Friday, June 01, 2012

Thank the Friar of Fife


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As I prepare for each of our school visits with EarthView, I check the Brainy History site for anniversaries of geographic importance. On June 1, for example, Mt. Pinatubo erupted and the Warsaw Pact dissolved (both 1991), a horrific race riot took place in Tulsa (1921), William Walker conquered Nicaragua (1855), and the first earthquake recorded in the United States took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts (1638).

I listed these and other events for my middle school audience, and we discussed some of them during our program, along as the commemoration of a tragedy closer to home -- the tornadoes that struck Monson, Springfield, and many other Massachusetts communities on June 1, 2011.

In my research, I found another geographic anniversary worthy of celebration, but not appropriate to share on a middle-school blog.  For it was on June 1 in the year 1494 that the first written record was made regarding Scotch. Not the tape: the whisky. It was in Lindores Abbey in Fife that Friar John Cor was granted malt to be used in the production of the distilled beverage.

As blogger Alastair writes for The Whisky Barrel, the site of the earliest documented production of Scotch is often overlooked on the increasingly popular pilgrimages to the superlative distillery sites in Scotland. Such journeys are a geographer's dream -- especially for this 11th-generation Scottish geographer -- since the highest, lowest, northernmost, and southernmost are among the destinations involved.

At this very moment I am sipping a whisky that may originate at Scotland's highest elevations, and though it is probably affiliated in some way with my family, Buchanan's is a treasure that I usually encounter in duty-free shops (or on the plane) as I return from travels in Latin America. The price is in proportion to years in the barrel, and as with other members of the family, this beverage definitely improves with age!

I remember a minister who once remarked -- in response to a question about alcohol -- that almost every human society has figured out how to ferment something, almost immediately after learning how to grow food. The variety of potent potables (as they are known on Jeopardy) is quite remarkable, but the emergence of Scotch is particularly notable, once the number, timing, and sensitivity of the various stages are understood.

The complexity of the process and the geographic variability of soils, ground water minerals, microclimates, and even bog deposits result in an incredibly intricate geography of a beverage that is only produced in one small place, about the size of South Carolina. As with coffee, wine, tea, and other beverages, the physical geography combines with specific production practices that are either preserved with great care or are lost in the consistent but uninteresting blends that emerge from commodity markets. This is why the addage "you get what you pay for" applies so well to all of these beverages.

Encouraged by our recent successes with various ales and what seems to be a good start with wine (a Barolo aging in bottles and a Chardonnay fermenting in the kitchen as I write), I'm thinking that if we start learning now, we might be able to make some Scotch in time for our retirement parties.

With regard to the hills, peats, and distilleries of Scotland I am long overdue for a visit! After all, the first Bohanan to come to America was only 20 miles south of Lindores Abbey when he started his voyage in 1734.

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