We often describe whiskies and other spirits as “funky” but what exactly does this mean? Dr Nick Morgan takes a journey into funk to find out.
I doubt I”m not the only person to have recently noticed the increasing usage of the descriptor “funk” in whisky tasting notes, and for that matter in general whisky conversation, both virtual and in real life. Trying to pin down exactly how it”s being used, or what “funk” exactly means in the context of whisky, is quite another matter. One might almost think it”s used when commentators, perhaps with a limited sensory vocabulary, are lost for words. Or perhaps, as Serge Valentin suggested, “saying ‘funky whisky’ is like saying ’interesting’ or ‘challenging’, it”s punching with gloves.” Maybe they just want to sound cool, and ‘down with the kids’. When you hear a distiller describe his whisky as “weird highland funky funk juice” (as I did very recently) you do have to wonder.
Where did the funk come from?
The most popular current usage of the word ‘funk’, for which some claim African origins, as a description of a syncopated musical style that originated in New Orleans and found its first true expression in the mid-1960s work of soul singer James Brown and his band the Pacemakers. From this ‘funky’ has also developed a more generalised meaning of something simply being ‘cool’ or, as I’m advised particularly in France, ‘joyful’ or ‘pleasurable’. A small four letter F word with a multiplicity of meanings.
So how did funk find its way into whisky? You won”t find it in the pages of Michael Jackson”s Malt Whisky Companion, and that most erudite of authors Charlie Maclean told me with some indignation that it’s a word he would never consider using in a tasting note. It’s a word that doesn”t seem to appear in Dave Broom”s Whisky Manual, but it does of course grace the pages of his Rum Manual. Unlike whisky, in the world of rum ‘funk’ has a very well-understood meaning. Also known as ‘hogo’, apparently derived from the French ‘haute gout’ or ‘high taste’ (think of well-hung game) these rums, most often from Jamaica, have dominant aromas and flavours of rich fruits, ripe fruits and sometimes rotten fruits. They are, as writer Christine Lambert described them, “des rhums puants”. Long fermentations, dunder and muck all contribute to the production of high ester liquids, which, according to Serge Valentin, are “rum”s peat to the enthusiast”. These funky rums are not made by accident, the funkiness isn’t an off-note, it’s something that makers work hard and very deliberately to produce. They are an essential colour in the palette of many rum blenders.
What about funky whisky?
So what about funky whisky? I asked some people what they thought. Diageo blender Craig Wilson (in real life a walking authority on funk music) set the tone: “it’s being used as a catch-all term for anything other than the cleaner styles of whisky which are more prevalent these days.” Serge Valentin was in a similar place, a “rather negative” descriptor for flaws such a ‘dirty sherry’ (which would include sulphur from burnt candles etc.) or extreme varnishes, glue, rust, or very feinty whiskies.” Former Whisky Magazine editor (and occasionally very funky bass guitarist) Rob Allanson believed it to be “a slight off note or that autumnal leaves kind of scent – think leaf mulch or a good compost.” Author Kara Newman agreed, but took a slightly more positive note, saying “I think of it as a way to describe a specific aroma or flavour profile: pungent, overripe (but not rotten) fruit, often there”s a savoury or umami component that some cheeses show, or sometimes also a fermented or baked note. It’s not meant as a pejorative. To me, it’s in the same category as rancio, a specific vocabulary for describing complex aromas and flavours.”
Can cheese be funky?
By chance, I happened to be in the company of some cheesemakers when I was starting to think about this piece, at the Science of Artisan Cheese conference in Somerset, where I was talking about science and tradition in whisky making. Over a delightful cheese plate at dinner I casually asked if ‘funky’ was a descriptor they might use, and if so, what did it mean? Although my cheesy companions were all very excited at the prospect of hand-shredding the cow pats of James Montgomery’s Holstein Friesian herd early the following morning, followed by a session searching for dung beetles, there was almost uproar when I used the F word.
A pretty strong consensus quickly emerged that “funk” was not something you wanted in the dairy or creamery. While some soft cheesemakers might look for some funk in their cheeses, hard cheesemakers did not. Cheesemaker Jennifer Kast told me “I want to bring out the good qualities of our milk – it”s warmth, depth, and roundedness. I am not looking to capture the stagnant remnants at the far reaches of the collecting yard.” So no dunder and muck pits there then.
Francis Percival, co-author of Reinventing the Wheel, Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese was emphatic that funk was a “fairly straightforward euphemism for the faecal! “barnyard funk” is something that we talk about in both contexts.” His wife and fellow-author Bronwen Percival added “there is an additional dimension as well, a sour note, a fermented or biological element. So a Camembert might be barnyardy, whereas a washed-rind Livarot or Muenster, with its piercing sour and vinyl flavour and aroma, is more ‘funky’.”
The brett pack
Rare whisky expert and oenophile Isabel Graham-Yooll reminded me that “some of the most lauded wines amongst critics have been described as wonderfully ‘farmyardy’ or ‘feral’ or even ‘a touch shitty’” as a result of a fungal yeast infection, adding that “we all loved that ‘je ne sais quoi’ when it seemed exotic but it turns out that wines do tend to taste greater without brettanomyces” (interesting given that so many whisky people love Chateau Musar, a notably ‘bretty’ wine). “A small amount of funkiness” she continued, “can add character in the same way as condiments can add complexity to food but with a few exceptions ‘funky’ is a term I would normally associate with a fault … but it”s all about context; there are some very old Gordon and MacPhail Taliskers that I’ve tasted that I would assume to be profoundly faulty but that others consider superbly funky.”
Cheese, farmyards and funk was only ever going to lead to one place, so let’s talk about Brora and butyric. Some of those 30 year old Brora bottlings in the early Diageo Special Releases had an astonishing character, described (by the author) as being “like goat’s shit on warm damp straw”. It carried through to the flavour too. Normally the result of poor hygiene regimes in distilleries, butyric is considered an off note by distillers and blenders, and much has been done over the years to prevent its formation in the early stages of the whisky making process. Luckily Maureen Robinson, responsible for finding the whiskies to bottle was somewhat blind to the butyric character, as otherwise they might never have been bottled.
As Craig Wilson might call it, a dirty whisky as opposed to a clean one with “a flavour which divides consumers quite dramatically”. He says “some cherish it as some sort of holy grail, whereas others see it as distillers do as an off-note.” Ironically when Brora was rebuilt part of the original brief was to be able to produce a spirit with that funky farmyard or butyric character that has so enthralled Brora obsessives over the years.
Dr Wilson made another thought-provoking observation. “Butyric is an interesting one, as much with acetic notes these can mature out through esterification to ethyl butyrate and ethyl acetate which exhibit a variety of fruity notes.” From funky farmyard to funky fruit? His colleague, Diageo master blender Emma Walker, thinks this is the origin of what some, like Dave Broom, have chosen to describe as “rancio” in whisky, an intense fruitiness found, for example, in some of the Diageo Convalmore bottlings. “I definitely believe this is the maturation of ‘farmyard’ to increased fruit on ageing” is what she told me.
What about ‘Campbeltown funk’ – a description that seems to have been in use for around ten years or more, but has become particularly popular over the last two or three? When Iain Banks visited Campbeltown in the early 2000s he didn’t mention the funk, but certainly tasted it. He described a Glen Scotia as “oily in a bad way – and kind of off, frankly”, while Springbank 15 year old was “a peaty monster, all competing tastes of salt and soil, riddled with sweetness and a whole spectrum of oily quayside-tarry notes.” Those of a delicate disposition were warned that Longrow might be “too brutally combative to enjoy.” One blogger recently described Campbeltown funk as being a compelling heady flavour, either an “intentional or incidental DNA”, the product of a very specific terroir. It’s certainly a funk that”s been around for a while.
Almost a hundred years ago Aeneas Macdonald described Campbeltown whiskies as “the double basses of the whisky orchestra. They are potent, full-bodied, pungent whiskies with a flavour that is not to the liking of everyone.” A few years before, Peter Mackie, owner of Hazelburn distillery invested in extensive alterations there in order to eliminate “that objectionable gout that has always been characteristic of Campbeltown whiskies, thereby preventing them from being so extensively used …” He even changed the name of the make to ‘Hazelburn Kintyre’ to try and distance it from the town and the poor reputation of its whiskies (to no avail, as it turned out). How much of that early twentieth-century funk remains in today”s whiskies is hard to tell, but with Campbeltown in the ascendancy it”s clear that if it still does exist (as with Brora, and the Gordon & MacPhail Taliskers) some consumers really love it.
Who got da funk?
Finally, let’s return to the distillers with the “weird Highland funky funk juice”, the Thompson Brothers of Dornoch Distillery. Simon Thompson explained that their quest to create a whisky with a “rum funk” character is based on underappreciated “historical elements of whisky making which can increase the levels of and types of organic acids”. “No need to use rum techniques,” he explained, “when history has shown that it’s not necessary”. The result of their experiments is “funkiness having a high level of lots of different esters way above their perception threshold, in combination with a high level of chemical complexity”. Not quite the accessible tasting note I”d hoped for.
There’s no doubt that at the moment there’s a huge amount of learning and borrowing from other categories going on in whisky production, in Scotland and elsewhere, and not just among the smaller newer distilleries. It’s all contributing to Scotch whisky’s impending identity crisis. Hand in hand with that is the promiscuous misappropriation of terms from one category to another, of which ‘funk’ is a classic example. Certainly, ‘funk’ is being used to describe whiskies in a number of very different ways, from fruit to farmyard to flawed to filthy. But some consumers love it.
It’s also a term adopted by some new distillers and their acolytes as a way of putting clean air between themselves and the establishment, ‘we’re weird, unorthodox, and funky.’ And I agree with Serge Valentin. It seems that honest criticism has been cancelled in our modern whisky world. None of the bloggers, influencers, and self-appointed experts dare to stand up and be counted. So everything is ‘promising’, ‘interesting’, ‘unusual’, ‘unorthodox’, ‘challenging’, ‘weird’, and ‘funky’. It’s definitely, as Serge said, “punching with gloves.” I can’t help thinking that the truth should be told. To be honest, if your whisky is funky then you are probably in the shit.