The Isle of Islay

posted 27 Aug 2019, 08:24 by Charles Greene   [ updated 29 Aug 2019, 07:34 ]
The Isle of Islay, Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland
For a single malt scotch enthusiast, there is only one thing better than having a deep, tarred, peaty nip of Islay malt; and that's having it on Islay. The smell of heather in the air, the salty sea breeze, the sharp cries of seagulls, the taste of the creek water on your lips all collude with that crafted juice of the barley, the intense liquid goodness in your hand to entice you to live the moment to its fullest.

Worry not, it is only the first 7 or 8 wee drams that impel your rabbi to wax poetic; by now, we are way past poetic, hence the turn of philosophy cometh. 

Lately, a new gift has gained popularity in the west; those self-aging whisky kits where you pour a young rough drink into a tiny barrel and wait for it to mature quickly on account of the drink having much more exposure to the wood all around it. Now, not to rain on anyone's parade but other than the novelty of the experiment, you should not expect a great end result. You see, as the water of life, uisge-beatha, hits the barrel, it starts undergoing three simultaneous processes.

There's the addition of the wood sugars, tannins, the char, vanillin, and whatever other tastes the barrel can share with the liquid. Then, there's the subtraction of the coarser, heavier particles from the drink where the barrel acts as a natural filter. And, at the same time as the other two reactions, there is the interactive transformation, catalyzed by the oxygen exposure, where the particles of the drink start slowly bonding and interacting with each other, eventually attaining levels of depth and maturity.

With replacing time with more wood exposure, you can ensure the latter reaction, but it would still take years to have the former two. Don't get me wrong, it can still be a very pleasant experience, great start in understanding and appreciating whisky production, and good fun altogether. Just don't expect it to be perfect. That takes time, toil, patience, and perspicacity.

                 Why am I telling you all that on the doorstep of Elul, the month of soul-searching and contemplation? - It just occurred to me that our process of Teshuvah is not too far from good whisky aging. When you start teshuvah, there are three ways in which you hope to become better; by seeing the goodness in the world around you, and working to achieve some of that goodness, claim ownership over it (additive change); and by releasing whatever negativity has claimed hold over you (subtractive change); and, by putting yourself to such scrutiny that will help you prevail in that grappling match with your inner self, and come out of it the very "best you" can be (there's your internal change).

Of the three changes, only the first one can happen more or less speedily. Once we see all the good that surrounds us, it can become contagious, and imbibing it is practically natural. Nothing happens fast with the other two aspects. Whatever negative, destructive feelings have been gnawing at your soul for years - old slights, pangs of envy, pains of rejection, sorrows of a wounded pride - you can't expect to shed them off in the time it takes to listen to the shofar and get through a couple prayers and sermons. It's a long process, full of doubt, struggle, and searching. Same, of course, applies to the interactive metamorphosis; even whisky can't do it in less than 6-9 years, and you are more complicated than whisky (probably). No barrel, no service, no magic bullet can transform you into that best you instantaneously. Yet the journey has to start somewhere - and the call to take our seats has been issued, as the shofar resumes its calls every morning.

Work on your changes, slowly and meticulously - and if you want to see the quick improvement, by all means, do look at yourself before and after the mini-barrel of the High Holy Days.

So much for the thought of the week. And if I said more than I should have, blame it on the whisky, for I'm about to hit Send...

Shabbat Shalom from Islay.