Great Scotch is nothing new

Put a bow around the water of life this Christmas
December 10, 2007 5:04:50 PM


Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi' tipenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquebae, we'll face the devil!

— Robert Burns, "Tam O' Shanter," 1791

In 1969, Neil Armstrong hopscotched his way onto the lunar surface. The "Miracle Mets" won the World Series. John Lennon married Yoko Ono in Gibraltar. And, in Ballindalloch, in the Speyside region of Scotland's north coast, the master distiller at Glenlivet filled 10 wooden casks with raw and fiery whisky.

And there those casks have slumbered for decades, cached away untouched in a dark and silent warehouse. Outside, wars were won and lost, stock markets rose and fell, and fads came and went as the Earth circled the sun 38 times. Now, at last, the dusty barrels have been rolled back out into the light of day, and the amber spirits within have been bottled.

The other night I poured a finger and a half of the GLENLIVET CELLAR COLLECTION 1969 into an old-fashioned glass. Its color was magnificent, a beautifully translucent deep golden. Its thick viscosity — clinging to the sides of the glass when swirled and dripping slowly down in sticky striped "legs" — was a testament to its quality and age-earned potency.

A sniff revealed an aroma that's nuanced and sweet, intimating hints of vanilla, brown sugar, and (what seemed to this novice nose) oatmeal cookies. The first sip, on the other hand, offered earthy flavors of wood and soil, a bit of nuttiness, with a molasses-like sweetness rounding it out toward the tail end. Hints of peat and seaside salt were there as well, and as the taste faded, I noticed a distinctly citrus sourness.

It's a beauty: delicious and symphonically complex. It's the perfect winter spirit. One small catch, however: there are only 800 bottles of the stuff in the US. Each is individually numbered and comes packaged in an ash box, "adorned with leather and brass." And each costs $750.

Not every bottle of Scotch is going to be quite that costly, of course. While some of the more extravagantly priced editions obviously cater to the über wealthy's yen for conspicuous consumption, many more single-malts can be had for $60 or so. But if you can afford the expensive labels, they're worth investing in and are the ideal holiday gift — for a loved one or for yourself.

To drink Scotch is not simply to sip and savor. It's to experience the ineffable mark of the elements — of the purest water; of earthy malt, cured by damp and salty air and roasted in peaty fire. It's to taste the distilled essence of the passage of time itself.

The 513-year party
Some facts. The first recorded batch of whisky in Scotland dates to 1494. The name "whisky" — generally spelled without an "e" when referring to liquids distilled in Scotland and Canada, and with one when talking about Irish and American varieties — is derived from Scots Gaelic uisge beatha — "water of life."

To be a proper single-malt Scotch, a whisky should be distilled at least twice (in Scotland, of course) and matured for no less than three years in oak casks. Used bourbon barrels from Kentucky are popular, as are old sherry casks from Spain.

As opposed to more popular and less expensive blended whiskies such as Johnnie Walker, Dewar's, and Chivas Regal — all of which commingle separate batches of both malt and grain spirits, often from various distilleries — single-malt Scotches are made entirely from malted barley, which is fermented and then distilled at a single distillery.

Scotland is a relatively small country, of course, but there's vast variety among the hundred-plus single-malt distilleries that dot the foggy, craggy landscape. Each is marked by the characteristics of the region in which it's produced.

LOWLAND SCOTCHES such as AUCHENTOSHAN and GLENKINCHIE are the ones to try if you're a novice and aren't sure if you're ready for some of the more powerfully peaty or salty or smoky flavors. Generally triple-distilled, which makes for a mellow, somewhat sweeter flavor, these whiskies from Scotland's rolling, low-lying hills are delicate and refined, offering subtle grassy, buttery, fruity characters.

CAMPBELLTOWN, a tiny burgh at the tip of the Kintyre peninsula on Scotland's salt-sprayed western coast, once had more than two dozen distilleries, but now only SPRINGBANK remains. The family-owned firm makes three brands of whisky, each a bit different, and is the only distillery in Scotland to carry out the full production process on-site, from malting to bottling.

ISLAY (pronounced eye-la), a few miles out to sea from Kintyre, the largest of the Inner Hebrides, is responsible for some of the most distinctively flavored whiskies. They're strong and dark — marked by pungently powerful flavors. (And they happen to be some of this writer's favorites.) Labels such as LAGAVULIN and LAPHROAIG are indelibly marked by the wild swirl of the elements: the peat that pervades both the water and barley, and the briny tang of seaweed and salt.

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