The Digest

All About Whisk(e)y & Other News

24th March 2018

Words: James Hansen

Photo: Brian Sweeney

In this week’s special edition of The Digest, we’re looking at the subject of our forthcoming feature documentary, The Amber Light. It’s whisky, in all its cultural resonances: read on for fakes and frauds, a crime writer’s view, and a look at what it takes to rebuild an historic distillery.

If you’d like to contribute to the making of the film, you can visit our Kickstarter here.

Lew Bryson warns of fakes and frauds in the bourbon world at The Daily Beast: “Well, golly! Fake whisky? How is that possible? Folks, it happens all the time.” The newness is in counterfeiting rare and sought-after whiskies, rather than just bottling something substandard to call it by a name it does not deserve. Spirits company Diageo raised awareness after an archiving project revealed an improbable number of rare bottles; there is “a substantial gray market for empty bottles, old labels, and used corks, all of which are paints for the forger’s palette.” Rare whiskey is exactly that, and the unregulated world of private selling offers a whole realm of possibility to the opportunists: be vigilant and buy from trusted sources to enjoy the real thing.

Dave Broom explores a life through drams with crime writer Ian Rankin at Scotch Whisky. His most famous creation, detective John Rebus, employs the glass of whisky as a totem for his musings over a case; here Rankin waymarks his own past with peat and malt. Whiskies – Scots, Irish – are bywords for memories and character. As Rankin puts it: “It gives an inkling”. When he returns to his motivations – “You write to make sense of the world, how you communicate with the world, and because it’s fun” – his words encircle Broom’s article: each whisky drunk is a communication with the world.

Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee reports on protests behind desegregating whiskey in Harlem for Munchies. “Those rowdy, heckling onlookers made clear their sympathies with the NAACP’s cause that day: to make sure that black liquor salesmen could sell their wares anywhere in New York City.” Double standards over sales territory were particularly keenly felt in Harlem, which accounted for $60m annual revenue in the liquor trade in the late 1950s: “At times, the liquor salesmen and those who peddled beer, wine, and spirits through less official channels bickered and tried to undercut each other. But many did agree on one thing, in theory: If there was any place where black people should be in control, it was Harlem.” Years of protests, petitions and commissions brought change forward, as it broadened beyond New York: a 1958 Bud boycott in LA was a precursor for similar progress.

Kelefa Sanneh recounts one journey to rehabilitate a lost distillery at The New Yorker. The Bruichladdich site “sits across the road from the North Atlantic Ocean”, and the visitor, Mark Reynier, came in search of its whisky. “He saw a worker in the courtyard and made his plea. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’m your best customer, I’ve come from London—I’ve come all this way, and I’d love to have a look around.’” The worker’s response was brusque: “Fuck off.” What follows is a journey into Islay’s complicated relationship with Scotland, the strange obsession with whisky’s age, and the challenge of innovating in a field sown with history and tradition.

Lauren Michele Jackson looks at erasure within the craft world for Eater. The piece focuses on a collaboration between chef Sean Brock and brewmaster Ryan Coker called Amber Waves, which aims to elevate “bottom-shelf” moonshine. As Jackson quickly points out, “’Bottom shelf’ is code for corner store and drunk on a dime, for poverty and homelessness, and for the black and brown communities who’ve made the beverage a part of hip-hop and hood culture; ‘small-batch status’ and ‘heritage grain’ signifies the antithesis of the former — something artful and refined.” The backstories and origins of the small-batch and the single barrel, of moonshine and of grain spirits, are obscured by modern craft culture: Jackson rejects this in favour of the specific origins, people and places that made the spirits: “Black men were the minds and hands behind American whiskey production.”

Posted 24th March 2018

In The Digest


Words: James Hansen

Photo: Brian Sweeney

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