Pairing Whisky with Music

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Reviews of affordable whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…


Whisky pairings are becoming increasingly common but for me, it’s the partnership between whisky and music that is the most exciting to explore – and apparently I’m not alone. The idea of pairing whisky with music seems to be popping up all over the place – check out the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Malts & Music podcast series for a good example. Or see Bowmore‘s intriguing project with composer, Hania Rani. In this article, I’ll be explaining why I think music and whisky work so well together and documenting the approach I took to a series of tastings with the Islay Whisky Academy that tried to utilise the powerful relationship between the two.

You can pair whisky with all sorts of things. Food is popular, with chocolate and cheese being fairly common and the spirit can easily be partnered with other drinks. In Scotland, particularly in Glasgow, we have a combination known as “a hauf an a hauf“, that is, a half pint of beer and a wee dram of whisky. Think of the fun to be had in the search for the perfect combination! Fun as that would be, however, there’s nothing quite like the simple pleasure of a nice dram with some good tunes.

It may sound like a cliché, but whisky is much more than a drink. We connect with it in a very emotional way. It seems imbued with a significance. A connection to place and to history. It is the product of our ancestors and of the very planet we call home. It comes from grain grown in the soil, turned into spirit by alchemy and then aged in casks made from the staves of ancient oak trees. It represents knowledge which has been passed down from generation to generation. It signposts the key moments of our lives. It’s there at births, at weddings and at funerals. It’s a thread that runs through our story, as it has our culture throughout the centuries.

You can say much the same for music and just like the aromas of whisky can transport us, like a magic carpet ride, to a specific moment in time, so it is with music. A snippet of a song can have you lost in vivid memories. The first dance at your wedding. A high school disco surrounded by people you don’t see anymore. Dancing around your bedroom pretending that a badminton racquet is a guitar (I totally made that up, I’ve never done it, by the way). The favourite song of a lost loved one that overwhelms you with happiness and sadness all at the same time. If both aroma and sound can trigger such dramatic emotional responses, what a potent combination the two could make together.

That was the thought process I was undergoing when I came up with the idea of the Ceòl agus Craic whisky tastings. I had discussed the idea of a whisky and music event for years. My Dad, a devoted lover of music, owner of countless things-with-strings and whisky drinker, spoke of pairing whisky with music that came from the same geographical location. That would be fun, I thought, but I wanted to be a bit more conceptual with it. For me, it needed to be about the feeling of the whisky. I just needed to come up with a process.

I decided that the event should be a blind tasting to prevent people bringing their own preconceived notions about the drams and likewise, that the music should be instrumental, as freedom from any lyrical narrative would allow us to build our own. Then it came down to the concept of mood. Each whisky has a uniqueness to it and it’s that individual character that draws us at certain times. The dram you choose on a hot summer’s afternoon would not be the same as the one you reach for on a winter’s night, for example. So if each whisky has a time and a place, it follows that there should be an appropriate soundtrack for that moment. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply and allowed the whisky to conjure images and scenarios in my head.

Ceòl agus Craic (loosely, Gaelic for Music and Good Times), found a natural home with the Islay Whisky Academy and debuted at Fèis Ìle in 2022. Since then, it’s run on two further occasions for students of the IWA Residential Diploma. For the events in question I focused on Islay whisky and used my visits to that beautiful island as inspiration.

One of the drams featured was Douglas Laing’s Big Peat blended malt. It displayed lots of salty, briny character with fresh, malty notes and plenty of smoke. To me, it felt like stepping outdoors for the first time on an early Hebridean morning. The first breath of fresh, sea air with a distant peat fire burning. It was the calmness of the morning and the hopeful optimism of a new day. I paired it with a wonderful piece by Scottish composer, Blair Coron, called Birdsong on Canna, Midsummer 1951, 4:15am. The track is a gentle piano piece that features a field recording of birds, captured in the western isles more than half a century ago and made for the perfect accompaniment to the Big Peat.

Another dram, a sherry cask-matured Elements of Islay blended malt had me stranded in some remote bothy on a dark and stormy night. This was a dram for times of solitude when all does not seem right with the world. The sort of dram that warms the soul and rejuvenates weary bones. A dram that gives strength and fortitude when the demons are circling. To accompany it, I chose Dark Reel by Rura. The intro to this track has an element of sadness, even foreboding, but around the midway point, the energy changes and it bursts into life. It seemed to effectively represent the revitalising power of the dram on that entirely imaginary, if vivid, stormy evening.

This may sound silly to some of you, even a little pretentious, but it’s only meant as a wee bit of fun and a way to get people thinking about whisky in new ways. The Ceòl agus Craic tastings are based on my interpretation of the whiskies featured and just like tasting notes can only ever be based on the experience of the writer, so too can any interpretation of a whisky’s mood. Others can, and have, come up with different scenarios for the same drams but that’s OK, it is our differences that inspire discussion and that is ultimately the goal. We talk so much about nosing and tasting yet rarely discuss the way whisky makes us feel. Maybe it’s time to change that and what better way to connect with our inner thoughts than with the aid of some wonderfully emotive music.

I’d love to hear about any experiences you’ve had while pairing whisky with music. Do you have a favourite album to listen to whilst sipping on a dram? What makes it the perfect accompaniment? Feel free to enter the discussion in the comments or hit me up on social media.

Thanks for reading.

Neill


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