Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Scotch (not on the rocks)

Whisky in the Gretna Green shop.  (Get married while you're there!)

Whisky or whiskey? Islay or Speyside? Bourbon, Irish or Scotch?

Artwork by Michael Godard,
available from Village Gallery
(This blogpost is for andy_charles and johneb87.  Mainly for andy, so he doesn't get taken for a bluidy Sassenach while on his hoilday in Scotland, and horribly attacked with claymores, LOL.)  

Whisky is an easy way to suggest a man who is a Man. Hot and strong, it can make the unwary gurrl gasp and tears come to her eyes, so it's handy for indicating someone strong, rugged and capable of taking a bit of a kicking (this kind of character could easily also be a great woman of course). 

No Man who really knows his alcohol just drinks 'whisky' (or 'whiskey'). A man who is a Man drinks a Jack and coke, a Bourbon, or a single malt. 

Traditionally the strong manly tipple comes from three parts of the world. Ireland and America make whiskey (Bourbon is made in America). In Scotland they make whisky without an 'e'. There are fine upcoming whiskies being made elsewhere, notably Japan, if you wish to be a bit recherché and make your strong character a real afficionado. ("I think I'll have a Suntory today, waiter.") 
I'm Scottish so I will be talking about whisky, which you can understand to include whiskey if you are kinky that way, LOL. 
Image from the Daily Star.

No whisky drinker worth their malt is going to put ice in the amber nectar. (I have this horrible feeling I once saw Judi Dench as ‘M’ commit this heinous crime but I looked carefully last time I watched Skyfall and I may have been doing her an injustice.) Making the whisky cold takes away the taste. If you are drinking a real fine strong whisky, not a blend, it's the proper thing to put a little water in. Pretentious golf-playing types may insist on a bottle of Scottish water; real whisky drinkers will - without making a fuss - add a few drops of whatever is to hand. Tap water is perfectly acceptable. Bear in mind that a good whisky will be anywhere from 40 - 70 % proof, so drinking it neat is just madness.

This is how to taste a single malt. Sniff the whisky and think about the smells of it. Take a drop or two neat on your tongue and consider that flavour. Add a tiny amount of water and try that. The water significantly alters the flavour. Add a little more until you've got to a taste you really like and then slowly sip the whisky while staring lovingly at friends who are so privileged as to enjoy the divine flavours with you. You will not wish to spoil the moment by chattering.

I once foolishly took a boss I wished to impress to my whisky club. I immediately succeeded in impressing him very much when I explained that as it was my club, he couldn't buy any drinks but must just enjoy what I fetched in for us. I got in the first round and started to outline my plans for developing our profile. Unfortunately he was totally overcome by the magnificent flavours which began rolling over his tongue and became incapable of speaking about anything else. I had to put my development scheme for our centre to one side and just tell him how best to continue sipping and appreciating the virtuous liquors he was extolling to the high heavens.

We were, of course, drinking single cask whiskies.

Eh, eh? Even serious whisky afficionados may be stopping in their tracks here to enquire what it is whereof I speak.

A lovely Scottish bird.
Famous Grouse sponsor
the Scotland rugby team.
Whisky comes in blends: Famous Grouse, Johnnie Walker, Bells. These are all bog standard eye-watering snorters which are made up of whiskies brewed in different distilleries, carefully mixed so they have the same taste year in year out.

And then whiskies come from different countries, so you may prefer the twang of the Irish Jameson or Bushmills, the oak soaked savour of a Bourbon such as Jack Daniels (if you really know your Bourbon, you are more likely to drink perhaps a Woodford Reserve  or Maker's Mark), and of course the heathery heaven of Scotch.

Rumour has it that you will only drink a Bushmills if you are Protestant and only Jameson if you are Catholic.  In my experience a good Irish person will hit any bottle of whiskey or whisky with enthusiasm. 

I'm not asking why this
is on a car website
where they call it 'whiskey'.
Then we have the single malts. If you know your Glenfiddich from your Glenmorangie (the one a peppery stag-decorated triangular green bottle, the other with a hint of butterscotch floating in the nose), your Speysides from your Islays, you will be drinking a whisky which comes from one distillery and which has been aged in the cask: 12 years, 16 years, or 21 perhaps. (Sigh.) 

Glenmorangie distillery
With Scotch, well, here you have a real divide of tastes. There are the Speysides: mellow and with a chime of sweet flavours like bells over your tongue, and there are the Islays.  There are several kinds of Islay; the island is best known for smoky, peaty, 'medicinal' tasting whisky - a real whisky drinker's whisky. (Laphroaig is the most famous, owing to a powerful marketing campaign a few years ago. Try Lagavulin instead, or the manly Bowmore - matured in a Sherry cask.) 

One of my favourite single malts, and one which is usually obtainable in duty free shops although not always in otherwise sensibly stocked bars, is Highland Park. This is a delicious mingling of flavours, offering the beginner whisky drinker a pleasurable introduction and the experienced toper a friendly welcome too.

This is a piccie of a
Single Malt Whisky Society whisky,
 from the Daily Telegraph

So-o-o, what of the single cask whiskies? Well, even the single malt whiskies are actually blends. They are developed in a single distillery but they are blended together from different casks so they too have broadly the same flavour year on year. Sometimes, if you are in the know, you can get a whisky which has been bottled out of a single cask. The cask will of course have been very carefully chosen after extensive tastings from a number of others (Gosh, what a job, eh?), so you can imagine that it will be pretty special. These whiskies have whole ranges of flavours rippling and dancing on your tongue: boiled sweets and barbecues, creosote and kippers, the smell of your grandad’s garden shed. LOL, the whisky experts have a laugh coming up with flowery descriptions of the tastes, modelling themselves on the style of the poet Homer. All you really need to know is that any of these whiskies will taste effing fantastic! about as far removed from the single malts, as the single malts are from the blended whiskies. 

But you really have to know a good Scot to get hold of a single cask whisky (wink). 

Another good way of enjoying whisky is the whisky train, which will whisk you across landscapes immortalised in Harry Potter films, stopping off conveniently at distilleries for you to taste the water of the land. Mmm, if I ever manage to make enough filthy lucre out of filthy stories, I’ll be there! 

I am just adding a helpful footnote here from slyc_willie, on whisky and whiskey.  This is one for the eye-wateringly knowledgeable topers.  
There's so much confusion when it comes to Whisky and Whiskey. At one time, "Whiskey" was its own classification, referring to spirits distilled primarily from rye. Bourbon was made from corn, and Scotch was made from barley malt.
Today, pretty much only Scotch maintains strict standards of purity, being that it is made from barley. There's so much blurring between the lines when it comes to the distillation of whiskey and vodka that often it comes down to how it's aged. If it's aged in an oak barrel (or cask), and thus has that distinctive golden color, it's a whiskey.
Today's whiskeys are made from any number of ingredients. Rye, corn, potatoes . . . there's not as much distinction as there was more than a hundred years ago. Usually, American whiskeys are a blend of various ingredients designed to create a unique flavor. Some utilize such things as saffron, licorice, honey and various fruits (like blackberries and raspberries) and could almost be called brandies. But because the main ingredient is a distilled vegetable, it remains a whiskey.

This is a whisky matured
in a Bordeaux cask
And a final word.  I find that what influences whether I like a whisky is often not whether it's a Speyside or Islay or Bourbon.  It's what kind of cask the spirit was matured in:  Port or Sherry.  


  1. Aye, the delights of 'usquebaugh' are enhanced with the right company. It reminds me of an auld ditty to guide a lad to the best selection.

    Abalour for Poverty
    Craigellachie for Pride
    Dufftown for a Pretty Girl
    But Rothes for a Ride.


    1. LOL, that's a nice one, Litetouch. We should have a wee dram some time. Campai ;)