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Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Sound Of Aberlour (or 'Aberlou(de)r')

Hey hey!  Both Joel and I find ourselves at an unusual point this month. Our new book, Distilled is finally out and we're really delighted with the reaction so far. It's been a hugely rewarding ride into the world of spirits and we look forward to many more years to come, writing about and enjoying great spirits in the company of great friends.  

Last week, we had a slight return to our roots back in the music business, albeit as part of a fun and engaging tasting masterclass for The Whisky Show. In fact, it was a superb opportunity to reminisce about 'the old days' of making records and generally revisit what was a fun chapter in our lives. 

Together with an old friend of ours, record producer Danton Supple, the man who produced Coldplay's X&Y album, as well as working with a host of highly successful artists from around the globe including Amy MacDonald and Natalie Imbruglia, we devised an experience for 30 passionate whisky and music fans, who were in attendance at the Whisky Show. For all three of us, there is an undeniable link between whisky and music. It has been said that whisky and rock ‘n roll are the ultimate bedfellows and that the creative energy flowing through many of the greatest and most enduring classic blues and Rock ‘n Roll songs can be attributed to the ‘spirit of the spirit’. From the raw emotion laid bare in Robert Johnson’s seminal recordings of the late 1930s, through to the hedonistic, hell-raising antics of Led Zeppelin and beyond, whisky, of some kind, seeps with abundance from virtually every pore.  

But not only is there a creative link. There are also parallels between the production of classic whiskies and the creation of classic albums and our tasting sought to highlight a number of these similarities. 

We chose the classic Speyside malt, Aberlour as a perfect example of a liquid laid bare, ideal for pairing with music. The concept was to find five unusual expressions of Aberlour, each with its very own personality to match with five similarly characterful pieces of music. Working alongside Danton,  we rattled through our combined record collections with each whisky in tow, until we felt confident that we had mirrored the individual nuances of the liquid. No easy feat, as it turned out, given that music - and tasting notes are so damned subjective. But our collective thinking was that certain styles of whisky have very distinct character traits and it was these that we hoped to highlight with each piece of music.  

Are you still with us?  - honestly, it will become clearer, we promise!

Assembling a fairly high-end stereo in the huge arched tasting rooms down in Vinopolis, the location of The Whisky Show, we laid out our plans -  and the whiskies. Had we succeeded in capturing the essence of each liquid in song form?  

First up was a real cracker: a 16 year-old single cask Aberlour matured in a wonderfully rich sherry cask, only available at the distillery and bottled at 59.1%. In fact, if you pay the distillery a visit, this is one of a pair of releases that you can bottle yourself, so a very special whisky indeed.  As a prime example of a characterful Speyside spirit filled into a clearly very active sherry cask, this whisky is powerful and brooding- rich in body and complexity. It has a mighty spiciness, which develops alongside a highly resonant fruitiness.  To us, a single cask whisky is about as near to completely immersing yourself in the spirit as possible and our idea was to pair this with a stark acoustic recording: something where you hear a song -  and the vocal - in its rawest form, with every nuance of the performance on show. After much discussion, there was only one artist who could truly take on such a mighty whisky and that was 'The Man In Black' himself, the late Johnny Cash.  

The song we chose was The Man Comes Around, taken from his beautifully recorded American IV album, released in 2002. Here, Cash's voice is arguably at its finest: As resonant and cavernous as a 300ft sinkhole, yet still in possession of a rich, spicy character. A voice that has truly lived, if you like. For us, this simple, honest recording was the perfect backdrop to the Aberlour sherry cask. We hit play and stood back.  

With our palates still tingling from such a complex whisky, our next pairing was almost the antithesis of both sherry cask maturation and the fearsome pipes of Johnny Cash. As mentioned above, there is a pair of single casks available at the Aberlour distillery and we were lucky enough to get a bottle of the sister to the brooding sherry bomb: A wonderfully light, zesty, fruity and buttery first-fill Bourbon Cask 16 Year Old Aberlour, bottled at 54.5%. Here, we wanted to try and demonstrate the contrasting lightness against the shade of the sherry release - the ethereal, soft, sweet vanilla/ tropical fruit notes of a first fill bourbon cask.  

This initially proved to be a little tricky. We were convinced that a simple, beautiful acoustic track sung by a timeless female vocalist was the way to go, but finding something uplifting and confident, yet syrupy smooth caused a few disagreements. In the end, after several reaffirming drams at Danton's studio in Shoreditch, we hit on the perfect match: Carole King and her timeless piano led classic, You've Got A Friend from the 1971 masterpiece, Tapestry. The warm, analogue notes of this recording really helped to counterpoint the unctuous notes of the whisky. So far, so good!

The third pairing was perhaps the most interesting to explore and gave Danton a chance to demonstrate just why he is one of the most in demand record producers in the world. Our task was to find a way of articulating the perfect balance of cask types found in an Aberlour 17 year old Double Cask release, bottled exclusively for the French market at 43%.  As we have previously seen, both first fill sherry and bourbon cask styles have very different flavour profiles and too much of either one can change the balance of light and shade- potentially in the wrong direction.  

It was here that Danton likened the practice of mixing a song to that of the whisky maker obtaining that perfect balance of flavours in a finished recipe and to highlight this, he bought along something you simply wouldn't get to hear every day: The multitrack recordings of one of Coldplay's biggest hits, Fix You. Using his laptop to highlight individual tracks he began with the song's simple organ part and stark vocal, building to a crescendo of instruments and emotions. Too much of one aspect (the organ and bass parts) gave the track a darker feel. Too much lead vocal and guitar, coupled with vocal harmony parts produced a mix that was sweeter and lighter, but lacked the solidity and foundations of the finished, balanced recording. In tandem, the 17 year old Aberlour hit that sweet spot of rich, darker notes, whilst building to a wonderfully balanced, sweet fruitiness. 

For the forth pairing, we wanted to really push the boat out and thanks to the almost archive-like inventory of the Whisky Exchange, we managed to locate a dusty bottle of Aberlour/Glenlivet 8 Year Old, bottled in the middle of the 1960's.  This time capsule of a whisky was unlike any modern whiskies on the palate and made us wonder about the difference of production methods back then. Today's whisky business centres on practices that deliver consistency, with a greater understanding of wood management and maturation, so you can pretty much guarantee that the bottle you open today will taste pretty similar to the one you open in a decade.  However, back in the 1960's things were a little different. Aberlour Ambassador Phil Huckle gave us some background on the distillery at the time, pointing to the idiosyncrasies that might affect the differing flavour profiles of a whisky, such as coal fired stills and less of a scientific approach to understanding the maturation process.   

For these reasons, we wanted to find a classic track made roughly around the same era, which despite the limitations of technology at the time, is arguably regarded as a groundbreaking piece of music. We didn't have to think too hard about this -  Pink Floyd's Breathe from their seminal Dark Side Of The Moon.  

With the room feeling particularly chilled out and no doubt drifting off into a dreamy whisky/progrock-induced haze, it was time to bring things back to life. Our final pairing was the most lively of all, a given, when you consider the whisky we decided to finish on. Aberlour A'Bunadh is arguably the distillery's most well known and highly regarded expression and has developed an almost cult following since it was first released in 1997. For us, this is the most extreme style of Aberlour (batch 48 is bottled at 59.7%) and our pairing needed to reflect this. In fact, it made us think of the concept of seeing your favourite band play live: You know the songs, but everything is so much more lively, loud, driven and direct. All in all, everything is turned up to 11, with everyone on stage delivering a visceral and incendiary performance. There was no disagreement as to which track would perfectly articulate this: Can't Explain from The Who's incredible 'Live At Leeds' album, rated by many music critics as the best live album of all time. The recording is brutally honest, leaving Townshend, Entwistle, Moon and Daltery no room to hide, each one at the top of their game and performing out of their skins. It's the sound of a band so accomplished, they can strip open the songs at ease and allow the listener to understand what each instrument really adds. 

Aberlour A'Bunadh has the same simplistic and powerful heart, but there are also layers of complexity amongst all the extremes. It's a whisky that transports you right back to the beginnings of the distillery with each passing sip (for those who don't know, it was a recreation of a very old bottle front he late 1800's that was found at the distillery)- much in the same way that listening to 'Live At Leeds' gives even those listening today that feeling of "I Was There'. 

What a way to finish. For those of you who would like to try and recreate the same experience at home, we've created a 'Sound Of Aberlour' Spotify playlist which you can listen to here.  

The Sound Of Aberlour

But why not try creating your own pairings? Of course, each listener and drinker has a deeply personal relationship with their music and whisky; this was ours and we're willing to bet that given half the chance, you can find your own perfect Sound Of Aberlour.