The last time I turned down a whisky, I didn’t understand the question. –Anonymous
I always take whisky as a night preventative of toothache. I have never had a toothache. What is more, I never intend to have one. –Mark Twain
Whisky is liquid sunshine. –George Bernard Shaw
I love so many things about Scotland–except perhaps the food culture that takes mashed up sheep innards, encases them in stomach lining and disguises the whole mess by calling it “haggis”. Scottish comfort food for some, an acquired taste for others, or neither option for me. On the other hand, a morning bowl of hot porridge with butter and honey stirred in, topped with fruit and a wee drizzle of whisky–well, I took to that right away.*
Our New Year’s holiday was spent in the countryside of the central Scottish Highlands, south of Inverness. We stayed in a stone cottage on the grounds of a 17th century farm in Cairngorms National Park. It was nicely decorated, outfitted with a wood-burning stove that kept the living room toasty warm. Otherwise, we wore layers.
The other reason we headed from Paris into the winter Highland hills is that I enjoy single malt whisky. My husband does not, but he does enjoy driving on the opposite side of the road. Match, game, win-win!
I don’t just like to taste or sip whisky. I need to understand it. “Distilled” into bullet points, this is what I know about the drink of my ancestors.
- Single malt Scotch whisky is distilled and matured in Scotland from 100% malted barley and water. No other grains are added. It is the product of only one distillery.
- It must be kept in a wood barrel for a minimum of three years in its’ country of origin. [Otherwise it is considered a “spirit”.]
- It is at least 40% alcohol by volume.
- The difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey is in the spelling and the process of how the malt is dried. Hence, flavor differences.
- Peat is partially carbonized plant matter [largely heather and mosses] decomposed over centuries. It is cut directly from the bogs and marshes where it forms. Its characteristics differ from geography to geography.
- If there is a ready supply of peat for drying the barley during malting and firing the stills, the whisky will have a smoky flavor.
- Location of a distillery is dependent only on a supply of good, clean, fresh water.
- Water is of critical importance in the production of whisky. It is used for soaking the barley, making the mash, condensing, and diluting the spirit.
- Water must be COLD, unpolluted, and as constantly flowing as possible.
- Water picks up the influence of the peat over which it flows.
- Every distillery is on the bank of a river or by a mountain stream or spring.
- Water guarantees both the quantity and the quality of the end product.
It is crucial that a river runs through it…
Water is also important when enjoying whisky as a beverage. You can drink it straight, unmixed, and un-chilled. Or, water can be added to bring out subtle nuances of flavor.
Ernest Hemingway contributed to the misconception about water when he proclaimed, “Real men drink whisky straight.” An unnamed source “straightens out” Hemingway’s assertion. “There are two things everyone should know about Hemingway. First, the whisky he drank had already been diluted by the distillers before he got it; secondly, that man was an awful fool.”
If water is added to whisky, it should be “as soft and pure as you can find”–ideally, natural spring water or filtered water. Distilled water is less desirable because you lose the minerals occurring in natural water.**
Water taken in moderation cannot hurt anybody. –Mark Twain
When in Scotland never request “a Scotch” from the bartender. Total tourist talk. Ask for “malt whisky” or request by distillery name to guarantee being served native spirit.
Words for whisky measures vary in Scottish jargon. Dram is now in common use, but there is also a nip, a toot, a tot, or a wee goldie. All equate roughly to a single measure or one shot, 25-35 ml. A double shot is 50-70 ml. Asking for “a glass” of whisky means a double pour.
Measurement size is ultimately determined by the generosity of the pourer. In most Scottish bars, one dram is usual, but not always…a bartender in Edinburgh overflowed the measuring cup directly into my glass upon hearing the sorry tale of my cell phone’s demise when it smashed to smithereens on rain slicked cobblestones just moments before.
Dalwhinnie Distillery was particularly popular on New Year’s Eve as it was open all day. Their sampler of six whiskies was served with six chocolate palate cleansers on the side. I wanted to buy a bottle that was not exported or distributed in stores. Dalwhinnie Distillery Limited Edition is sold only on site–6000 bottles produced, 900 were left.
A serendipitous coup occurred in the town of Aviemore. I walked into a retail shop and asked the man behind the counter where to find a liquor store. He scratched his head and said, “What? You must be American. No one says that here. We call them booze stores.”
Ben Harris is the proprietor of Cairngorms Creations, a shop of colorful knickknacks. I told him I was interested in whisky found only in Scotland to take home with me. He said, “Do you know the black whisky, Beinn Dubh? It’s made just a few miles down the road.” I had never heard of black whisky. Speyside Distillery which produces it is not open to the public.
They let us in. The man behind that counter was drinking a glass of Beinn Dubh before he went home. He offered me a taste. The dark-as-night color is specific to its maturation in Portuguese ruby port casks. [I later learned that added coloring helps too.] I bought a bottle for my son and one for myself.
New Year’s Eve night–after three days of sleety rain, icy snow, and bone chilling cold the clouds parted to reveal a full moon.
Killiehuntly Farmhouse and Cottage now has a Danish owner. He and his extended family were using the main farmhouse, up the hill from our cottage, for the holiday. While they ate dinner inside, we sat by a bonfire outside, drinking champagne under fog-rimmed moonlight and tossing large logs into the pit to keep warm. It was exactly where we wanted to be.
The owner came outside wearing a tuxedo and, after chatting for several minutes [ascertaining our American politics–yes indeed!], invited us in to see the restored 400 year-old farmhouse, meet his family, and share a dram of…black whisky. The very same we had chanced upon that afternoon.
In the living room a fire burned brightly. The Christmas tree was adorned in Scandinavian straw ornaments. Conversation flowed easily between Danish and American cultures and across three generations from children to grandparents.
The whisky was very smooth, very black, and served neat. My husband politely, tentatively, sipped his first-dram-ever. He looked up from his glass to me across the room…and smiled.
It was a “verra” good holiday.
* Whisky in the morning oatmeal was not on the menu during our Scotland trip. The idea came from Gabaldon’s books. She describes steaming bowls of porridge served with butter and honey melting in. If whisky was available to the Scottish character, Jamie Fraser, he would drizzle it onto his porridge. Now, in the wintertime, I make it that way at home. Sublime! [Note to self: hack this recipe for future story.]
** I’m neither a water purist nor a Hemingway abstainer. I have my own method for the perfect water to whisky ratio. When drinking a dram or two at home, I run a very thin stream of cold water from the tap and pass my glass under it three times very quickly. Just right.