By Dave Broom

Taking a tasting bee

Dave discusses language,tasting honey and the art ofbee keeping.
Language? Tricky stuff. Meanings can easily slip – or only be found peeking out between lines. Sticky stuff as well. On the Ben Rinnes toposcope walk (see News p6) I fall into a honeyed conversation with a whiskyloving beekeeper who works on the oilrigs. Yes, I was initially confused as well… How do bees survive on an oil-rig and what on earth would the honey taste like? Don’t worry, they’re in Speyside when he goes to the rigs. The good news, at a time when the bee population is being decimated, is that his hives are very healthy. In fact, much of the chat seemed to revolve around him finding swarms all over the place, which apparently you can simply pick up and pop into a hive. I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than that, probably involving a hat and gloves. Apparently a gun comes in handy as well which seems a tad extreme, unless it only fires very small bullets.He clears up this minor confusion by explaining that he only used his gun once, to shoot a branch off a tree on which a swarm had settled. No Bees Were Harmed. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier to roll in a peat bog and attach himself to a blue balloon, but then remembered it didn’t work for Pooh.It’s a fascinating conversation. One of those where an enthusiastic expert takes you into his world, teaching you, for example, about the differences between the early and the late honey.“I pick up honey in so many whiskies,” he says, taking a sip of Aberlour. “Of course you do,” I say. “ You’re tuned in.” Make a mental note to start tasting honeys again, as I head along the road to the tasting at Benrinnes distillery.By some sort of serendipity I’d been re-reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain in the runup to the event, trying and get a potential starting point for a tasting which featured six disparate whiskies linked only by the fact that their birthplaces could be seen from the top of the mountain.This passage had leapt out: “The palate can taste the wild berries... but who can describe a flavour? The tongue cannot give it back. One must find the berries, golden-ripe, to know their taste.” A statement which, on face value, seems to put ‘whisky writing’ in its place. She’s right. How can we articulate a sensation which is so internalised? But there’s more. Look deeper into her words and she is talking about mindfulness, about having a heightened, conscious awareness of what you are tasting, of where you are.So, on one hand it is impossible to write accurately the taste or smell of something. The words can only ever be an approximation. There is no salt added to Ardbeg, no meat thrown into the still at Benrinnes, but there is an undeniable perception of saltiness and meatiness. The same goes for vetiver, specific spices, flowers... and honey. Ah but, these smells are real because they are in our minds, our memories. To be able to articulate the sensation accurately therefore means you have to get out and live life, smell, touch, taste the golden-ripe berries to know their taste. Only then will your enjoyment and understanding be deepened.Robert Louis Stevenson said it better: “Every gratification should be rolled long under the tongue and we should always be eager to analyse and compare.. true it is difficult to put even approximately into words the kinds of feelings thus called into play... and yet there is much that makes the attempt attractive for any expression, however imperfect... seems a sort of legitimation of the pleasure we take in it.“A common sentiment is one of those great goods that makes life palatable and ever new...” Roads, 1873.That was the point of the tasting really. Six drams which rejoiced in their individuality, because that is what single malt is about. The day they all taste the same is the day that distilleries shut and we all pack our bags and head off to the world of Armagnac and rum.Equally, if it is about individuality then there is ever more reason for us to articulate those differences and qualities and the only way in which to do it is being mindful of the world.See? Language is sticky stuff. The need to be accurate yet nuanced, seeing the big picture but also looking between the lines, into the cracks, finding the glister of feldspar in the rock. It’s about experiencing, listening and paying attention and discovering the meaning which might lie beneath the surface.