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How do we improve something without changing it?

Alex Smith, from Copenhagen Distillery, discusses the importance of improving a drink or dish while maintaining its identity.

BY Alex Smith February 04,2020

The Ship of Theseus is one of Western philosophy’s oldest thought experiments.

Rudimentarily: a museum exhibits a ship that belonged to a military hero; in the original Ancient Greek, Theseus. After a while, one of the ship’s parts rots and needs restoring. Soon after, another part breaks and is replaced. This continues until the museum has, piece by piece, changed the entire exhibit. Its sign still says “The Ship of Theseus.” But is it really still Theseus’ ship?

Gastronomy encounters similar dilemmas. Can you really describe your imaginative dessert as a soufflé if aquafaba substitutes the required eggs? How do we talk about natural wine with no standard definition? And is innovative whisky a "traditional" spirit?

You may already answer these questions. In some cases, legally-defined ones assert what cultures are to protect established interests.

The guests who eat and drink your servings, however, all have differing experiences and expectations about those servings’ fluid identities. And they bring those expectations to your table every single time.

Theseus’ ship / soufflé / sulfite-free wine / single malt whisky highlights the relationship between complete wholes and their constituent parts. Parts make things; wholes are things. Gastronomy’s “content creators” control parts: winemakers convene fruit and fermentation, while chefs and bartenders intersect ingredients with technique. We present our audiences, however, with wholes: complete servings. Just as filmmakers capture individual moments for cinemagoers to lose themselves in a story, gastronomy edits elements into delightful unities.

The unities are creative industries’ real output. Bars and restaurants don’t sell their meticulous menu — their menu sells their narrative; it sells them. Even steakhouses sell themselves as an idea more than they sell actual steaks. Various objectified parts may impress guests, but the ideas that wholes communicate captivate them. Ideas develop relationships. Objects are temporary and replaceable. Relationships are impassioned and permanent. Objects exhibit quality, but ideas illustrate beliefs, nourish attachments, and forge memories.

Guests relive memories to anticipate future experiences — our pasts provide definitions for our present. So, as we promise exciting, approachable, even reassuring, already-intimated ideas to guests, how do we then exceed expectations? Create even stronger experiences? How do we improve something without changing it?

When we offer what already is, how do we serve what it ought to be?

We perfect the parts, while we sustain the whole.

This is illustratively obvious in the spirits industries; both the liquors artisans craft and the venues housing them. Here, sprawling infinitudes of parts endlessly clockwork into intricate wholes.

Amusingly, every bartender tells anecdotes along the lines of one guest that wanted “this cocktail they had once that was red.” The cocktail as a unity, as a complete, deliciously balanced, unmistakably red drink, plainly sunk into memory much more than the separate ingredients somebody spent hours (if not years) learning how to perfectly harmonize (overlooking their critical redness). Clearly, one can develop within that memory: carve new oughts from such a vague is.

More crucial challenges present themselves in spirits imbued with heritage and history. Many incredible contemporary producers cast deserved light on vibrant, enduring cultures around the globe; many more blaze enchanting new trails through existing notions and beyond. But most of us in gastronomy do both. We tell familiar tales in reinvigorated ways. How do we embolden yesteryear’s stories with today’s advantages to shape tomorrow for the better?

At Copenhagen Distillery, we use organic ingredients, modern technology, and knowledge gleaned from analytic chemistry to saturate spirits with flavor. We’ve been doing this with gin and aquavit since 2014, and now we’re releasing Copenhagen’s first Single Malt Whisky. But our whisky must remain an elaboration on the countless whiskies already endeared to veteran enthusiasts like the distillery’s founder and master distiller. Those whiskies were made using inherited equipment and ancestral recipes. Our innovation must advocate the rightfully established.

We must know why single malt first so enchanted us. We must intimately understand what already is. To do this, we identify its ideas and find its strongest stories.

Stories engage according to their level of abstraction: how far they reach. Too-detailed narratives loaded with overly-personal particulars are impenetrable: they offer little familiar for guests to grasp. But too-abstract stories that question every convention do exactly the same; guests second-guess their own understanding before needing it to value ideas.

A balance, however, makes a narrative magnetic. We see steadfastly traditional single malt tell of more than only time-honored techniques and tweakable variables. The entire category epitomizes a rich culture: huge swaths of passionate people connecting through its craft. Single Malt Whisky tells of people bonding. It tells the most important, universally-significant story, through which we identify ourselves: each other.

This story of understanding each other and thus ourselves inherently assures familiar friendship, while it promises enchanting new adventures. It furthers permanent, impassioned relationships. We want this kinship as vivid in our whisky as the aromas that capture it are.

Thus, our single malt’s traditional structure must be as vibrant as its flavor. We carefully conserve whisky’s overall concept, while we refine, then amplify, every element.

Improving those individual parts is artisanship’s fun, puzzle-solving work. It’s variously simple, like selecting quality ingredients; involved, like perfecting (and innovating) techniques; or radical, like deconstructing attributes away from their conventional sources, to recreate them in original ways.

Copenhagen Distillery does all three. Producers, kitchens, and bars can do likewise following the same simple sequence: consider context, identify ideas, master craft, and then adopt forward-thinking design mindsets to it. 

Honed elements must exquisitely balance. As tasters, we develop individual preferences for flavourful parts. We characterize idiosyncrasies as evidence that flavor is subjective, to affirm our important individuality. But differences exist within a framework more fixed in whole than varied in detail. Recall that, as we are resolutely ourselves, we know “us” through knowing each other — and we’re more alike than different. (All children’s drawings of parents are the same stick figure.) Flavour is slightly subjective and overwhelmingly objective. We at Copenhagen Distillery are responsible, as every artisan is, for mastering this discipline: composing flavourful elements into a unified, objectively delicious whole.

Simultaneously, we must also maintain conceptual cohesion — this article’s topic. We sustain traditional character to craft our Single Malt Whisky to be referential (and reverential) towards others before it. How to do the same?

Alas, we can only share how important we believe first understanding then building relationships is. No guide exists on how to do it. It is an exercise in empathy. It is, in essence, simply the act of understanding. One must seek out, listen and engage with others and fathom their histories, norms, and ideals.

Just as one must master their craft’s particulars, one must raise their head, step out into wider perspective, and engage in community, to comprehend the whole craft in context.

To understand how to improve things, we must understand each other. Immerse yourself in other products, venues, and crafts. Don’t break with traditions: improve them. Venture out to new cultures, landscapes, exhibitions. Seek out Theseus’s next ship. Maybe even visit a distillery.

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