GRAPES & GRAINS
HOW A HUMBLE SPIRIT BECAME THE SOPHISTICATED CHOICE.
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