In 2008 I was hired to write a short piece for a new magazine that never made it off the ground as the world economy fell into a tail-spin, so I tucked it away until a chance encounter with Men Ink editor David Frederiksen over a few drams of fire water reminded me of this love song to the salty crags. See it in David's Summer 2013 issue or read and take the regions test below.  

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Scottish whiskey calls forth images of ancient campfires where long beards, kilts, and daggers rarely left the hall without a flask of fiery spirits to fend off the bitter, long winter chill. Each sip calls forth visions of sea-misted crags and heather-hidden crannies in a land of lake monsters and leprechauns. But rather than firewood, it’s dried peat moss, containing a thousand years of history in each square foot, burning in the hearth. 

Neat, or on the rocks, scotch is the handshake following a hard won deal in a glass. If this sounds too much like a Hollywood dramatization, I offer this anecdote: I recently had to help an attorney back to his feet after he collapsed to the floor when the woman he’d been chatting with carelessly tossed back his single malt. When we finally managed to get him back to his feet, he reprimanded her with a string of playful expletives.  Cutting the curses, words like “hasty inebriation” in deference to “sipping in celebration of life’s deeper pleasures” remained. Such episodes set Scotch aficionados apart from the rest of the cocktail set. They’re purists, and bartenders love them because they’re easy. Pour, and you’re done. 

Touring Scottish distilleries is a far more difficult matter.  Why anyone would choose to build on a remote, storm-lashed island crag (Talisker, Lagavulin, Laphroaig), or on a desolate, wind-whipped patch of Highland wilderness (Oban, Fettercairn, Dalmore) traces back to 1777, when most production was forced underground to avoid English taxation.  For 150 years after the Act of Union, smuggling became the norm and bloody skirmishes were common. Casks were often stored in pulpits and smuggled in coffins.  George Smith, founder of The Glenlivet, was the first to accept a licensing agreement and later received threats on his life (legend also tells of a pair of silver pistols from the Duke of Gordon) for his compliance. 


Can you name the Regions?

Today, Scotch ranks among the most expensive spirits in the world. A bottle of The Macallan 1926 single malt, when available, sells for around $40,000.  The 40 year old The Macallan 1939, along with Chivas Regal’s Royal Salute, hover just over $10,000. That’s a lot of loot for what’s basically barley germinated in water, cured over a peat fire, mashed in hot water where enzymes convert it to sugar, allowed to ferment, distilled of impurities, aged in casks, cold filtered and finally bottled. But what the straightforward process fails to describe are the wisps of air encapsulated almost a century ago, the unpolluted rivers and streams of ancestral times. 


But whether one prefers a steady, consistent blend or one of the more individually nuanced single malts; Scotch, like almost all spirits, began as medicine. Not only an excellent reviver and stimulant, it was also an antiseptic readily available to pour on wounds.  Scotch-Whiskey’s international appeal followed the invention of the Coffey still, leading to the production of lighter grain spirits to blend with more traditional malts. The tipping point of international export in the late nineteenth century took the form of a tiny, sap-sucking insect. Known as phylloxera, this epidemic aphid imported from America destroyed almost all the vineyards in Europe, and Scottish merchants took full advantage of the demand.  Soon empty wine and brandy cellars filled with the spirit of highland kings with Scotch eventually landing a permanent place on the backbar of establishments around the world. 


Courtesy of www.whiskybarrel.com

My suggestion: find a bartender who’s willing to pour you a flight.  You might have to go in on a weekday or a touch early when the place isn’t jammed and you can manage to hold the bartender’s attention for a few moments.  Often, for the same price you would pay for a full pour of one, a good bartender will pull two or three down and offer smaller portions of each for around the same price.  Have them all without ice or any other mixer, just a glass of tepid water on the side to help cleanse your palate in between tastes, and sniff and swirl each as you would a fine wine. Close your eyes and visualize the subtle differences in character.  Embrace the burn.  Before long might find yourself reinvigorated, ready to charge off into the night and finally organize your office or clean out the garage.


How did you do?