To say I like Alaska a lot is like saying Alaskans like guns and fishing a lot. That is if by “like a lot” you mean “absolutely bat shit crazy”. Alaskan whiskey isn’t really that crazy of an idea when you consider show similar it is in climate to parts of Scotland and Canada and this expression is closer in style to Canadian whiskey as it is a blend made from barley and corn. The nose is lighter than a June night in Anchorage, a little sweet with ripe banana. The taste is woody (the website says smoky… optimistic I think) with toasted coconut and brown sugar. The finish is a little spicy and shorter than (….you guessed it) a winter’s day in Fairbanks. Easy enough to drink and probably easy to dismiss, but it’s inoffensive and as much as I love Alaska I have to admit no one is going to go “absolutely bat shit crazy” over this one yet.Read More
As the Great Labelling Debate around words like “Small Batch”, “Artisan”, “Traditional” and “Handmade” continues apparently forever and mega distillers, micro distillers and even Pepsi (see last blog) cling to the word “craft” like a sailor clings to wreckage in a storm it seems to me that the value in these labels must be that people perceive it to be a better product. It is rare on Scottish distillery tour if at least once the guide doesn’t point to a particular piece of equipment – usually the spirit safe – and explain how it was “the original one and built in eighteen blah de blah” as if somehow installing one less than 200 years old would run afoul of the SWA regulations and ruin the flavour. I can assure you that plenty of average to poor whisky has flowed through old equipment; Bruichladdich with their vintage and largely original Victorian distillery for example has had a few lows as well as lots of highs. However in general most whisky people seem to value “handmade” and by default see “technology” as somehow a bad thing. I have also observed the same people often seem to prefer it if their whisky was made by a character and have nice signature printed on the label to prove it. I have met plenty of whisky (and other industry) characters; often it is just a polite way of saying “important but occasionally grumpy bastard”. If someone put “Made mainly by Computers” on the label and the bottle was signed by a member of MegaDrinkCorp’s Graduate Trainee program people would run screaming but in many cases it is might be closer to the truth than many of the labels we see today.
With this in mind I recently made a trip to Alaska and was killing time in Anchorage airport when I found a museum style diorama (see picture) depicting the traditional method the Athabascan tribes, native to the Cook Inlet, used to hunt beluga whales. It involved a massively complex system to find a spruce tree, create a platform out of the root structure, drag it out into the inlet at low tide and erect it. Then one hunter would climb onto the platform wait until the tide came in and for the whales to come by, then harpoon it and the others would come out and help drag it in. I read this story, utterly absorbed and fascinated and then at the end read how the last time someone hunted for beluga like this was 1880 – ironically about the time that all those Scottish distilleries were all installing their “vital to the taste” spirit safes – because then they got rifles and could shoot the belugas from safety of beach. Ta da! Technology arrived. I am pretty sure and will go out on a limb (out on a limb – come on that is a hilarious Athabascan hunting on Spruce tree platform related joke) and say no-one complains that their blubber doesn’t taste the same when it isn’t traditionally hunted. Google reveals no whale blogs with reviews along the lines of “I can taste notes of the spruce platform and harpoon tang in the meat”.
I suspect there is not a major “craft Beluga blubber” craze sweeping Southeast Alaska. At the end of the day technology provided a better way to hunt. It is clear that sometimes technology can also provide us with a better way to make whisky and it makes no sense to me to reject something (or for that matter enthusiastically embrace something) because of the way it is made and then labelled. We simply should try it first. It’s a radical idea I know… but like the whale hunter who bought that first rifle and thought “Hey this just might work” I suggest we at least consider it.