Whisky & Culture

Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny *

Our music and whisky guru explores another blend of malt and jazz musician
By Hans Offringa
Whisky isn’t dead either; it’s alive and kicking as never before. New markets emerge where the drink of drinks was not obtainable until recently and hedonistic pleasures are combined with a dram, like smoking cigars with a glass of fine single malt. The pairing of whisky and food has become another matter of interest to whisky aficionados around the world. And indeed, some people do think that whisky smells funny!

Alcoholic beverages in general and whisk(e)y in particular have always been part of the food staple for many an artist, politician and even royal. Some among them personalised their style with a specific brand. Keith Richards is famous for presumably carrying a bottle of Jack Daniel’s wherever he went. Bill Murray became forever connected with Suntory Japanese whisky when he played the main role in the movie Lost in Translation.

The writers’ guild has its way with whisky too. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was only 39 at the time of his death in New York in November 1953. Throughout his short life, Dylan would boast about his drinking behaviour and once wrote, “An alcoholic is someone you don't like, who drinks as much as you do.” His last words would have been, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that is a record.”, but this is still open to debate.

But, back to the music. I find Milt Jackson’s velvety, inspired playing of the vibraphone akin to the smooth but spicy malt that is made at Balblair, in the north of Scotland. Let me explain!

The Musician

Milton Jackson was one of the founding fathers of the famous Modern Jazz Quartet, that would tour uninterrupted for almost 25 years between 1950 and 1974.

Jackson’s musical career is much longer and spans six decades. He was born on January 1, 1923, in Detroit, Michigan, and at seven started to sing gospel with his younger brother. At eleven Milt got piano lessons and played drums but had to stop soon since there was no money to sustain his musical education. At school, he received more training and switched to playing vibraphone.

Later, when he had already become a famous musician, he would reflect upon that change by telling, “I ended up playing vibes because it is the instrument most like the human voice, with one exception: once a singer adopts a style, it doesn’t usually change much, but with the vibes there is so much variation and you can endlessly improvise.”

His professional career started in 1946, when Dizzy Gillespie discovered Milt and invited him to join his big band. That’s where he met his later Quartet-companions. In 1974 the Modern Jazz Quartet was disbanded, but would eventually re-join in 1981 and exist until 1997. In between, Jackson would tour with various groups, playing with jazz greats, among whom were Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. He was also a great lover of the slow blues, which reflected in his playing as well as the setting of his vibraphone’s oscillator to 3.3 revolutions per second. In comparison, his colleague Lionel Hampton favoured ten revolutions. One of his most successful compositions, Bags Groove, turned into a jazz classic. His nickname “Bags” refers to the bag he carried on his back, containing his collapsing vibraphone, and his habit of staying up all night long. Soul and blues musicians knew how to find him, and he starred with Ray Charles and B.B. King on several occasions.

The Distillery

There are a wee number of Scottish distilleries that can trace back their history to the 1700s. Balblair is one of them. In the vicinity of a 4,000-years-old stone called Clach Biorach – Gaelic for sharp stone – local John Ross founded a small distillery in 1790 on the Balnagowan Estate. He soon turned it into a successful small-scale operation and welcomed his son Andrew into the company in 1824. Andrew at first couldn’t make up his mind where to go, since he left for nearby Brora Distillery after a while, but returned in 1836 to take over Balblair because of his father’s demise. Andrew continued to run the business successfully. In 1872 it was time for a thorough renovation.

New buildings arose and the original ones were confined to housing casks of maturing whisky. Andrew died a year later. His son James took over the business, but decided in 1894 to work for another distillery. Since James’s sons weren’t interested in whisky distilling, the licence from Balnagowan Estate was taken over by Alexander Cowan. On deciding to build a new distillery, the latest owner moved it closer to the railway and the old buildings.

In 1911, things went downhill rapidly and Cowan couldn’t pay the wages anymore. Balblair ceased production. Until 1932, the former employees managed to sell the entire stock after which there was no sign of life on the distillery grounds anymore.

When the entire Balnagowan Estate went bankrupt in 1941, the distillery was offered for sale. It would take seven years before a new owner showed up in the person of Robert Cumming, a lawyer from Keith. In 1949, the spirit flowed from the stills again, after a 30 year silent period. The new owner built up Balblair and was ready to sell the business in 1970. This time the tiny old distillery would become the property of Hiram Walker, who decided to add a third
still. Through a merger with Allied Vintners in 1988, Balblair was owned by Allied
Distillers, eventually becoming Allied Domecq in 1994.
Two years later
plans were made to mothball Balblair again, but the drinks company found a new owner in Inver House Distillers in 1996. Five
years later Balblair would become a Thai company, when Inver House was taken over in 2001 by Pacific Spirits (UK), currently called InterBev. It is the international branch of the Thai Beverage Public Company Limited (ThaiBev), which also owns Pulteney, Knockdhu, Speyburn and Balmenach. Throughout its existence, Balblair has released various single malts.

The Blend

Milt Jackson had endurance, forming the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1945 and performing with his colleagues until 1997. He let his music speak – spicy bebop, complemented by the velvety touch on his vibraphone that became his trademark.
Balblair has stamina too. It’s one of the oldest working distilleries in Scotland. The whisky is spicy, yet wonderfully soft. The clean environment in the Northern Highlands gives this dram a very agreeable lift.