Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Epilogue: Reflections in the River Spey

It’s early evening, but the sun has not yet started to set, and bursts its way through grey clouds to tinge their edges rose. On the riverbank flat pebbles are sent skimming across the water and muffled conversation is pierced with sudden laughter as friends and strangers congregate in dribs and drabs; beckoned by the glimmer of mahogany brilliance.

Beyond the clinking of Glencairns; on a dry patch of sand out of the way of bridgeside photographers, I sit with one of my closest friends, and one of the finest whiskies I have ever tasted. My notebook, for once, is closed and in my pocket. Now is not the time for scribbling.

From out of the woods more figures emerge; called by the waters of the river and of life. Men and women, Scots and English. European and American, Eastern and Western. The famous face of Dave Broom is amongst them. I have wanted to meet him for years, but he is closely surrounded, and I am in my own moment.

Speyside was not where whisky was born, but it is the cradle from which the infant truly grew into the industry we know today. I wonder who sat on this beach near Craigellachie 200 years ago, as the shots of gaugers and smugglers rang out across the glens. When men and women risked life and freedom to distil barley into spirit and to spit in the eye of Hanover. What might they have thought, had they seen the beach today, thronged by devotees from four corners of the globe? Would they have believed such a gathering possible? Could they have imagined a whisky such as the one I have in my glass?

Time does not stand still, and nothing lasts forever. Whisky is proof of that. The vast and trunkless legs of Port Ellen and Brora still stand, but one day the last of their barrels will be gone, and only desert will remain. For more than 200 years, distilleries have risen and fallen with the fortunes of the industry. I have no doubt those peaks and troughs will continue.

It is so common to hear bemoanings of a dip in whisky’s overall character when compared to equivalent bottlings of the sixties or seventies. But these great whiskies were made in a time when supply dwarfed demand. When distilleries were closed, and jobs were cut. Terms such as ‘Golden Age’ are all too cheaply thrown around; I doubt that was the language used by stillmen and coopers and distillery managers whose livelihoods were lost to the fickleness of fashion. Perhaps one day there will be another whisky loch, and too few people to drink it. For now, we have over 100 distilleries in Scotland alone; thousands more around the world. They are what you make of them; things could be far worse.

And what, I wonder, would folk on the banks of the nineteenth century Spey make of modern pricings? Of the Lalique Legacy Collection reaching $993,000 for six full-sized bottles and their trappings? What will become of those whiskies I wonder? Will they sit as art in their cabinet, unopened and undrunk? What pleasure will they impart?

I’ve often been outspoken on stratospheric whisky prices, and couldn’t agree more with recent Scotchwhisky.com articles condemning the notion of whiskies as trophies. Since when has discernment been a question of how big one’s wallet is? When did taste and understanding come with a price tag?

Of course your own whisky is yours to do with as you will. But it was made to be enjoyed; to give pleasure. It is a drink – when it flows as spirit from the stills, or into oak casks, no one present expects any future for it but to be drunk; by angels or by men and women. And I wonder, as I sit beside the Spey, whether any of those bottles of Macallan, so dearly bought, will ever offer the same pleasure as the glass of Craigellachie in my hand.

Later that night I am beside the Spey again. Alone this time; lit only by the faraway lights of Aberlour and the gleam of the moon on dark ripples. All I have in my glass is Johnnie Walker Green. But as I sit with salt-stained cheeks and memories of the last time I was in Abelour; what I did and who I was with, I have the most profound moment of my life. And no other drink could have triggered it.

I thought about those moments by the Spey as I walked home, and as I drove the long and lonely 10 hours back to Reading the next day. And they confirmed what I already knew, and had said on Twitter and to my friends. I need to take a break from writing. I need to learn; to understand properly what whisky means and is; has been and can be. I need to move onwards; to push those parts of my life that blogging has caused me to neglect these last two years. There is so much that needs to be done. And one day, at the right time, when I have learnt and understood, perhaps I will pick up the digital stylus once again. In the meantime, I wish everyone who has followed my verbal meanderings the very best. I can’t thank you enough.

The Spey, like the drink crafted around it, will keep flowing. Whisky is not a half-sunk shattered visage, and in my lifetime it never will be. It is just a drink, but in the right moment; in the right place and time, it can cause the brief candle to flare a little brighter for a while. Amidst all the rage and vitriol online, I think that is important to remember. Everyone gathered at Craigellachie bridge that evening had been drawn, first and foremost, by love.

As Will and I began to trudge away to the bus stop, his phone rang; his wife. He apologised needlessly, and we paused. I looked back to the waters of the Spey; to the last stragglers dotted around the bank. Saying nothing, I patted Will on the shoulder and walked back alone. Dave Broom was still in conversation; “and it all happens because of the river,” he is saying.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt. Mr Broom, my name’s Adam. I just wanted to say thank you. Your writing has been a huge influence on me.”

For a moment he looks startled; taken aback by an intruding youth with a serious face. Then he smiles.

“Oh that’s so sweet of you, thank you.”

He holds out his hand. I shake it, and I walk back up the path to Craigellachie and to my friend. Behind me the Spey rolls on towards the sea.

You can’t buy that for 900,000 dollars.

Cheers.

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