Skip to comments.Scotch Whiskey: A Rugged Drink for a Rugged Land
Posted on 07/18/2003 6:42:54 PM PDT by Archangelsk
July 16, 2003
Scotch Whiskey: A Rugged Drink for a Rugged Land
By R. W. APPLE Jr.
ELGIN, Scotland IAN URQUHART, a gently spoken, 55-year-old Scotch whiskey man who heads the firm of Gordon & MacPhail, led the way through his firm's 6,000-barrel warehouses here in northeastern Scotland, identifying some of the choicest lots for an overseas visitor.
"That's 60-year-old Mortlach," he said fondly. "We bottled some of it in 2000 and more in 2001. There's still a little left. That cask was filled for my grandfather. It slept right through my father's generation."
He walked past a cask of 1949 Benromach with the comment, "Haven't decided when to bottle that," past 10 casks of 1951 Glen Grant in an aisle with barrels piled eight or nine high, past 1957 Glenlivet and 1988 Highland Park the best all-round malt, many say and on to the "graveyard." Whiskeys from defunct distilleries rest there, quietly eking out a kind of afterlife.
"Hillside," Mr. Urquhart said, in the tone of a man mourning a lost friend. "Demolished for a housing scheme. Seventy-eight Millburn. Millburn's gone, too. It's a Beefeater Steak House these days, outside of Inverness." Scots take their whiskey seriously, and not just because they fancy a wee dram themselves. (Or not so wee a dram; Lord Dundee, who drank his whiskey by the tumblerful, once said, "A single Scotch is nothing more than a dirty glass.")
The word whiskey, after all, evolved from the Gaelic word usquebaugh, which means water of life, exactly like eau de vie in French and aquavit in Scandinavian languages.
Like tartans, tam-o'-shanters, bagpipes and kilts, whiskey has epitomized Scotland for centuries. Much of the best is distilled on remote, windswept islands like Orkney and Islay, often in view of seals and otters frolicking in the sea, or in the valley of the rushing, moor-girded little River Spey, which empties into the North Sea just east of Elgin. It is a rugged drink, always tasting of peat and often of heather or seaweed, made by rugged individualists amid rugged landscapes.
More than 11,000 people are employed, directly or indirectly, in the whiskey industry here. Scotch is Britain's fifth largest export industry, with about 90 percent of production consumed abroad.
Recent years have been challenging ones for the whiskey industry. After a boom in the 1970's, a long period of stagnation set in, and more than a dozen distilleries were closed, mothballed or destroyed. According to a recent parliamentary document, British consumption has declined by 30 percent since 1985. Worldwide exports a decade ago totaled 917 million bottles; last year the figure was 943.4 million. Exports to the United States, where other spirits have cut into Scotch sales, declined during the same period to 108 million bottles from 144 million, the Scotch Whiskey Association reports, although the United States ranked as the No. 1 consumer in terms of value.
But those statistics conceal a success story. While familiar, heavily advertised blends like J&B, Dewar's and Cutty Sark, which constitute the bulk of sales, have had their troubles, the sales of single malts have soared. Malt exports to the United States, for example, rose to 8.4 million bottles last year from 5.3 million in 1993.
Shuttered distilleries that escaped the bulldozers are being reopened, primarily to produce whiskey to be bottled as single malts. (All distilleries sell some of their output to blenders.) Glenmorangie, whose own whiskey is the best-selling malt in Scotland, restarted Ardbeg in 1997; Gordon & MacPhail refired the stills at Benromach four years earlier. A new distillery, complete with traditional pagoda-roofed towers, was built on the island of Arran in 1995.
ALL of that puts history into reverse. Single malts the products of single distilleries made in pot stills similar to those used in Cognac from malted barley dried over peat fires were the original Scotch. Not until the invention of the cheaper, faster columnar or patent still by Aeneas Coffey in 1830 did the Scots begin making spirits from a mixture of malted and unmalted grains. Lighter and much less robust in taste, these grain whiskeys were and are used to soften the flavors of malts in proprietary blends.
"The best of the blends have great character and complexity," wrote Michael Jackson in his "Malt Whiskey Companion," first published in 1989, "but it is a shame so many are so similar, and that for so many years orchestrations drowned out the soloists."
Blenders do not disclose the proportions they use, but people in the industry told me that most use 20 to 30 percent malt whiskey and 70 to 80 percent grain. Premium blends like Johnnie Walker Black Label, Chivas Regal and Famous Grouse contain more, and more mature, malt whiskey.
Most Scots and connoisseurs from other countries drink blends, which are generally less expensive, if they want to mix their whiskey with water or soda in a predinner drink, and take their single malts neat, either before, during or, most commonly, after dinner, like Cognac or Calvados. The addition of ice to a blend is tolerated as an American eccentricity; the addition of ice to a single malt is treated as near-sacrilege.
Each malt whiskey has a unique flavor, just as every classed, chateau-bottled claret differs from every other one. But those distilled in any given region share certain characteristics. The smokiest, peatiest, most iodinic malts come from Campbeltown, on a West Coast peninsula known as the Mull of Kintyre, whose mists were celebrated by Paul McCartney, and from Islay (pronounced EYE-la), an island near it. Springbank is a notable Campbeltown; Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are classic Islays.
Other islands also produce distinctive flavors. Talisker, from Skye, delivers the sharp tang of seaweed but also an explosive blast of salt and pepper.
The mildest and most subtle of malts, like Auchentoshan, come from the lowland distilleries near Edinburgh and Glasgow.
But the heartland of malt whiskey, with more than half the distilleries, is Speyside, which stretches from Inverness almost to Aberdeen, encompassing not only the sparkling Spey but also smaller streams like the Findhorn, the Isla and the Livet. Moor and glen, fir and gorse, burn and brae combine there with the changing patterns of sun and cloud to conjure scenic magic.
One day during a visit in June, my wife, Betsey, and I saw five perfect rainbows in just half an hour. On another day we were invited along with Ishbel Grant of Glenfarclas into an Arcadian setting a fishermen's barbecue along the banks of the Spey.
Glenlivet, the largest-selling malt in the United States, is made in Speyside. Granted a government license in 1824, the first distillery to receive one after generations of illicit whiskey-making, Glenlivet became so widely known that other distilleries added the word Glenlivet to their names. Finally, in a famous legal case in 1880, it won the exclusive right to call itself "The Glenlivet."
Another of Speyside's stars is Glenfiddich, the largest-selling malt worldwide, which is owned by William Grant & Sons, an independent company. Faced with giant competitors, it decided in 1963 to bottle much of its output as a single malt at a time when few were on the market. Its success emboldened many others to follow suit.
Like most Speyside whiskeys, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich have a distinctively light, fruity and honeyed taste.
A number of Speyside inns stock 100 or more malt whiskeys in their bars, including Minmore House, just down the road from Glenlivet, whose dining room features the accomplished cooking of Victor Janssen, a South African who operates the place.
Once upon a time, whiskey was an artisanal product, produced by farmers in the wintertime when they could not work out of doors. The process is simple, if exacting, as Johnny Miller, the distillery manager at Glenfarclas, showed me. After threshing, barley is first of all allowed to germinate by soaking in water, then dried (usually over peat fires) to halt germination.
Ground and mixed with hot water in a huge vat called a malt tun, the malted barley becomes a wort. Mixed in another vat called a washback with yeast water, barley and yeast are the only ingredients permitted in making whiskey the wort is transformed in about 48 hours into "a kind of sour beer," as Mr. Miller explained, in a seething, noisy and rather smelly process.
The "sour beer," known as "wash," is then run successively through a pair of heated stills, bulbous at the bottom, narrow at the top, with a swan's neck extending down to a coiled copper pipe in a tank of cold water that converts the resulting vapor back into liquid. The first part of the run (the foreshots) and the last (the feints), both full of impurities, are eliminated.
What results may not, by law, be called whiskey; it must be aged in wood for three years before it earns that name. Mr. Miller let me taste some, and I was astonished. Though fruit, of course, had played no role in distilling it, it tasted distinctly of pears and plums, like French eaux de vie.
The amount and type of peat burned helps to shape the taste of the whiskey. So does the character of the water; what is used at Glenfarclas flows down from a granite mountain called Ben Rinnes.
Glenfarclas is one of the last distilleries in private hands. Most of the others are owned by big international corporations with roots in France (Pernod Ricard), Japan (Suntory), Cuba (Bacardi) and Spain (Allied Domecq), as well as in England and Scotland. All operate in basically the same way, with subtle yet important differences.
Jim Cryle, the master distiller at Glenlivet, a muscular man with steel gray hair, offered me insights into the process, along with sips of his 12-, 18- and 21-year-old Scotches, among others, of which the flowery, creamy 18 was my favorite. The following, he said, are among the most important determinants of flavor:
The size and shape of the still (tall ones, he thinks, are best) and how it is heated (by internal steam coils or fires); what kind of cask is used (old bourbon barrels, old sherry butts, new oak), how long the whiskey is kept in wood (once it is bottled, the maturing process stops), where (a damp cellar or a dry one) and by whom (the distiller or an independent merchant like Gordon & MacPhail or William Cadenhead).
Though not as much as with wines, the year of production has an impact, too. Macallan, a highly regarded distillery surrounded by fields of highly regarded Golden Promise barley, offers 26 vintages; an American recently paid $140,000 for a fifth of each. No wonder Macallan's stills are pictured on the reverse of the Bank of Scotland's £10 note.
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Double ditto that. There's nothing like Laphroaig.
That's just the Scotch talking. :-)
Although I occasionally enjoy a sip of a single malt, I prefer the Dewar's blend for serious gulping. LOL
I'm with you there, and another BUMP for Oban!!