E-pistle #18/20 – Kate Bush Distilled

By Lex Kraaijeveld, UK

(A more richly illustrated version of this E-pistle was published on Whiskyfun in August 2006)

Credit where credit is due: this article was inspired by fellow maniac Serge Valentin. Some years ago, in one of his e-pistles for “Malt Maniacs”, Serge tasted a range of malt whiskies and tried to ‘characterise’ them by comparing them to famous singers, actresses or sports stars. When I first heard the news that after a 12 year hiatus my all-time-favourite singer/musician was going to release a new album, I thought I’d follow Serge’s example, matching my favourite tipple to my favourite artist, but then in a slightly different way from how Serge did it. Kate Bush’s music has been part of my life from the moment she burst on the scene as a teenager more than 25 years ago. And what I’m going to do in this wee piece is try to match Kate’s 8 studio albums to date to certain whiskies, trying to capture the essence of spirit and music each time. “If Kate’s music is indeed a malt whisky, which one would it be?”

When Kate was interviewed for BBC 4’s ‘Front Row’ programme, broadcast early November 2005, and was asked why making her 8th album, Aerial, took so long, she said: I think in this case we’re talking about the kind of distilling process rather than fermenting. So it’s like making a whisky really! But beyond the long ‘maturation’ period of both Kate’s music and whisky, the two really have a lot in common. Both have many layers of complexity, both are for real savouring and can only fully be appreciated when you give them time, come back to them time and time again ….

So, first album, The Kick Inside, which she released in 1978. What I want to try and do is build up a mental picture of a malt whisky based on the ‘feel’ of the album as a whole, rather than focus on specific songs. It’s not a ‘heavy’ album, so a medium-bodied whisky. Probably a Speysider. But a characterful Speysider, one with good malty notes. Kate’s voice makes it a whisky on the sweet side, certainly not a dry whisky. What kind of sweetness? Not fruity; Kate weaves around the music and coats it in warm honey …. This honey image clinches it for me: if The Kick Inside were a malt whisky, it would be a Balvenie.

On to Lionheart, also from 1978.To me, this is a delicate and deceptively simple album. It oozes charm and character, in a gentle way. Translating this into a malt whisky is actually pretty straightforward. Delicate, charm, gentle are the typical terms used for Lowland whiskies. And arguably the best Lowland whisky comes from the now sadly closed Rosebank distillery, although fortunately there are still plenty of bottles of Rosebank around. Try some 12 year old Rosebank while playing Lionheart and I hope you’ll agree I’m not far off the mark in matching the two. 

With the benefit of hindsight, Never For Ever (released in 1980) offers glimpses of things to come. Some of the album is ‘related’ to the previous two, other parts move away from those. But the whole is properly balanced, and clearly has a character of its own. So I’m looking for a whisky which has several different aspects: malt, sweetness and ‘a bit more’. The one that comes to mind is Highland Park. It’s often referred to as one of the best all-rounders; a luscious whisky with malt and sweetness, but also some peat and smoke.
The Dreaming, from 1982, is rich, deep, complex, multi-layered, heavy. The first kind of whisky that comes to mind is one which has matured in casks that have previously contained sherry. And one that is bottled at higher strength than usual. One of the richest, most complex ‘sherried’ whiskies I have ever tasted is a Blairfindy, distilled in 1964 and bottled by Blackadder at 40 y.o. and 55.3% abv. I can not even begin to describe the complexity of this malt. This is one to savour slowly in order to discover all its layers. A perfect match to The Dreaming for me! 

One of the key aspects of Kate’s 1985 album Hounds of Love is the two parts it consists of, ‘Hounds of Love’ and ‘The Ninth Wave’, and especially the contrast between those two. If I try to see those two aspects in whisky terms, I see ‘power’ in Hounds of Love and ‘sweetness’ in The Ninth Wave. To me, ‘power’ in whisky comes from plenty of peat smoke. And the best example of a peated malt which provides a perfect balance between plenty of peat and sophisticated sweetness is Ardbeg.

Kate has said in an interview that she considered The Sensual World (1989) her most feminine album. When I put the sensuality and the femininity together and think whisky, I can arrive at only one type of malt whisky: one which has matured for a few years in port casks. Among the more luscious of these port-finished malts is a Glenmorangie, which has been matured for well over 10 years in ex-bourbon casks before being given a few years of extra maturation in port pipes. To me, the velvety rich port influence really captures the sensuality of The Sensual World. 

I really got stuck with The Red Shoes, which saw the light in 1993. What I wanted to do was find a whisky which would capture both the relative accessibility of the music and the pain and raw emotion coming from much of the lyrics. I actually spent time opening and nosing bottle after bottle from my whisky shelves, with The Red Shoes playing at the same time. Nothing clicked. Then I remembered a malt which I had tasted once at a whisky event some time ago, which combined silkiness with darker, more powerful peatiness. Could this be the one? Fortunately, I know the man behind this whisky, and a fresh tasting sample was only one e-mail away. Compass Box’s Peat Monster does indeed offer both the aspects I was looking for: accessibility (the silky notes) and raw emotion (the peaty notes).

And then Aerial, Kate’s latest (double) album, released late in 2005. Aerial is truly a piece of art. It’s Kate painting with music, voices, sounds. And the perfect whisky match for this piece of art is a whisky which I’ve been lucky enough to taste, and which is probably the best whisky I’ve ever tasted: Dalmore 50 y.o. Like Aerial, this whisky is a true piece of art. Amazingly rich (especially with chocolate-y and orange-y notes), holding up incredibly well to the half century in the wood, and with a finish which just lasts for ever and ever.

Some of you may completely disagree with my matches of album and whisky. Actually, I hope you disagree with me, because that means I’ve succeeded in making you think about trying to match music and malt! So, I’d be very curious what your perfect matches look like; please do let me know.
Kate, if you’re reading this, about Aerial having taken 12 years, keep in mind that the best whiskies take at least 10 years to mature. And, uhhmmm, there are plenty more good whiskies around, so I’m sure I’ll be able to find a match to ‘K9’ ….

(This article was first published, in a slightly different form, in issue #77 of ‘HomeGround’, the Kate Bush fan-zine.)