Scotch Whisky: A Winter Toe-Warmer
First in a three-part series on whiskey.
I seldom drink hard liquor but, well, whisky (aka whiskey) has its way with me. When teaming rain and wind whip about the eaves, and socks are sodden, there isn’t a better toe-warmer than that kick of whisk(e)y’s dry/sweet/spice tickling the tongue.
On the Matter of Scotch Whisky
All whiskey starts its life much the same as beer—without the hops. Grain (malted barley, cooked corn or rye) and water meet yeast. A rather crude quote (source unknown) describes the fermentation process in a nutshell: “Yeast eats the [grain] sugar, farts carbon dioxide, and pisses alcohol.” Thank God a good distiller delivers a far more palatable result.
There is no clear story on the first whisky (from the Gaelic usquebaugh, meaning “water of life”). It’s well documented, though, that Scotch whisky hearkens back at least a few hundred years. Celtic monks brought the art of whisky making from Ireland to Islay. Both countries lay claim the spirit’s origins. I’ve been privy to more than one boozy dispute between a Scot and an Irishman over whisky’s legacy—and spelling. Irish (and Americans) spell it whiskey—plural whiskeys. Scots spell it whisky; plural whiskies.
Regardless of who’s right or wrong, you can’t argue the unrivaled wonders and complexities of Scotch whisky. Like good wine, a sense of place (The Highlands, The Lowlands, Islay, Speyside, and Campbeltown) plays a heavy hand in a whisky’s character, particularly when it pertains to single malts. Depending on the landscape and distiller’s craft, Scotch whisky can taste of spice (Talisker), honey and heather (Highland Park), iodine and brine (La Phroiag), or fruit and flowers (Glenmorangie), or smack of peat and smoke (Lagavulin, Ardbeg),
Scotch may be distilled in single batches in pot stills or continuously distilled in large “columns.” It may be labeled 8, 10, 18, 20, or 30-year old, or bottled from a single cask. (The age on the label denotes the youngest whisky in the bottle). It may be non-peated, lightly peated, or full on. Peating refers to heating damp malt, a peat heated fire. Peat smoke infuses the barley and greatly influences the style of whisky.
The mash consists predominantly of barley, but other grains are permissible depending on whether it is a blend or malt.
Meet Mr. Whisky
David Blackmore, Glenmorangie’s “ambassador,” is on a whirlwind visit to the West Coast. He takes time out to meet me at Vancouver’s Wedgewood Hotel and tastes me on three styles of Glenmorangie, which is produced in the tiny town of Tain in the Northern Highlands. Blackmore tells me that Glenmornagie is Scotland’s bestselling whisky.
First up is Glenmorangie Original, a 10-year single malt aged in bourbon barrels. Peach and orange peel mingle with creamy vanilla on my nose and palate. It’s a soothing, gentle dram. I prefer it neat, but it’s pretty tasty too with local smoked salmon canapés. The “Original” also makes an astonishingly good “old fashioned”—a sugar cube muddled with a dash of bitters, a splash of club soda, and a couple of shots of whisky.
Nectar d’Or aged in French Sauternes casks takes on the sweet-and-spice of ginger cake and the bitter of orange marmalade, and is spot-on for duck pate. Meanwhile Quinta Ruban, finished in port pipes (115 gallon casks), echoes port’s chocolate and spice. For the most part I don’t care for booze with desserts, but I find Quinta Ruban with dried apricots and chocolate makes sense.
Blackmore also touts the super-peated Ardbeg from the tiny island of Islay. It is the antithesis of Glenmorangie–smoky, sweet, and wonderfully heady. Ardbeg 10-year old is a boots off, feet-up whisky to sip on while hunkered down in a leather chair perusing The New York Times.
For a twist on the traditional Manhattan, a [very] dry Rob Roy is nice, made with Scotch instead of bourbon or rye. My version is 2 ounces of Scotch, ¾ oz. dry vermouth, and an eye-dropper splash of orange (instead of angostura) bitters over ice. Stir, strain into a martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist. – Story and photos by Julie Pegg, RFT Wine Editor Canada
Check out Julie’s other columns in this whiskey series: