GRAPES & GRAINS

HOW A HUM­BLE SPIRIT BE­CAME THE SO­PHIS­TI­CATED CHOICE.

Seabourn Club Herald - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Jack Feerick

A WEE DRAM OF SCOTCH How a hum­ble spirit be­came the so­phis­ti­cated choice.

Be­cause the ba­sic in­gre­di­ents — yeast, wa­ter and a mash of grain, pota­toes, sugar cane or other starchy plant — are so eas­ily ob­tain­able, dis­tilled spir­its are man­u­fac­tured all over the world. But they are of­ten con­sid­ered a work­ing­man’s drink. Vodka, moon­shine, Korean soju and the like are cheap and po­tent, made to be gulped rather than sa­vored.

Scotch whisky, though — that’s dif­fer­ent. (Start­ing with the spell­ing; that’s “whisky,” with no e, if you please.) Scotch in­spires a rev­er­ence to ri­val the finest wine. The very name comes from the Gaelic usige beatha, “wa­ter of life,” such is the es­teem in which it’s held. But how did this glo­ri­ous spirit, once the hooch of peas­ant farm­ers, come by its cult-like de­vo­tion?

Scotch is pre­cious. To un­der­stand, we must de­fine our terms. The com­mer­cial dis­till­ing and la­bel­ing of whisky is strictly gov­erned by law. Most whisky pro­duced in Scot­land — about 90 per­cent — is blended whisky, an ad­mix­ture of batches from var­i­ous dis­til­leries and made from var­i­ous mashes of bar­ley and other whole grains. It’s a per­fectly ac­cept­able tip­ple, anal­o­gous to table wine and ex­cel­lent for cock­tails — and for many years it was the only va­ri­ety of Scotch avail­able on the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket.

The con­nois­seur’s choice, though, is sin­gle-malt Scotch. As de­fined un­der a par­lia­men­tary statute, sin­gle malts must be pre­pared in pot stills at a sin­gle lo­ca­tion from a mash com­posed en­tirely of malted bar­ley; the re­sul­tant spirit is then aged for a min­i­mum of three years in oak casks, the ca­pac­ity of each cask not ex­ceed­ing 700 liters. The ex­port of sin­gle malt Scotch only be­gan in 1963.

Scotch evokes a sense of place. The ar­ti­sanal na­ture of sin­gle-malt Scotches doesn’t just re­sult in scarcity; it means that each has a unique fla­vor pro­file. Each dis­tillery has its own nat­u­ral wa­ter source, bar­ley fields and malt­ing meth­ods. Th­ese con­trib­ute to what French vint­ners call ter­roir — the dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics of a place that in­form the char­ac­ter of the bev­er­age.

The high­lands and is­lands of Scot­land can be a tough place to make a liv­ing. It rains a lot; and where the ground is not too boggy to plow, it is of­ten too rocky to yield much. It is per­haps by way of con­so­la­tion, then, that na­ture in her wis­dom has made this place re­ally good for pro­duc­ing whiskies. All the fla­vors of Scotch de­rive from the land, the wa­ter and the bar­rels in which it is aged; by law, no fla­vor­ing can be added.

THE DRINK’S MOST FA­MOUS AD­VO­CATE, OF COURSE, IS THE SCOTTISH NA­TIONAL POET ROBERT BURNS.

Scotch is com­plex. Served at room tem­per­a­ture, with a splash of wa­ter to re­lease its aro­mas, Scotch un­folds its mys­ter­ies in the nose and on the tongue. As with wine, there’s a rich and ar­cane tast­ing vo­cab­u­lary. The Uni­ver­sity of Strath­clyde has iden­ti­fied no fewer than 12 cat­e­gories — body, sweet­ness, honey, fruity, flo­ral, nutty, malty, spicy, winey, medic­i­nal, to­bacco and smoky — that make up the fla­vor pro­file for any given Scotch. And those are just the ma­jor dis­tinc­tions. A given whisky may carry notes of peat, vanilla, cit­rus, oak, tof­fee, sea­weed, licorice, pep­per, oys­ters — even ozone.

There’s a man­age­able canon. With fewer than 100 cer­ti­fied sin­gle-malt dis­til­leries spread across five recognized re­gions, a Scotch en­thu­si­ast may rea­son­ably hope to sam­ple the wares of each; in­deed, many afi­ciona­dos keep a run­ning list or score­card. (By com­par­i­son, there are an es­ti­mated 27,000 winer­ies in France alone — more than any oenophile could man­age in a life­time.)

Scotch has high-pro­file fans. Much of Scotch’s mys­tique comes from the elo­quent tes­ti­mo­ni­als of those who love the drink. Writ­ers from Sir Wal­ter Scott to Haruki Mu­rakami have sung its praises. Queen Vic­to­ria fa­vored sin­gle malts from the is­land of Is­lay. English au­thor and critic Kings­ley Amis fa­vored the Ma­callan, once writ­ing, “The only drink you want af­ter it is more of it.”

The drink’s most fa­mous ad­vo­cate, of course, is the Scottish na­tional poet Robert Burns. He, above all writ­ers, forged the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween whisky and the Scottish na­tional char­ac­ter — hon­est, hard work­ing, in­de­pen­dent. He con­trasted th­ese virtues against what he saw as Euro­pean snob­bery, em­bod­ied in French wine:

This link be­tween Scotch and the mas­cu­line virtues lives on in pop­u­lar cul­ture’s most beloved he-man, Ron Swan­son of TV’s Parks and Recre­ation. As por­trayed by Nick Of­fer­man, Ron is a la­conic fel­low — but even he can be moved to po­etry by a sin­gle malt. Pour­ing out a tum­bler of La­gavulin, he has been heard to ex­claim, “Nec­tar of the gods.” We can only agree. Slàinte!

Let other po­ets raise a fra­cas ’Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken [drunken] Bac­chus, An’ crab­bit [ir­ri­tat­ing] names an’ sto­ries wrack us, An’ grate our lug [hurt our ears]: I sing the juice Scotch bear [bar­ley] can mak us, In glass or jug.

“Scotch Drink,” 1785

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