Friday, October 11, 2013

Johnnie Walker Swing

stats: Blended Scotch Whisky, no age statement, 40%, $65

The greatness of Scotland lies within its people, and I had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful Scots during the two weeks I spent there. But one man in particular stands out in my mind. After little more than 24 hours in the country, my father and I had a bit of spare time before catching a late afternoon ferry from Oban to Mull. We made our way to Dunstaffnage Castle, but before heading inside to explore, we ended up in a conversation with an older gentleman (I’m guessing mid to late 60’s) who was in charge of overseeing the restoration work that was being carried out on the castle. He was friendly and gregarious in a very genuine but stoic sort of way.

Our new acquaintance was quite interested in knowing about where we had come from and the nature of out trip. He seemed to delight in the whisky-centric theme of our travels and mentioned that his father had worked in the Oban distillery for 30 years. 

It was with a slight look of sadness that he spoke of the distillery not being anything like it had many years ago. If I had known then what I know now, I certainly would have asked him what time period his father’s tenure at Oban had covered. I’m guessing that his father most likely worked there during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. And if I’m correct, I’m sure his father would have lamented the changes in his workplace as modernization saw the elimination of coal fired stills and traditional floor maltings at Oban as the 1960’s gave way to the 70’s.

He went on to mention that his father had gotten whisky from the Politician as a boy and this was what had sparked an interest that eventually led to his father’s employment in a distillery. Knowing nothing of this bit of history, I was thinking perhaps a corrupt public official had exchanged whisky for votes many decades ago. I must have shown a confused look, as he then informed me that the Politician was a boat that carried whisky.

Still a little perplexed, I mentioned Cutty Sark (the whisky was named for the ship, but the ship never transported whisky). He reiterated that the Politician was the name of the boat which carried a load of whisky, but from there the conversation meandered on to other topics.

I likely would have forgotten that discussion, but the Politician came up again just 30 hours later while my father and I were enjoying a few post-dinner single malts in one of Tobermory’s pubs. I ended up talking with a retired Englishman who had been traveling to the Hebrides (Scotland’s western isles) for many years in his free time. He mentioned that the Isle of Mull was just a brief stopover and that he would be on Eriskay, drinking in the Politician the next night.

I excitedly replied “Isn’t that a boat? Someone was just telling me about it yesterday”. Then I got the full explanation: the S.S. Politician was a cargo ship that ran aground in 1941 in the Outer Hebrides with a massive load of whisky, much of which was “salvaged” by the islanders. The story was the subject of a novel which was later made into a movie, and eventually a pub was named for the ship on Eriskay, the closest island to its grounding.

Apparently the book and the movie were both quite popular in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. And even though the story is now ingrained in Scottish folklore it seems to have been largely forgotten in the U.S.

My curiosity was certainly piqued, and once I got home I began looking for the book so I could learn the details of the story. This was when I discovered that there had actually been two books written about the Politician: Whisky Galore (which inspired the movie of the same name) was a fictional tale loosely based on the story of the Politician and was published in 1947, and Scotch on the Rocks was more of a documentary / investigative work exploring the true story of the Politician and was published in 1963.

The later of the two was of far more interest to me and fortunately a new printing had been released in 2005, making it widely available again. While the tale of the Politician is a fascinating one in its own right, a substantial portion of Scotch on the Rocks is dedicated to recounting the author’s efforts to uncover the facts of the story 20 years after the events took place. This seemed like unnecessary peripheral information to me at first, but I eventually came to realize that what I originally viewed as a shortcoming was actually one of the book’s strongest attributes.

The author, Arthur Swinson, manages to contrast life in the islands vs. the mainland U.K. as well as highlighting societal changes that had taken place between the early 1940’s and early 1960’s, which adds some interesting facets to his account. But only now, 50 years after the book was written, as we are firmly entrenched in the age of electronic information, have some parts of the narrative become so captivating. As the author details his travels and detective work that were necessary to uncover the truth and paint a full picture of the events, it becomes overwhelmingly clear just how much the times have changed.

In case it’s not already obvious, I regard this as highly recommended reading. I did find the sizeable cast of characters a bit hard to keep track of, but this issue may have been compounded by the fact that I read the book at a fairly slow pace. And although a few maps are included, they don’t detail some of the locations referenced in the book very well. I found the following map very helpful in alleviating some of my confusion:

As for the whisky, roughly 250,000 bottles of Scotch were aboard the Politician when she ran aground. Whisky Galore only mentions a few brands but notes that the ship’s liquid cargo was of top quality. I’ve come across other sources that mention more brands and bottlings. They all appear to be blends, and that makes sense; very little single malt was being bottled as such during that time period.

As I scanned my whisky shelf looking for an appropriate bottle to tie-in to my anecdote and book review, there it was; Johnnie Walker Swing. It’s a blend that was introduced in 1932, and with Walker Black and Walker Red supposedly part of the Politician’s cargo I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least a few cases of Swing on board as well. But it’s the bottle that separates it from the rest of the Johnnie Walker lineup. The decanter is reminiscent of many that are used for Cognac, however it has a unique convex base that allows it to swing gracefully back and forth (rather than falling over and breaking) while onboard a vessel which is encountering rough seas. The maritime connection couldn’t be more fitting.

The aromas are dense but not aggressive, showing complex notes of malt and fruit with a delicate floral aspect and a hint of dry earthiness (probably peat induced).
On the palate it strikes me as being very well-composed and balanced, with an intricate mix of flavors. Perhaps it is this balanced complexity that almost makes it seem too mild up front, as no aspect really comes to the fore.
But then, as it transitions into the finish, it starts to show some backbone. With a warming, spice laden character rearing up, it gives the impression of a higher alcohol level than what is actually there. At the same time some delicate peat notes emerge. It all eventually backs down, slowly and gracefully fading.

Blended Scotches don’t generally do too much for me, and the blends that I’ve taken a liking to all tend to have a healthy dose of peat smoke. Walker Swing seems to fall midway between those that I like and those that I’m totally indifferent toward.

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