By Davin de Kergommeaux

Telling the story

Creating a brand myth can be better with a dollop of truth
Marc Bergin’s new Irish whiskey blog strikes a chord with me despite its brief content. A proud Dubliner, Marc tells us the Irish ‘e’ spelling came about so distillers in Dublin could set their high quality whiskey apart from inferior whisky made in rural Ireland. It sounds plausible, and may well be true.

Earnest experts explain that Americans spell whiskey with an ‘e’ because the Scots-Irish, who brought whisky making to America, came from Ireland. The Scots-Irish however, only bear that appellation in America. Everywhere else they are known as Ulster Scots, Scottish people who were forcibly removed to Ireland. Yes, they distilled there, but no, they did not add ‘e’ to their whisky, nor did they bring that spelling to America. Logic alone does not create reliable history.

A graphic on Bergin’s blog proclaims “History in the Remaking.” How perfectly this captures my frustration that so many naïve best guesses enter whisky’s lore as historical fact. Most often these begin innocently, though brands and “experts” have been known to burnish their reputations with claims that may not survive scrutiny.

Sometimes, a little digging overturns long-held truths. When author, Fawn Weaver revealed that Jack Daniel had learned distilling from an African-American slave, the brand changed its origin story. Her careful research had established a more likely alternative. Perhaps brands are not the best custodians of whisky’s history.
Canada has been rich territory for those wanting to shape whisky narratives to suit their purposes.

Every whisky needs its story, but an authentic one serves it best. It just takes a little work to find it. History is worth getting right.

Some years back one cheeky writer earned the nickname “ego journalist” from a disgusted brand team when they hired him to write tasting notes for some Canadian whiskies they had recently launched, and he went on to claim credit for having created them.

While self-puffery tends to become self-limiting, politics can be insidiously effective in dictating what becomes the official story. Late in the 18th century, bands of disgruntled Americans came to Canada rather than live in an independent USA. Not all of these United Empire Loyalists traced their ancestry back to the British Isles; they just did not like what was happening in America. Somehow, they have since convinced themselves that Canada didn’t really exist until they arrived. Some of their descendants remain insufferable in claiming their ancestors introduced almost every advancement here, including rye whisky.

Like defence attorneys highlighting evidence that might support their case, and discrediting the rest, they claim they invented American pioneer rye whisky and simply brought it with them to Canada. The reality that rye grain grown below the Great Lakes, in America, was unlike its Canadian cousin simply escapes them. It was richer in starch, and thus it made more but less flavourful whisky than rye grown in the colder, less hospitable Canadian climate above the lakes. I object to their naïve conclusion, and no judge would overrule me.

The rye story will become more confused as small Pennsylvania distillers seek to resurrect the original and now much-revered Pennsylvania rye. Sorry. Impossible. Even if they have an authentic recipe. Heritage varieties of rye may still prosper there, but they will not taste like pioneer rye did. Rye grain telegraphs growing conditions in its flavour, and these have changed irrevocably over time. Be sceptical when you read reviews that confidently report the flavour nuances of Whiskey Rebellion-era rye.

Then, of course, comes the laziest conclusion of all. Today, when we think of whisky we most often think of Scotch. Scots immigrated to Canada; ergo, the Scots must have been the first to make whisky here. Nice theory, but research shows the early distillers were generally Englishmen or Germans.

The natural human instinct to leap to conclusions has been honed over thousands of generations. However, uncovering a factual story, although work, is generally risk free. We need to resist the urge to fill in the blanks and rush to publish.
Every whisky needs its story, but an authentic one serves it best. It just takes a little work to find it. History is worth getting right.