All the Right Notes
Exploring the shared evolution and symmetry between good whisky and great jazz
Article by Hans Offringa courtesy of the SMWS November 2017 Unfiltered magazine
“Jazz was born in a whisky barrel” Artie Shaw
I love jazz, especially the bebop variety. Listening with a dram in hand, contemplating the world at large, philosophising, generating ideas for new publications. That is what I used to do with my late friend and mentor Michael Jackson (1942 – 2007), who shared a love for whisky and music with me.
One such evening I suggested writing a book in which I could blend both topics. Michael got the idea immediately and told me a nice story about a meeting he’d had with Dexter Gordon, many years previously. Apparently the tall tenor sax player had a fondness for Lagavulin and loved a ‘smoky martini’ made with that peaty single malt from Islay.
That story not only set the tone for the evening, but also for Whisky & Jazz, a book I started researching when Michael was still alive. I found a great quote of clarinettist and author Artie Shaw, showing me I was on the right track. Unfortunately Michael passed away before its completion. It seemed only logical to dedicate Whisky & Jazz to him.
There are interesting similarities to be found between whisky and jazz. Both were crafted under the suppression of a neighbouring majority that looked down upon the craft as well as the craftsmen. The illicit stills in the Highlands paradoxically flourished due to English suppression and eventually produced the most appreciated, most powerful expression – the single malt.
Jazz was born out of traditional folk music brought by African slaves to the Americas and first considered a raw and uneducated form of “noise” by the majority of the white population in the US, only decades later to be embraced by that same crowd.
There’s also something very specific about jazz and whisky. One has swing and the other has grain at its base. If either core ingredient is missing, it can’t possibly deliver a true product.
Different rhythms occur and different streams run from the still into the cask. How to assemble them is the true art. A bad solo can ruin a piece of music, whereas a bad cask can do the same with the whisky inside. The same applies to the opposite: A good solo and a good dram create true pleasure to the ear and the palate. However, they do not exist solely by themselves. Solos have to be welded into the song, blended with the other instruments on the stage. A single malt only can make a reputation for itself by being compared with others, preferably through a tasting enjoyed in good company.
Both whisky and jazz are acquired tastes, both products created by professional and dedicated craftsmen. On a micro-level, it’s about a single malt whisky blended with an individual musician’s performance. A deeper dive into the life and times of those great individuals might deliver even more comparisons and show a true blend of music(ian) and whisky.
The blends I chose for Whisky & Jazz are personal preferences, not set in stone. I had a lot of fun with creating these combinations and can recommend you start blending music with your own SMWS bottlings of choice.
Here’s one for a start: Cask No. 10.115: Free the Imagination with Chet Baker’s Imagination. Distillery 10 produces drams that match Chet’s musical abilities. Gentle, inviting, harmonious and evocative.
Some copies of the coffee table style book Whisky & Jazz are still available at Amazon.com as well as a limited, slightly different paperback edition called Malts & Jazz. We have it on good authority that the author is planning to do a revision of the book.
Hans is the SMWS ambassador for the Netherlands. He and his wife, Becky are The Whisky Couple, known for their whisky-related books, articles, photography and presentations.
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