Mixing drinks with ‘The Maven of Malt’

by Bryan Harrell

Malted barley has no better promoter than the noted English writer Michael Jackson, who has the distinction of being recognized as the world’s foremost writer on the subjects of beer and malt whisky. His early writings on ale more than 30 years ago are considered the spark that helped ignite interest in the preservation of traditional styles of ales as well as the authenticity of the pubs they are served in.

After earning the nickname “The Beer Hunter” due to his extensive research on beer throughout Europe, the Americas and Asia, Mr. Jackson went on to do extensive research and writing on another beverage made from malted barley, namely whisky — particularly those of Scotland, the home of magical malts. From this he has earned a second nickname, “The Maven of Malt.”

Mr. Jackson has visited Japan a number of times in the past 10 years, researching both beer and malt whisky. He has been a regular speaker at Whisky Magazine Live!, an event held every fall sponsored by the British-based Whisky Magazine, which now has a Japanese-language edition and a growing following in this country.

This year’s event, celebrating the 5th anniversary of the magazine, will be held Nov. 3 at Aoyama Diamond Hall in Omotesando. (Presentations are given in English, with Japanese interpretation.)

In advance of the event, “The Maven of Malt” spoke to The Japan Times on the appeal of malted barley, the world’s most popular ingredient in alcoholic beverages.

What is it about malt that is so appealing?

There is, peculiarly in British beer, and mainly, in fact, in English beer — and it only really exists when it’s cask conditioned and low in carbon dioxide, at natural cellar temperature — a softness, a lightness, a tinge of acidic dryness that has a life that is not artificially induced, but one of real live yeast, working in a cask. This results in a light tingle that renders the malty flavors so appetizing, with a strong sense of life and reality. It’s the absolute antithesis of any processed product. The pleasures that this affords are tremendous.

But isn’t that true with any drink or any food?

Well, there’s something very personal about beer. There is an intimacy about the relationship we have with beer. It goes back to when mankind stopped being hunter-gatherers and settled in organized communities and began the process of civilization; it was to grow cereal grains. Those cereal grains were made into beer, and that was the first recipe for them. It appears to have been the reason for civilizing. Or else the first consequence of civilizing, was that we had beer.

So how did you start writing about whisky?

In simple terms, whisky is just distilled beer, without the addition of hops, however. When I was young, I left a job at a newspaper in Yorkshire and took a job at a national newspaper in Scotland. At this time, about 40 years ago, single malt whisky was pretty much unknown outside of the island regions where they were produced. Even today, most of that whisky goes into blends. So one time a fellow journalist, a Scottish man, bought me my first whisky, and it was a single malt. I was 18 or 19 at the time. Those malt flavors that I described in beer, the subtlety of malt flavors one finds in a light-bodied English bitter, were there in concentrated form. It was a creamy, complex flavor. It wasn’t cloying or sticky or unpleasant. And it had the same sort of life in it, like with the living yeast, but in this case it was in the spirit, “the water of life.” It was a teasing, smooth maltiness with the fire of the alcohol. I now understand what happens when the whisky is aged in wood, and certain [aromatic] esters are created during maturation. It had none of the shuddery flavors I had found in blended Scotches, and I now understand those, too. I just really love it.

But does Scotch whisky have the same heritage as beer?

It’s true of all alcoholic products, really. They are all spinoffs of agricultural production, from farming, in the first place. It was farmers who made beer. It was farmers who made whisky and it was a very local thing. But whisky as we know it today is barely 200 years old; it is a more modern thing than beer, which appears to have been first brewed by the ancient Egyptians. The first clear record of distilling a malt in Britain is from 500 years ago, but it was only in the 1700s that there became a distinction between the flavored malt beverages and the unflavored. The oldest distilleries date back to the late 1700s. All spirits have had flavorings, such as herbs, added to them, but whisky is unflavored.

Will whisky evolve further in the future?

All products evolve, and even if no changes are made by the producers, climate changes will affect the materials used, and the whisky of the future is likely to differ somewhat from what we enjoy now.