As I write this, I am drinking Laphroaig, Jefferson’s, Glendronach, Yellow Rose, and more. All the whiskey that has filled my nasal passages, passed my lips and burned my throat swirls here tonight in my glass. Well, it’s a glass of WoodFord Reserve that I’m tipping back, but one whiskey references them all. Whiskey and whisky.
Ah, you see Jorge Luis Borges lurking next to the glass of Woodford Reserve. Or, I should say, an image of Borges on the cover of a book on the life of Borges, which though of great interest to me, does not reach the heights and depths of Borges’ fiction as in Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions.
Though Borges himself would agree that the Borges offered in Edwin Williamson’s biography is a fiction as well. Turn to the pages of The Circular Ruins and read how one human being discovers he is as much an illusion as any other human being. Read The Library of Babel where all “realities” and “illusions” stick on selves and everyone’s story is already written, and every whisky already distilled. Think on how a traitor and a hero share the same identity like two sides of the same coin in Theme of the Traitor and the Hero. Ponder how in Death and the Compass as in many Borges stories, the labyrinth (think of the subtle, inevitable curving of a nautilus shell) always brings us back to the same center, the same monster, the same death. Understand that The Sect of the Phoenix unites all, all mothers and fathers, all lovers, as sex has us make the two-backed beast–where are our special personalities in that moment of coitus? Consider how Borges takes Giambattista Vico’s statement in the New Science when he writes “Homer was an idea or heroic archetype of the Greeks who recounted their history in song,” and “Since the true Homer is lost in the multitude of the Greek peoples,” which then becomes Borges’ The Immortal where a narrator’s text found in a copy of Pope’s Illiad announces “I have been Homer; shortly, I shall be No One, like Ulysses; shortly, I shall be all men; I shall be dead.” Consider the maze-like nature of the sentences I’m writing. The many as the one, the one as the many, so deeply Platonic tells us something about whisky as well.
All whiskey begins with grain–barley, corn, rye or wheat. In the case of Woodford Reserve barley, corn and rye comprise their recipe for whiskey. This video helps my wandering through the many and one world of whiskey by pointing out that all whiskeys have “water and grain, they are all fermented, distilled then matured.” Let’s consider some of my favorite single malt whiskys.
Glenlivet and Balvenie come to us from Speyside, Highland Park from the Orkney Islands, and Laphroaig, of course, from Islay. A range of tastes not to be confused–the heather and honey of Speyside gives way to the particular peat of Orkey, which stands a bit back from the peat and sea-water spray of Islay. Yet, all go through the same turning. First, barley soaks in water for days, then travels to a malting floor where it spreads out and germinates. Rakes comb the barley and then when sprouts begin to show all that good growing grain journeys to the smoking room where burning earth dries out the barley and stops the germinating. Next we turn and crush the barley in a mill, creating a grist which then mixes with water in a mash tun. The resulting sugary water, known as wort, transfers to a wash back (wood or steel), where yeast then drops into the mix. So begins the fermentation. Yeast hungers for sugar and in so doing transforms C12H22O11 into alcohol. The resulting wash then moves to a pot still where the mystical alchemy begins, the distillation process where beer becomes whiskey. The wash heats to 170 degrees Farenheit vaporizing the liquid which travels up through the neck of the still and then down into a condenser immersed in cool water. Liquid to vapor, and then vapor back into liquid. Another distillation in a second pot still produces a spirit around 70% alcohol by volume (abv)–this from the wash which is between 8 and 10% abv. Then, of course, it’s time for maturing in oak. The good people at Compound Interest spell it all out in their post entitled The Chemistry of Whisky.
Much like journeying through a labyrinth (the above design resides in Cornwall), barley and water wind back and forth and then rest for years in barrels waiting for daylight and a nose and mouth. Think of the elaborate schemes in Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths or Death and the Compass. To reveal a secret artillery park a man must be murdered, but not without first revealing a labyrinth winding through time linking murderer and victim in ever-shifting identities or revenge is found through the secret name for God and the aesthetic predelicitons of a detective. Often in Borges’ short stories, the main character (often Borges) discovers a moment of quiet echoing through time just before he dies, he’s forgotten, or his reality disappears in flames. So does the spirit slowly absorb charred American White Oak or European oak once housing sherry, port, rum or wine. Of course, don’t forget the air around these casks and all that is brought on winds the barrels breathe in and out; which brings me, to Astor Piazzolla and his Finale for the Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night–a tango perfect for the night, whiskey and contemplating labyrinths. Salud!