We’re told where we’ll end up. In the warehouse surrounded by oak barrels aging smoked, fermented and distilled barley. We’ll gather in a half circle facing our tour guide as she tells us what’s about to pass our lips. Crossing through doorways, entering rooms and worlds we usually don’t see, usually don’t walk into and out of, we’re about to have the veil parted. We know it’s all about alchemy.
Matter mixed–four basic elements (air, earth, fire and water), then fermented, then distilled in order to create a spirit. Spirit, consciousness, psyche. Consider C.G. Jung’s thoughts on alchemy and psychology in the aptly titled Psychology and Alchemy.
So long as the alchemist was working in his laboratory he was in a favorable position, psychologically speaking, for he had no opportunity to identify himself with the archetypes as they appeared, since they were all projected immediately into the chemical substances. The disadvantages of this situation was the alchemist was forced to represent the incorruptible substance as a chemical product–an impossible undertaking which led to the downfall of alchemy, its place in the laboratory being taken by chemistry. But the psychic part of the work did not disappear. It captured new interpreters, as we can see from the example of Faust, and also from the signal connection between our modern psychology of the unconscious and alchemical symbolism. (37)
With the above words in mind, consider Andrew Jefford’s description of the distilling process.
So: what is distillation? It is the exploitation of a natural phenomenon. This phenomenon is the fact that different liquids boil at different temperatures. Water, famously boils at 100 degrees Centigrade. Ethanol (alcohol) boils at 78.5 degrees Centigrade. If you heat beer to 78.5 Centigrade therefore, the alcohol in it will begin to evaporate, but the water will remain where it is. That alcohol will billow off the warm beer as intoxicating steam. Once this heady steam is cooled, the alcohol will resume its life as a liquid: whisky, in this case. That is the principle of distillation: gentle heating of an alcoholic liquid, followed by the gathering and the cooling of the steam. (10-11)
Distillation as alchemy. A pot still as an alembic. Somewhere in all the language of Oregon pine and copper, washbacks and lyne arms, peat and steam there’s a spirit boiling and cooling, a soul aging into itself. Above nuages and between my ears Claude Debussy’s Nuages.
We take our first turn of the labyrinth by stepping into the milling room, and meet the Robert Boby Malt Mill. The barley malted at Port Ellen Maltings enters the girding teeth of this perfect piece of machinery which cracks open the smoked barley and then pulverizes the pieces. Not too course, not too fine. Just right.
More doors, thresholds, hallways, stairs and then . . . we walk into a room of large steel tanks. With grist in hand now joins with water from Loch Uigeadail in the mash tun. Think of tea leaves steeping in hot water. The grist has now become wort, which now travels to the washbacks.
Portals, entryways, passages and we arrive in Oregon . . . or at least in a room with Oregon pine tubs. Here, the alchemy kicks up a notch. Fermentation. Add yeast to the wort and for forty-eight to one hundred and twenty hours yeast acting as its own alchemical agent converts glucose in the wort to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.
Zymology offers a simple equation: . And so beer, bread, cheese, kimchi, wine and more. And so a step closer to whisky. Transformation and transmutation. Add yeast to consciousness and thoughts bubble and foam as a walk along a sea coast becomes a blog post mixing Carl Jung, Claude Debussy, clouds and an old story about a monster in the middle of a nautilus shell.
A pit if you will, which at the bottom contains a warm ale coming in at 8 or 9 percent ABV. Offered a taste, I’m surprised by citrus notes, even though hops have not been added. Somewhere out in the Pacific Northwest, a Douglass Fir grew amidst rain and sunlight, tumbling apart under axe and chainsaw to reform as planks in a large cup of liquid barley going through the changes of life. I think three women round a pot. I think Macbeth.
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw;
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelt’red venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ th’ charmed pot.
And before me circles the Ouroboros turning in upon itself over and over, circulating and processing into something ever new and yet ever reminiscent of what it once was. Thoughts like this bring me to the window and a look out at clouds stretched like sheets of cotton bandages between pale blue and an every greying sea. Rocks included. Like a dreamworld, where as Jung points out
[the dreamer] is immersed in this sea of historical associations, so he behaves in his dreams as if he were fully cognizant of these curious excursions into the history of the human mind. He is in fact an unconscious exponent of an autonomous psychic development, just like the medieval alchemist or classical Neoplatonist. Hence one could say–cum grano salis–that history could be constructed just as easily from one’s own unconscious as from the actual texts. (86)
Gabriela, Demian and I turn once again, gyre within gyre, and stand on the precipice of the spirit room. Secrecy guards these copper stills as we are prohibited from taking photographs inside, but there’s no problem capturing light on the threshold; and so, my presiding spirit stands smiling before the vessels used to distill taste.
All of this takes a mixture of material reality, practical engineering and flights of imagination. Breath, spirit, soul.
The imaginatio, or the act of imagining, was thus a physical activity that could be fitted into the cycle of material changes, that brought these about and was brought about by them in turn. In this way the alchemist related himself not only to the unconscious but directly to the very substance which he hoped to transform through the power of imagination. Imagination is therefor a concentrated extract of life forces, both physical and psychic. (278)
Beer now heats and gives way to low wines (impure alcoholic beverage) which are again distilled and now called spirit. The wash still producing low wines gives way to the spirit still producing breath, devil, god, gravity, hermaphrodite, ouroboros and world.
Round and round and out into the air and then into the warehouse, where our journey ends not with a half-man, half-bull to tear us apart and feast on our flesh, but with three glasses of Ardbeg spirit in order to alter our blood and bodies into something a bit more diaphanous. My thoughts have been circling William Butler Yeats‘ wonderful and strange tome A Vision with its distilled alchemical and magical musings on spirit and world connected.
All thought becomes an image and the soul
Becomes a body: that body and that soul
Too perfect at the full to lie in a cradle,
Too lonely for the traffic of the world:
Body and soul cast out and cast away
Beyond the visible world.
But the body, as the spirit, must have its food, so once again we cross Ardbeg distillery and enter their restaurant, Old Kiln Cafe. After all, the boy is hungry. He orders the Argyll Steak Pie, Gabriela orders the Ardbeg Fish Pie and I settle into Haggis, Neeps and Tatties–meaning a pudding of sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs) mixed with minced onion, oatmeal and an assortment of herbs and spices; a large root vegetable called a “swede” and rutabaga, while “tatties” are potatoes and they and the neeps are boiled and mashed together. Turn and turn again in the widening gyre of a washback or plate of animal and vegetable changed into something for my mouth and belly.
And brightly glistening and shining in its viscous waves and legs resides the spirit of much contemplation. A distillation of the soul of the earth. Time to testify. Time to have Funkadelic ask . . . What is soul? Sláinte!