No, we’re not talking about Laura Fraser, Kelly Macdonald or even Ewan McGregor.
What we’re in mind of is the water of life, also know as Scotch whisky. In fact, the word “whisky” (please note the Scots spell that without an “e” – as do the Canadians, but the Irish and us Yanks spell it “whiskey”) comes from the Gaelic “uisge beatha” which I have on good authority is pronounced something akin to “whisky,” and literally means “water of life.”
Curiously, the French make distilled spirits that they call “eau de vie,” which coincidentally translates exactly as “water of life.” We call those French spirits “brandy.”
Dubbing a libation with such an exalted honorific just demonstrates to what high regard the Scots hold their national tipple. Perhaps that’s better illustrated by the following story:
Old Mr. MacTavish was invited down the pub to celebrate his 80th birthday, where he was presented with a very rare bottle of 40 year old whisky. After many, many rounds to his health and longevity Old man MacTavish picked up his special gift, and with it safely tucked into a pocket, set off a bit unsteadily for home. Well, he’d had quite a few and he stumbled in the dark on his way home, and rolled down an embankment. When MacTavish came to rest at the bottom of the hill he laid still, staring up at the stars. It was then he felt something warm and sticky running down his leg. Remembering the bottle in his pocket, Old MacTavish looked up into the heavens and said, “Oh dear God, please let it be blood.”
So, just what is it that makes this simple concoction of malted barley, water and yeast so desirable that old coots wish for bodily injury rather than spill a drop of the nectar?
In its simplest terms whisky is just distilled beer. The big difference there however, is that beer brewers add hops, that fragrant little flower bud, to balance the malt’s natural sweetness. Distillers of whisky get the same effect without the hops by aging their product in an oak barrel. And therein lies whisky’s mystery and magic.
When whisky comes out of the still it’s a clear liquid, what them dad blasted revenuers would call moonshine. That distillate then goes into an oak barrel, and in the case of most Scotch whiskies that barrel previously held bourbon. Bourbon must be aged in a new oak barrel, so like me, you probably wondered what becomes of all those bourbon-soaked barrels after their contents gets bottled. Well, they end up in Scotland, or Ireland, or Canada, or indeed, anywhere else, like Japan or India, that is making whisky, regardless of how they spell it.
The longer our whisky spends in its barrel the more flavor, complexity and smoothness it will have when it goes into the bottle. And that brings up an important difference between whisky and wine.
Wine, as we know, can get better aging in the bottle, but whisky is only as good as it gets when it comes out of the barrel. So remember, if you buy a 12-year-old Scotch and keep it for 20 years you don’t have a 32 year old whisky. What you have is a 20-year-old 12-year-old.
It’s because whisky needs to stay in its barrel that prices of single malt Scotches go up exponentially with age. And let’s define what we mean when we talk about “single malts.” A single malt Scotch is one that is made exclusively from one grain (usually malted barley), comes from a single distillery and is from one batch. Blended scotch can be from different grains, from a multitude of distilleries (there are over 100 in Scotland) as well as different batches.
The other thing about the aging of whisky is that approximately 2% of what’s in the barrel evaporates every year, so the longer the whisky ages, the less there is of it, and hence the more expensive the remainder becomes. Oh, and the bit that evaporates – that’s called the “angel’s share.” That’s the best reason I know for being good in this life.
Before I let you go pour a couple of fingers worth, there is one other very important distinction to understand about Scotch. That has to do with peat. Peat is decomposed vegetable matter, Loch Ness monsters and maybe even Jimmy Hoffa. In parts of Scotland peat is harvested from ancient bogs, dried and then used as fuel. When peat is used in this fashion to dry the malted barley it imparts a smoky, earthy quality to the whisky. So the first question we always ask Scotch drinkers is, “do you like it peaty, or not so peaty?”
The single malts that come from Scotland’s islands are generally the peaty ones, so if you like those smoky Scotches look for ones from Islay (pronounced, eye-lah), Oban or Jura. The other distilling areas are the Highlands, Speyside and the Lowlands, and the product of those districts tends to have more fruity, nutty characteristics and much less in the way of smokiness, but like with wine, the way to find out what pleases you is to try an array of different styles. How’s that for a homework assignment!
At Bin94 we have a wide variety of single malt Scotch to tempt you with. Here are a few suggestions:
The Black Bottle Blended Scotch: This is a blend of Speyside and Islay Scotches, the Speyside bringing sweetness, while the Islay a moderate smokiness. This has floral, nutmeg, pepper and smoky flavors.
Glen Moray 12: This is a12-year-old single malt from Elgin, the capital of Speyside. Rich and smooth with flavors of toffee, honeycomb and dried apricots. One of the best values I’ve seen in single malts.
Lagavulin 16: From southern Islay, Lagavulin 16-year-old is redolent of Lapsang Souchong (that’s a smoky black tea), spice and vanilla. It’s rich with a smoky oak and finishes with hints of figs, dates, and oh, did I mention smoke. This is the quintessential Islay single malt.
The Glenlivet 18: Complexity is the mark of an18-year-old single malt and The Glenlivet is certainly that. Apple blossoms, dried orange peel and honey/walnut fudge are all there with just a wisp of smokiness. This is a beautiful drink to savor sip by sip by sip by sip by sip by sip…
And before you go to your room to start your homework I’d just like to mention a fun little movie called “The Angel’s Share.” It’s about a group of kids in Scotland who conspire to steal some very rare whisky. It’s available from Netflix and it’s a “hoot, mon.”
‘til next time.
27 July 2015
Please note this blog on Scotch and Scotland was produced without a single joke about haggis.