The roots of whisky are medicinal and the process required for it - distillation - is a relatively recent concept in terms of human existence. Even though the Babylonians knew how to distill for perfumes and aromatics in the 2nd century BC, our whisky journey didn't begin until the Italians distilled alcohol from wine in the 13th century. As we all know, the Scottish eventually took over the world. Naturally, in Edinburgh we found ourselves in a bar called "Scotch Whisky Bar" with a wall of 500 fine bottles, one of the largest collections in Scotland.
The Irish and American spell it with an "e" but the Scottish people do not and since I am posting from Edinburgh, "whisky" it is.
In Scotland, whisky is made from barley which is dried using peat and distilled twice in a wide variety of stills, giving Scottish whisky its quintessential smoky flavor. The Irish and Americans distill thrice, use grains and blends, and dry using fuels other than peat. These differences give the Scottish a massive leg up with smooth whiskies.
As I stared at the wall, I recognized some of the names - the ones that begin with "Glen" - but mostly I was in awe even though I don't do whisky (or whiskey for that matter). I felt compelled to learn more about this storied export.
The annals of Scottish history includes a reference from 1494 for malt to be sent to a Friar by the order of the King to make 500 bottles of"aquavitae", spirit alcohol. At that time, monks made alcohol in their free time. This alcohol was raw and unrefined but popular. In 1707, England and Scotland merged and the English Malt Tax befell whisky, pushing production underground, under altars, and into the night in the form of moonshine. It is estimated that until this tax was replaced by the Excise Tax in 1823, half of Scottish whisky was produced illegally!
Move forward to Christmas day 2018. After dinner, a very tall and very confident whisky ambassador in a gorgeous kilt catered to our specific taste profiles. He went to the wall and brought back different vintages for us to smell before we made our selections.
Scotland delivers its history in the smell and flavor of its whiskies. It tells the stories of the hardy farmers and monks who despite the legal barriers continued to refine and perfect the process of distilling and aging whisky, the smugglers who sustained an underground market, and the 19th century entrepreneurs who created a worldwide market. This market is now worth 4.25B of the UK economy, i.e., 25% of its food and beverage revenues.
As the dude-in-the-kilt brought our drinks, I took a closer look at the types of Scotch whiskies in the wall. From the extensive menu, I learned that six regions in Scotland produce whisky: Campbeltowm, Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside, Islands, and Islay. The sun of the lochs, the salt spray from the ocean and the aromas of the land come together in an intricate dance to deliver the taste that consumers crave.
Campbeltown is the smallest producer with only three distilleries, although in the past it has had as many as 28. The Highlands is the largest geographical region with four sub-regions that generate full-bodied, cereal sweet, lighter, dry and fruity varieties. The Lowlands are most associated with blended and grain whisky rather than malts. These whiskies do not dominate the market like the ones from the other regions.
Speyside is in a small area of land and produces the largest quantity of Scottish whisky, including the well-known Glenlivet and Balvenie brands. Whisky is measured in drams, which is 1/8th of an ounce. The Speyside drams are fruity or citrusy, If I ever start drinking whisky, I will start with Speyside, for sure. Josh tried the Dufftown 1999, which had 54% alcohol. Hoo boy! One sip raised my body temp a few notches.
The Islands hold the most secrets about smuggling and avoiding the tax collector! Heavily peated, since coal is not available in this region, these whiskies are bold and strong. Beginners be forewarned! Islay produces some names even this novice knows - Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. These whiskies are laden with the smoky smell from heavy peating and the local water. With notes of iodine, seaweed and salt, these whiskies are almost medicinal. In fact, I told Neil that the strong hint of iodine in the one he tried reminded me of a hospital.
Even though whisky is more affordable in Scotland than we see in the US, the prices for the rare selection had our eyes popping out. Clearly the the taste, smell, and price are not for the faint-hearted! I may never warm up to whisky or whiskey but I salute the Scottish people for their ingenuity and perseverance. Nollaig Chridheil and Hogmanay to you and yours!