A few thoughts on whether “authenticity” matters.
Lagavulin produces some very, very good whisky. It has a very charming old distillery, stone-built with white-wash walls, right on the rocky southern coast of Islay. The décor in the tasting room is very erm… tasteful. Big armchairs, wood panelling and tartan print wallpaper, it feels like you’re sitting in a Laird’s hunting lodge.
So when I was sitting in that tasting room a couple of months ago everything was set for an enjoyable tour. And like every distillery tour it was enjoyable, but two things left me feeling slightly disappointed and maybe even a touch disillusioned. The first was hearing that the Lagavulin distillery runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and only requires one person to run its operations. And the second was that, once distilled, the spirit is put in a tanker, taken to the mainland and put into barrels to mature.
This wasn’t my first trip to a distillery – I already knew that most of distilleries are owned by large parent companies (Lagavulin is owned by Diageo). And that most distilleries don’t do their own malting, and that in fact many of them use barley that isn’t even grown in the UK. That’s fine and understood.
But being hit with those two further things just seemed to make it a little bit too far removed from the romantic image of whisky production I had in my head.
The image of one man watching a computer screen and monitoring computerized systems from an office and then pumping 20,000 litres into a tanker to be shipped to a warehouse on an industrial estate outside Edinburgh just doesn’t seem quite as romantic as one might hope.
Now obviously I’m clearly a bit of a sucker for being buying into by the hoary old sales guff that the whisky industry peddles about the tradition and mystery of their product. But it is a seductive image nonetheless, and that’s the problem – if you’re being sold the image of whisky being the “authentic” taste of Islay or Speyside or wherever it is disconcerting to have that image rattled.
I don’t mean to pick on Lagavulin either – I know most distilleries operate in similar manner. And at least they were honest on the tour - would I have preferred it if they had tried to pretend that everything was produced on-site by kilt-wearing, barrel-chested yeomen using wood tools and going on about the “art of making whisky”? That would have been just as inauthentic. Maybe it is just my realisation that whisky making isn’t an art after all, maybe it’s a science – or at least merely an industrial process. Just because the end product is magical and evocative doesn’t mean what goes into it is too…
So does it really matter? I suppose not. Certainly it’s not going to matter to Diageo what I have to say. Making Whisky is an industrial operation and it just so happens that a small proportion of whisky-drinker prefer drinking single malt to blends. And a smaller proportion again of those are actually have enough of an interest to visit a distillery. They are hardly going to change their production so single malt enthusiast can feel slightly more contented.
And even despite my minor disappointment I can honestly say that when it came to the tasting I enjoyed Lagavulin as much as ever. Coal Ila (like Lagavulin owned by Diageo) has always been one of my all time favourites and remains so.
The closest thing I think of as an analogy for this experience is that it’s like reading an interview with your favourite musician and hearing them say something you don’t like. It might lessen your opinion of them slightly and even annoy you. But they won’t change anything that they do and despite what you think, the next time you hear your favourite song, your hairs will still stand on end. There is no fooling your ears. Or your tastebuds.