By Christopher Coates

The science of whisky

A key to unlocking the real magic
It is a strange thing how two quite separate ideas can coexist peacefully in one’s mind, never coming into contact until circumstance causes them to collide. On one hand, we are taught to revere the historic art of whisky making, based on intuition, tradition and experience. On the other, that data, hard facts and rigorous assessment is the only true basis upon which any decision should be made.

Hearing stories about old customs and time-honoured practices make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, the adult equivalent of a bedtime story. “But why are things done that way?” we ask the distiller manager in earnest. Because that’s the way it was done by the last generation and the generation before that, we are told with a knowing smile. “That’s just the way it is.”

Meanwhile, perhaps subliminally, the new way of doing things, based on the sterile insights of biologists, chemists and physicists, are portrayed to be somehow not quite the same. To hell with the advantages, they’re new, strange, lesser. What exactly the scientific approach lacks is hard to say. Is it less genuine, less true? That would be paradoxical by definition. Are they less human, then?

Insights of engineers, food scientists and yeast biologists feel almost irreverent

Perhaps purely due to nothing more than simple, sanguine nostalgia, the skills handed down over the generations, which have been honed through decades or even centuries of trial and error, have become sacred totems, while the insights of engineers, food scientists and yeast biologists feel almost irreverent. They hand us the forbidden fruit that robs us of our innocence. Authors often say that the real magic of a story is in the parts left untold, but science fills in the gaps.

Today, the lab is as much the realm of the whisky maker as the distillery or warehouse.

I suppose that when one has been told for so long that something is magic, the act of pulling up the illusionist’s sleeves to expose the hidden mechanism or pointing out the wires suspending the levitating assistant feels somewhat taboo. “Don’t spoil the trick,” begs the child inside all of us, as we desperately try to hang on to that sense of wonder and amazement from before. “I need to believe in something.”

Of course, once the hidden compartment inside the wardrobe has been pointed out, there’s no going back to believing it’s a vanishing cabinet and that the audience member has really disappeared. When one finally knows the source of those shadows on the cave wall, they can never be anything more than shadows.

And, though this wistfulness and a tendency to hark after the ‘good old days’ is common enough among whisky lovers (and therefore an easy rut to fall into), the more I reflect on this instinctive reverence for the past and its practices, the more I realise how utterly inconsistent the position is when properly examined and held up against my conscious beliefs.

Raised on a healthy diet of rulers, scales, scepticism, microscopes, trips to the local science centre and books about NASA, there’s no point in my life that I can recall when I wasn’t taught to respect the holy trinity of rational thought, empirical evidence and objective, emotionless assessment. My first proper primary school project (when aged about seven), was about cosmic rays, for Pete’s sake. I even made a little illustrated book on the subject – one of my first publications, now I think about it.

For a time, it felt like the magic was gone.

For me, however, the emptiness I felt when the veil dropped didn’t last. Sure, there was a day, I’m not sure when exactly, that I realised I’d read just a bit too much of the whisky library, been on one too many distillery tours and attended just enough masterclasses to see how they’re pulled off. For a time, it felt like the magic was gone.

Then I delved deeper. I started reading academic journals (which often first required going away to watch ‘Chemistry for Dummies’-type videos on YouTube) and asking more complicated questions of any poor distiller who’d take my calls, even when those questions made me feel a little stupid. Little by little, the feeling started coming back.

The more I learned, the more I released I knew nothing. Sure, I could see the wires now, but how were they suspended and why in that way? It’s true, whisky making isn’t really magic – it’s better than that. It’s science.