Greece’s drachma was one of the world’s first coins, its name a measure of weight related to the verb “to grasp”. Revived in modern times, it survived until the euro and was, along with efkharisto (thanks) or ya mas (cheers), the extent of most backpackers’ Greek, back when I was a backpacker.
Drachma shares an etymological root with another measurement: the dram. This unlikely connection turns out to be apt, because Scotch and money are as inseparable as whisky and alcohol, which causes me problems, because who wants to write about money in a drink column?
“Wine is land before man; whisky is man before land,” says the whisky expert Colin Hampden-White: no vines or soil types connect the landscape to the glass, although the water source is important. As is water in general: the word “whisky” is from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning “water of life”, while the splash that expands the flavours and aromas is known as a “teardrop”.
Whisky has its own language. There’s kilning to dry the malted barley, which is then milled to grist. That’s mashed with hot water in a tun, and the resulting wort is fermented, then sent to the still, where the interaction between alcohol vapour and copper is known as a “conversation”. How can a social lubricant, created by a process that’s a synonym for dialogue, be hard to talk about? Yet, “at the top end, it’s about more than flavour”, says Olivier Ward, the editor of Spirits Beacon. “People buy to resell.” Now, that is Greek to me.
When I visited Macallan’s spectacular new distillery in Speyside in 2018, its director, Ken Grier, mentioned that so many people had camped out, hoping to buy a £495 limited edition created to celebrate the opening, that the police had to be called. It’s now on the secondary market at £3,000. Grier treated me to a dram of Macallan No 6, which was glorious, lush with dates and figs, comprehensible to any tongue, if not to any wallet. Aged in sherry casks and sold in a Lalique decanter, it costs £2,500. That’s the trouble: start talking about whisky and you end up discussing money.
Maybe that was always the case. Operators once hid their wares from tax-collecting excisemen; distillery workers would slyly dip measures called “dogs” into the casks. Smugglers kept illegal whisky in circulation (even George IV drank Glenlivet, which was then unlicensed). Given that whisky requires copper stills and wooden casks, perhaps the materialism is built in.
Those casks can be interesting. Glenfiddich just released a 26-year-old aged in cognac barrels, following a 23-year-old, perfumed with fresh bread, that spent its last months in French wine casks. Both spoke to me. Was it the wine connection, whispering a dialect I could understand? Except that at Glenmorangie, across the Moray Firth, I preferred the 18-year-old, as comforting as sticky toffee pudding, to the limited edition 25-year-old, aged in Californian Chardonnay barrels. Perhaps money talks loudest, after all: only the former is a whisky I could afford.
I returned from Speyside with a Craigellachie 13-year-old, a spicy, lightly tropical whisky, made near Macallan yet very different. Man before land means every distillery has its own personality, which is as complicated as a roomful of people all speaking different languages. Yet money is one lingua franca; good drink is another. We find ways to make ourselves understood, whether we hoard or share.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy