Monthly Archives: September 2013

…whisky is not only Scotland anymore.

Single Malt Whisky traditionally made in different parts of Scotland has been a long running success story. Some distilleries go back over 200 years and keeps their legacy alive into the present. The basic ingredients are pretty simple, malted barley distilled in a pot still and aged in oak casks for at least three years. Since this is not something inherently unique to Scotland, recently there has been a surge in whisky production from other countries.

The making of distilled spirits has been know and practiced in Sweden since the 15th century, mostly consisting of what we call “brännvin” which is a simple spirit made of starch from potatoes and often flavoured by local spices and plants. In Swedish culture Brännvin is strongly associated with weekend binge drinking and certain seasonal feasts connected to the agrarian society of old. However, modernity brings new customs and traditions from abroad changes the game. Sweden has not been as uniformly susceptible to the lure of Scottish single malt whisky as for example Japan, but the interest is nevertheless substantial. During the last few years a change in the manufacture of spirits has been evident in Sweden, and several whisky destilleries has seen the light of day.

The most accomplished of those are the Mackmyra distillery. . A well thought through commercial distillery with enough financial clout to be able to live through the necessary lean years before actually putting a product out on the market. The period leading up to this has been filled with experiments. Different types of barley and maturation. Different varieties of oak and treatments of the same. Combinations of raw materials, storage and finishing. The combinations are in effect limitless. While evaluating the process Mackmyra released a series of limited edition preliminaries called “Preludium”. Through this the enthusiast could follow the birth of a new single malt whisky. The series is by now pretty rare and bottles sell at high prices. One of the final results of all these trials is a first edition of a unique Swedish single malt whisky sold as Mackmyra the first edition.

Mackmyra

Quite talked about by whisky enthusiasts it´s taste profile is still pretty far from what you usually get in a traditional single malt. It´s not smoky at all and more similar to the elegant types of Scottish single malt, with prominent citrus notes. In my opinion a fairly nice whisky which can be enjoyed even by those who normally don´t like single malts.
In addition to this basic malt Mackmyra has also released two other series of limited editions. The more avaliable one is calles the Special series and here they play around with interesting combinations of their two basic recipes (elegant or smoky), and different types of barrels. Barrels previously used for storing sherry, bourbon, sauternes, fruit wines and even coffee has been used. Some of these really interesting and some slightly strange. The other limited series is more exclusive and consists of bottlings of whisky from special barrels that the Mackmyra master blender has found to be of specially high quiality or with a unique taste. These are called “Moment” and presently there exists 13 different types, with only about 1500 bottles of each. Usually they disappear from the stores pretty fast, snapped up either by collectors or by those speculating in being able to sell them at much higher prices later. If the market for “Preludium”-bottles is anything to go by they just might be right. Personally, I´ve managed to get hold of one or two bottles of quite a few of the different Mackmyra offerings, however not for speculation purposes but for drinking.

Mackmyra is beyond any doubt the most successful of the Swedish whisky distilleries, and the guys behind it has shown quite a flair for marketing and creating customer expectations. The exclusiveness factor of the different special editions does also help to create a certain mystique, especially around the beautifully packed “Moment” series. A lot of effort seems to have ben put into designing the bottle, which is probably not a bad idea. The success of Absolut Vodka hasn´t escaped anybody in the business.

Mackmyra moment

There are also other manufacturers of whisky in Sweden, some of which have made their first efforts available in the store. One is Wannborga distillery on the island Öland off the Swedish east coast. Besides whisky they are also making vodka, gin and their own take on things like calvados and grappa. I´ve tasted what I believe is the first bottling of their whisky and frankly found it to be something of a disappointment. Not much character there, mostly just tasting of alcohol. Still, nice to have tried it.

Wannborga

Slightly better, but still not near Mackmyra, is the whisky from Spirit of Hven. . Also situated on an island, this time Hven in the Öresund strait between Sweden and Denmark. Vodka, gin and different seasonal Schnapps are on offer, in addition to the whisky. This one is also made in limited editions and feels like something that will probably evolve during the coming years.

Spirit of Hven

So, if you get a chance, try some of these alternatives to the traditional Scottish ones. It´s really interesting to see how much difference in character that can be achieved from pretty simple ingredients.

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…punk was rock musics bastard child – stillborn but so influential.

Uncut Clash cover
I was reading the October issue of Uncut magazine recently, feasting on the article about The Clash. Part band history (complete with interviews with surviving members) and part commercial for the upcoming “Sound System” boxset. Ah, sweet remembrance. The energy of “White riot”, the attack of “Safe European home” and the feverish anticipation of holding the brand new “London Calling” double album in my hands, and having to drive 300 kilometers home before being able to listen to it. For those younger than 40 who might be reading this, there actually was a time before both CD´s and MP3´s. Those were the days…

Maybe we should take it from the beginning. I was born in 1963 and started enjoying pop music as a six-year old. My first serious musical love was The Beatles, pretty predictable I know, but still true. I could hear every single song on the “Help” album playing in my head while enduring boring school days in the second grade. My third album ever bought was “Sgt Pepper”. With a brother five years my senior a lot of new influences trickled down, and my tastes slowly evolved and changed. The big bands of the hard rock era in the 70´s – Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, as well as others too numerous to mention. Mostly simple stuff with a solid base in the blues. However, things moved on and musicians became increasingly proficient and songs more and more complicated, sometimes covering the whole side of an LP. Influences from jazz started to turn up, and technical things like guitar notes per second was discussed. My brother played in a band, strongly influenced by British progressive rock and jazz rock. This type of stuff was all around me and as many others I thought that this was how it was supposed to be. Music was fast becoming more and more cerebral, and the emotional rush I had become used to from earlier pop and rock started to wane. Something was missing.

Then came punk. It could be argued that every generation has its own defining musical movement, and this was mine. The excitement was back. Energy, protest, noise and a liberating disregard for whether you could actually play or not. This lasted for about five minutes, but I guess that´s all it took to change rock music forever.
Let me make one thing clear. I was not a punk per se, if you´re thinking torn T-shirts and safety pins. In the small town where I grew up, adhering to the punk fashion would have been a difficult proposition, necessitating a lot of bruised knuckles. I could just never see the point of showing your individuality by conforming to yet another norm anyway. Still, I could listen to the music, which I certainly did. The famous British bands like Sex Pistols and The Clash mixed with Swedish classics like Ebba Grön and KSMB. Simple, energetic chord progressions on the electric guitar ruled.

The Sex Pistols

The Clash

Ebba Grön

KSMB

This was a time of vinyl records, the single was still very much alive and small record companies popped out of the woodworks everywhere. Even in the north of Sweden where I was living. The do it yourself ideal that later transformed into indie music was born, and wiped the slate clean from everything that had come before. Or so it seemed at the time. While thinking back on this period over 35 years later, I can´t help feeling that it´s obvious that the most important legacy of the punk era was not punk itself, but what it paved the way for. The burst of creativity that lasted from the final years of the 70´s to the middle of the 80´s is for me even now in many ways the pinnacle of rock music as an art form. Of course, being at an impressionable age at the time certainly helped this feeling to form, but that´s not the whole explanation.

Hopefully not stepping on too many toes, I´m inclined to claim that all the bands from the punk years whose music has managed to survive into the present were actually (or became) good musicians. The “I-can´t-really-play-my-instrument-but-it-doesn´t-matter” esthetic that was so much heralded in the beginning of punk quickly disappeared. Probably because nobody could be bothered to continue listening to out of tune guitars and tone deaf singers, as soon as the novelty had worn off. The discussions on authenticity didn´t help much either. It´s not really possible to compete in a category like “the most working class”. Punk puritanism very quickly became as much an obstacle to enjoying music as jazz-rock excess ever was.

If we return to The Clash, their seminal double “London Calling” showed a new way forward. Embracing the energy of the new while still valuing what had come before. The future and the tradition at the same time. Bravely opposing the pretty oppressive rules of the movement that was supposed to have no rules. I loved it, the puritans hated it and the album has since become an all time classic. As a lot of other things, musical history is often easier to understand in retrospect. In a stifling musical climate, punk came along as a giant, noisy reset-button. Fueled by youthful enthusiasm and a set of ideals valuing authenticity and independence above all. Ideals that very soon proved to be dysfunctional and unattainable respectively. The bastard child was definitely stillborn (or at least didn´t live for very long), but the simple fact of its birth set other things in motion. Things of which I´m going to write some other time.

…MOOCs are a great initiative.

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Courses, and is an intriguing new way of gathering knowledge without having to physically attend a University. The basic idea is to view streamed lectures on the net followed by online exercises, using discussion forums for questions and debate on issues relevant to the course and taking online quizzes to test your understanding of what you´ve learnt. This way large amounts of subjects in a variety of academic disciplines becomes accessible to huge amounts of people.

The course I´m currently taking is led by Professors from Duke University and the University of North Carolina, and can be accessed through http://www.coursera.org . Registration is easy and without charge, and makes it possible to follow the course through a very easily navigated interface. It´s called “Think again: How to reason and argue” and deals with what arguments are and how they are constructed, how to analyze arguments and avoid mistakes in reasoning. I´m in my second week and so far it´s been quite fascinating. It´s good to study something that´s very different from your usual line of work, and obviously it has many real life applications. Currently there are over 126 000 persons following this course, really justifying the use of the word Massive in the term MOOC.

Something tells me this is probably not going to be my last MOOC.

…the Montecristo 520 Edicion Limitada 2012 needs some time in storage.

I have been buying some limited edition Cubans lately, and the Montecristo 520 Edicion Limitada 2012 is the newest arrival. Of course it needed a tasting right away, so tonight I´ve been sitting on the patio puffing away. Autumn is clearly coming, and the evening chill just about permitted sitting outside for the hour+ it took to smoke this impressively sized cigar. Quite thick with a ring gauge of 55. The 520 in the name is referring to the anniversary of the arrival of Cuban tobacco in Europe, brought back by Columbus.

Montecristo Edicion Limitada 2012

The cigar is very well made, firm and fully packed. The wrapper has a pleasant oiliness and this particular one with some prominent veins. Fairly light smell of tobacco, and the pre-light draw with just a mild tobacco taste with some hints of leather. All very promising. The burn was slightly uneven but didn´t need any top-ups. Tastewise I was a bit surprised at the initial harshness, something that lingered all through the cigar. A strong, almost chili-like pepper character, stinging at the back of the throat. There wasn´t that much change in the taste profile during the smoking, and it mostly kept up a strong spiciness that overwhelmed any attempts at complexity. For someone like me who´s not very used to medium to full-bodied cigars this was a pretty heady smoke, almost making my head spin at the end. Summing it up this one was not an altogether pleasant smoke. A bit too strong and harsh for my tastes. It might be that I´m not used to this type of cigar, or else they might need some more maturing to reach full potential. I believe in the latter option and look forward to trying them again in a year or so. There´s a whole box of them, so that´s not going to be a problem.