatively youthful, especially at this time of the year when my mind is beset by thoughts of mortality.No sooner is the Hogmanay hangover out of the way then it’s my birthday and even the fact that I share it with Elvis doesn’t alleviate the fact that I‘m another year older.This issue is all-pervading this month. Not only in the Old .. but Good? tasting (p70) but it was there when I paid a quick visit to Gordon & MacPhail.Wandering though their warehouses you pass by malts dating back to the 1940s as well as some upstarts from the 50s and 60s. It reinforced my belief that tasting is a form of time travel. The aromas, tastes and flavours in every dram are created by the year’s harvest, the skills of the men who made it – and those who taught them.
That hint of peat is an aroma created over thousands of years by trees through which the Stonehaven millipede’s relatives may have danced. You’re tasting the hundreds of years it took the tree which made the barrel to grow, as well as the steady interplay between wood, air and spirit.You also revisit your own past. Every sniff triggers visions, taking you back to your past, reminding you of places, people and things. In that cool warehouse I touched ex-sherry casks which were bought from my uncle. Tasting is about understanding the interplay between these layers of meaning.So, the more memory triggers the better? The greater the age, the better the whisky? Certainly not. Age is just the accretion of time. It has nothing to do with quality — or wisdom.Matt McGinn’s song culminates with the tragic consequences of how, when the centipede was confronted with the precise notation of her beautiful little dance “her hundred feet got twisted and she wound up in a fankle, she fractured 14 kneecaps, seven shinbones and an ankle.”The message? Don’t try to work out what comes naturally. Don’t force things.Would that the whisky industry follow on from the centipede’s example. The fetishising of age has led many firms to produce a 25 or 30 year-old without apparently first sticking a nose in the barrel to see if it’s any good.One reason why Gordon & MacPhail manages to release complex ancient whiskies which haven’t been battered to death with a stave is because they know the parameters and can anticipate what will happen to a spirit after 40 years in wood.Most firms with an eye on quality will take the same approach, but not all. Maturation, like the centipede’s dance, is natural. All whisky-makers can do is tweak it subtly. Given the price of so many ancient drams, it’s a lesson worth learning.