Scotland is a small country,” the artist Ian Gray said over drinks at a pub in Edinburgh recently. “Yet wherever I go around the world I find it is incredibly well known for its kilts, its monsters, and its whisky.”
For most of us, wearing a kilt would be a fashion faux pas. Nessie is elusive. But an appreciation for fine Scotch whisky is not difficult to acquire.
Scotsmen have been making Scotch for over 500 years, and Scotch can only come from Scotland. There may be no other beverage in the world as intimately linked with a culture, history, and identity as Scotch is with Scotland. And don’t discount its economic importance: Scotch is among Scotland’s most important products—after North Sea oil, of course. The latest figures released by the Scotch Whisky Association showed exports up 4 percent last year to $4.34 billion.
More Scotch is sold in the United States than in any other country. In second place is France where Scotch is more popular than Cognac. Other parts of the world—Spain, Korea, Taiwan, India, China, and Russia, for example—have been drinking increasing amounts as well. At a posh cocktail party I attended in Sao Paulo, Brazil, not long ago, only two beverages were on offer: South American wine and Scotch whisky.
The word “whisky”—spelled without the “e” unlike Irish and American whiskey—evolved from the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning “water of life.” That’s not an uncommon derivation: In French, they speak of eau de vie and in Scandinavia of aquavit. Yet I never really understood the concept until a distiller in the Highlands described how, in earlier times, farmers would come in from their fields dead tired, imbibe a “wee dram,” and feel miraculously reinvigorated. (A “wee dram” is a small amount; how small is entirely subjective.)
Scotches fall into two categories: blended whiskies and single malts. Your father’s Scotch almost certainly was a blend: think Dewar’s White Label
or Johnnie Walker Red, brands that combine spirits from as many as 40 Scottish distilleries. Such whiskies are still the most popular and are commonly consumed in cocktails or on the rocks with plenty of soda or water.
But over the past few years, there has been a surge of interest in the single malts: distinctive whiskies made only from barley—no other grains need apply. Each single malt comes from a particular distillery in a particular corner of Scotland. In 1995, only 6.3 million bottles of single malts were consumed in the U.S. Last year, the number was up more than 100 percent to 12.7 million bottles.
Good single malts deserve to be appreciated neat or with just a splash of pure water. Connoisseurs may regard even the addition of ice—which restricts flavor and aroma—as equivalent to wearing earmuffs while listening to a symphony.
The growing appeal of single malts can be seen as a back-to-the-future phenomenon. Generations ago, a Scotsman would drink the whisky made by his local distiller and that was almost always made from bar- ley malt. But beginning in the 1830s, distilleries began to sell their products by the cask to blenders who were using a new kind of still to produce less intense spirits made from a variety of grains.
I don’t mean to suggest that a blend is always bland. True, at the low end are blends that are 80 or even 90 percent grain alcohol, flavored with minimal quantities of malt. But there also are premium blends made mostly of malts, with just a little grain whisky added to lighten the taste. Examples would include the Famous Grouse, Scotland’s best-selling whisky, Johnnie Walker Black Label, and Chivas Regal. And there are now “vatted malts” such as Johnnie Walker Green Label and Monkey Shoulder that orchestrate several single malts, with not a drop of grain alcohol added.
The enthusiasm these days, however, is for single malts. In the U.S., the best-selling single malt is Glenlivet. In Scotland, it’s Glenmorangie. The best-selling single malt in the world is Glenfiddich.
As in centuries past, single malt whisky contains only three simple and natural ingredients: barley, water, and yeast. The barley is malted: soaked in water and allowed to germinate. The malted barley is then heated and dried. Next, the toasted malt is ground into grist and mixed with water, turning it into “wort.”
Yeast is added to cause fermentation. The result is “wash,” essentially a beer that is then distilled in copper vessels. Aging in seasoned barrels for a bare minimum of three years is the final step before bottling—Scotch does not mature further once it makes the transition from wood containers to glass. Older whiskies tend to be smoother. “Premium expressions” will be at least ten years old. Beyond about 35 years expect diminishing returns.
Because single malts contain only the malt whisky produced at a single distillery, each one is distinctive. The aromas and flavors depend on a multitude of factors: the qualities of the barley and water used to make the malt; the size and shape of the copper pot still; the length of time the whisky is aged in casks, which must be made of oak and which previously held other spirits (usually American bourbon) or wine. Even the air can have an effect: Whisky produced and aged in salt air by the sea differs from whisky made and matured by a rushing fresh-water river. Many Scotches are dried over burning peat—vegetation that has been decaying for centuries. The peat is cut from Scottish bogs and when it burns it produces a pungent smoke. The composition of the peat and the length of time the malt is in contact with the smoke affects the whisky that will be sipped years later.
For example, Glenmorangie is only lightly “peated.” By contrast, Laphroaig (pronounced la-froyg) and Ardbeg have been described as “liquid smoke.” The degree of smokiness can be precisely measured in phenyl parts per million, e.g., 1ppm for Glenmorangie, 35 ppm for Laphroaig, and 50 ppm for Ardbeg.
Some Scotches taste of heather and honey. Others evoke spices, flowers, fruits, and nuts. Connoisseurs will tell you there are between 12 and 26 identifiable aromas.
Scotch generally has been produced in remote locations. One reason: At various times whisky was outlawed or punitively taxed. This was especially the case following the Act of Union with England in 1707. “Which is why we hate the English,” Nell Boyd, an executive at Dewar’s, told me. Scottish whisky pioneers would set up their pot stills in places hard for the “revenuers” to find.
They also needed a reliable source of pure water. Glenlivet, for example, has been produced legally since 1823 (illegally longer) in the same hidden valley atop a deep natural spring.
Distillers who create a quality whisky are not just reluctant to move—they are loath to change anything. “Once you get it right,” I was told by one Scotch maker, “you alter nothing. If there’s a cobweb—just leave it.”
Scotland has five main Scotch-producing regions: the Highlands, the Lowlands, the Isle of Islay (pronounced aye-la), Speyside—a sort of Napa Valley of Scotch along the fast-flowing River Spey—and around Campbeltown, a peninsula on Scotland’s west coast. Trevor Cowan, a retired master blender, has written: “Malt whisky holds within it the climates and characteristics of Scotland. Each one is a distillation of its locality.” A distillery is a kind of factory, but I’ve found that in Scotland they somehow manage to be congenial and picturesque. Artist Ian Gray agrees, as you can see from the paintings illustrating this article and by visiting his website: www.iangray.de.
I was particularly taken with the Highland Park distillery in Kirkwall, the main town in the Orkney Islands—outcroppings north of the Scottish mainland with a proud Viking heritage.
Scotch has been made in Kirkwall since the 18th century when Magnus Eunson, the local pastor, stored whisky under his pulpit to hide it from the taxman. Occasionally, it is said, he transported it in coffins. Highland Park’s distillery is clad in rough stone and overlooks a hilly pasture grazed by cattle, sheep, and Shetland ponies; a cobalt-blue harbor glistens in the distance.
Old Pulteney is produced in Wick, on the northern Scottish mainland. A sleepy town these days, in the 19th century it was the busiest fishing port in Europe. In 1940, the first bombs to fall on Britain fell on Wick.
The Glenlivet, a Speyside Scotch, is produced in an emerald valley near Keith that even today can be difficult to find. In 1822, King George IV arrived and asked for a sample. This caused some consternation because while plenty was available, it was being produced illicitly. Nonetheless, the king was accommodated and, evidently, His Majesty was pleased. The next year, the taxes on whisky were reduced and Glenlivet became the first distillery to receive a government license.
Islay, the largest and most southern island in the Hebrides, is home to Caol Ila (pronounced cah-leel- la), Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and other distill- eries. The population of Islay—natives are called Ileachs—is just 3,000 but also resident on the windswept island are 60,000 geese and more sheep than I would want to count.
Each of these places is unique—as are the whiskies they produce. “A single malt is an essence,” said Sarah Fox, a spokesman for Caol Ila. “It is what it is. It says: ‘Take me or leave me.’”
These days, serious drinkers—I mean that in the best sense—are increasingly taking single malt Scotches, preferably with just a splash of water. There are those in Scotland declaring a “Scotch renaissance”—as well as those concerned that supply won’t be able to keep up with demand.
Kilts can be woven faster. Loch Ness can accommodate additional monster-seekers. But no matter how quickly Scotsmen alchemize barley into spirits, it still requires 15 years to make even a wee dram of 15-year-old Scotch whisky.
Winston Churchill drank Johnnie Walker (whether Red or Black is a matter of some dispute). Prince Charles favors Laphroaig. Author Christopher Hitchens, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of knocking back more than a few wee drams, is partial to Lagavulin. Personally, I enjoy many Scotches but generally find a lightly peated single-malt aged at least 18 years most satisfying. The distilleries at which these and other fine Scotches are produced welcome the public for tours and tastings. Dewar’s World of Whisky in Aberfeldy, about an hour and half north of Glasgow, is the most informative and elaborate.
Glenmorangie offers “Malt Whisky Weekends” at its “Highland home” about 33 miles north of Inverness. Accommodations, meals, afternoon teas, entertainment, golf, and fishing are included.
Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is an unusually beautiful city, with many exceptional restaurants and pubs featuring extensive whisky collections. Among the city’s best hotels is the Balmoral, which is within easy walking distance of Edinburgh Castle, the Museum of Scotland, St. Giles Cathedral, and Hollyrood—Scotland’s new $800 million Parliament.
Years ago, Glasgow was a bleak city. Today, it is a thriving commercial hub. Not far away is Airth Castle, now a hotel, with dinner and ghost stories told by a raconteur wearing a kilt.
You can’t overnight at Cawdor Castle, the home of the Dowager Countess Cawdor, but letting visitors tour the rooms and grounds for a fee is one way a royal makes ends meet these days.
HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, purchased and restored the 16th-century Mey Castle after the death of her beloved husband, King George VI. For years thereafter it was her summer residence. It’s now a museum with tour guides who knew and revered Her Majesty and thus are more than happy to tell you what she drank (not Scotch: gin with Dubonnet) and how she sat (a lady never leans back in a chair).
You can reach the Orkney Islands by plane but it’s more fun to go by ferry from John O’Groats, on the northern tip of the Scottish mainland. The Orkneys were first settled 5,000 years ago. At Skarra Brae, the oldest Neolithic village in northern Europe has been excavated. Somewhat more recently, Vikings settled the Orkneys. In the 15th century, the impoverished Christian I, King of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, gave Orkney to the Scottish Crown as part of a marriage agreement.
Occadians—as residents of the islands are called—are proud of their Scandinavian heritage and grumble about the Scots much as the Scots grumble about the English (and, of course, everyone grumbles about the Americans).
Orkney’s main town is Kirkwall, population 7,000. Its narrow, cobbled streets are surprisingly lively and the local cuisine is remarkably good thanks to the islands’ lush pasture lands and the proximity of the sea. Also in Kirkland is Highland Park, the northernmost Scotch distillery in the world. It’s worth a visit. And a wee dram of their better Scotches will do you no harm.