Monday, January 12, 2015

The cultures of whisky

My recent column for the Canberra Times is on whisky: 'When it comes to quaffing whisky, 'authenticity' has no taste'.

Prompted by the recent win, by a Japanese distillery, of a coveted single malt prize, I'm discussing ideas of 'authenticity'. A sample:
it is naive to expect whisky to stay local. What became whisky was once a monastic product, used ostensibly for medicinal purposes (wink-wink, nudge-nudge, hiccup). Distillation, in turn, was passed on from mediaeval Arabs (often making perfumes), who reportedly learned techniques from Alexandrine Greeks, and so on. The point is not that whisky is therefore Hellenic, but that these cultural products are, in the long term, constantly shifting. And likewise for scholarship, art and craft: these pursuits are only minimally stable, with techniques being forgotten, renewed, altered and rejected. 
We do not know what will happen to Western civilisation, but it is naive to expect "Western" goods to remain tied to specific countries or languages over the centuries. Philosophy, for example, was a Greek innovation, which is now global: there are Chinese, African, South American and Australian philosophers. English is a melange of various continental languages. No one is quite sure where exactly baklava was originally from. Perhaps the notion of "originality" is itself suspect, with its overtones of single sources and specific instances. 
The point is that these goods – and make no mistake, single malt is a good – are the briefly stable products of constant flux and ambiguity. They seem singular and fixed, but meanwhile the vague tangle of culture is shifting imperceptibly.
(Photo: Bowmore whisky, by Sansvase)

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