Author Hans Offringa talks to Unfiltered about his personal journey into music and whisky, and the lessons learned along the way…
You write about whisky and music with similar passion, and often using similar language. Why?
I firmly believe whisky is a drink you should enjoy with all your senses. Your taste, your smell, your vision – enjoying the beautiful golden colour and the tears that run down the inside of the glass – the sound of the cork popping and the spirit pouring into the glass. It’s all part of the experience, the anticipation. And when you taste, the experience doesn’t end on your tongue – there’s the warm feeling as the whisky goes down your oesophagus, explodes in your tummy and you get a tingling in your hands and feet.
Jazz in particular though seems to have a strong association with whisky. Why do you think that is?
The great clarinettist and band leader Arty Shaw once wrote “Jazz was born in a whisky barrel”, and he was right; there are particular links between whisky and jazz. Both were crafted by people under the suppression of a neighbouring majority that looked down on the craft as well as the craftsman.
The illicit stills of the Highlands paradoxically flourished due to the English suppression and eventually produced the most exceptional single malts. Jazz came out of traditional folk music brought by African slaves to the Americas and was at first considered a raw and uneducated form of noise by most of the white population, only decades later to be embraced by the same crowd.
Whisky and jazz have both proved to be survivors no matter what drink or style of music became the fad of the day. These two survivors met time and again, and whisky remains a favourite among many jazz and blues musicians.
So there’s also a spiritual connection between the two, if you’ll pardon the pun?
Yes, absolutely. When I listen to music, I like to contemplate. I don’t enjoy simple pop songs – I want to explore and be challenged, whatever style of music I’m listening to. I’m a bebop guy, but I also like Frank Zappa, who’s one of my heroes. To me, that’s a very similar experience to being a whisky lover.
I’ve always found I associate the character of particular whiskies with particular artists. So, for example, in my book Whisky and Jazz, I suggest some pairings, such as Miles Davis with Bruichladdich, because they’re both great innovators. Dexter Gordon I paired with Lagavulin, because it has that extreme long finish, and Dexter can play these long notes, plus he’s a big guy and this is a big dram – they’re gentle giants!
Music and aroma are also both hugely powerful anchors. There’s been research into dementia which suggests the some of the last memories to go are of music and smells. People who don’t recognise their husband or wife can still sing along to songs from their childhood – it’s remarkable. Similarly with smell… suppose I asked you if you could remember the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen, or of the library at your school, something will probably come into your mind immediately.
When you combine these things, it’s almost like you’re multiplying their effect. For example when I drink Lagavulin I hear Dexter playing because it’s an association I made and now it won’t go away. It may sound morbid to some, but I take comfort in the fact that great jazz and great whisky may be my last memories – they’re the good things in life!
This interview forms part of a larger feature on whisky and music in the current issue of Unfiltered magazine. To find out more about Unfiltered and the many other benefits of Scotch Malt Whisky Society membership, click here.