Myths, Malts and Storytelling

“The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it.”

This quote from American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell seems an appropriate way to continue week two of my examination of whisky and writing as partners in creativity. Campbell had an encyclopedic knowledge of eons of myths and legends from dozens of cultures around the world. He saw every joy, fear, aspiration and struggle inherent to an individual’s life captured in stories that started around hearth fires thousands of years ago.

As far as I know, Mark Gillespie doesn’t wrap himself in animal furs and huddle with fellow tribesmen after a long day of hunting. But, Mark carries on the long tradition of whisky storytelling that began hundreds of years ago as clan members gathered around an early “uisge beatha” still to warm their hands and throats. The founder and keeper of the magnificent WhiskyCast podcast website may seem like an odd choice to profile in a piece about writing, but what is writing except the recording of stories and expression of visions? Mark just happens to do it closer to 160kb per second than 60 words per minute.

Mark is a longtime TV and radio journalist who united his passion for whisky with a then-new technology called podcasting in 2005. Since then, Mark has recorded more than 370 episodes of WhiskyCast. He is an advocate for and archivist of all things whisky.

In several posts last week I examined what I saw as the difference between most writing and most blogging. The former creatively takes readers into a world, an idea or a perspective that they might not otherwise experience. The latter is more frequently than not an expression of fact or opinion. Mark ploughs the ground between these two worlds. A WhiskyCast episode will likely contain breaking news in the whisky industry and tasting notes for Mark’s latest tried tipples, but frequently the podcasts also share true stories and tall tales from whisky insiders and old timers that capture the human drama and delight beneath the dram. In other words, he’s continuing Campbell’s journey as chronicler and storyteller.

“When you are sitting around drinking a glass of whisky you’re drinking history that goes back 500 years,” Mark says. “At my very heart, I’m a storyteller by trade. [With WhiskyCast] I want other [whisky] people to be able to tell their stories… [Listeners] want that connection.”

I wanted Mark to kick-off this week’s series of interviews because, like me, he was involved the whisky world long before the explosion of whisky blogs and tweets. I re-launched my whisky writing last week by saying the main reason I’d stayed away from it for so long was that I wasn’t sure where I fit within this influx of internet information. Mark, too, finds the whisky wide web to be flooded and admits that if he started his podcast today, he’d struggle to find listeners in the cyberspace cacophony. And, he feels, we’ve not seen the peak.

“We’re in the stage right now with whisky where the wine world was in the 1970s,” he observes, noting that wine was a hidden behind a shroud of mystery until unveiled to larger audiences by writers and connoisseurs as the decade progressed.

These days, the awareness of the magic of malts is rapidly expanding and will likely result in even more blogs, tweets, opinions and observations. Mark knows he was at the right place at the right time with the right approach to establish his strong presence in the online whisky world (which he has since parlayed into a writing gig for Whisky Magazine as a contributing editor). But, being present does not equate to sustainability. Mark works daily, fueled by his passion for the mythos of whisky, to ensure he has a story, a very good story, to tell each week. In fact, he’s not skipped a week of WhiskyCast since it started, not even the week of his father’s death.

“Passion is great, but you also have to have something to say,” Mark says. “You need to give people a reason to come back for more. [I think] you’ll start to see a shakeout in the blogosphere of people who don’t have anything to say.”

WhiskyCast is not in any jeopardy of being purged as a voice of whisky, nor is it just a product of “now.” Mark intends to donate his extensive archives to institutions that will forever preserve his snapshot of late 20th and early 21st Century whisky making. In this sense, despite a platform that would be totally unfamiliar to previous generations of storytellers, Mark is perpetuating a tradition rooted in humanity’s collective unconscious.

Myths of the world are startlingly similar, whether they are creation stories, harvest songs or quest poems. The rapturous beauty of those tales comes from generations of long-forgotten storytellers who told these myths through their own eyes and in the voices of their own cultures. I may never be able to describe the story of whisky the way Mark does. Another writer may never see the same cultural, social and literary connections within the world of whisky that I do. And Mark and I may never share the same perspective of any one of a hundred other whisky writers.

But, we are all drawn to that same campfire. All are sipping from that same crude still. Sharing our sagas and telling our tales as the wood sizzles and sparks its way into the timeless night sky.

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