Reviews Whisky Business: Drink Of The Common Man, Scottish Style Timothy Fowler August 7, 2023 3 Comments, Join the Conversation Whisky is simply distilled beer. Malted grain, water, and yeast combine to work fermentation’s magic. Once fermentation is complete, distillation proceeds, and the alcohol vapor is captured, condensed, and stored in oak barrels. After three years, the spirit can officially be referred to as whisky. While there are many delightful whiskies distilled around the globe, the only whisky that can legally be called scotch is whisky distilled in Scotland, where malted barley is the grain of choice. And while the word “scotch” covers all the whisky originating from Scotland, there’s a mind-boggling variety of spirits with dizzying variations in flavor. Scotch may be easy to make, but it’s tough to master. Scotland’s whisky originates from one of five geographic areas, and these whiskies are either single malts or blended whiskies. This article focuses on two whiskies: my favorite single malt heavily peated whisky from Ardbeg, one of the distillers in the south of Islay well known for big smoky powerhouse spirits; and The Famous Grouse, the second best-selling blended scotch in the world. Scotch distillers use thousands of barrels to store freshly distilled spirit for years and often several decades. Much Scotch whisky ages in casks that have been used previously to age American bourbon, port, or even red wine, heavily influencing the taste of the final product. My grandfather’s preferred drink was The Famous Grouse, taken at the end of the day on the porch with a bit of water and his pipe. The Famous Grouse is a common whisky that’s an uncommonly delightful drink. ISLAY WHISKY The initial research for this article was completed a few years ago when my friend David from Edinburgh, Scotland, and I headed to Islay, intending to explore five distilleries well known for heavily peated whisky and our top choices for sipping. It’s fair to say that we already knew we enjoyed scotch whisky but wanted a deeper dive into the Islay bottlings, with the added experience of onsite distillery visits, the opportunity to experience Islay air and landscape, and its people and their hospitality while tasting our way across the island. TRAVEL TO GOOD WHISKY Notes from my travel diary show that we journeyed the 165 miles from Edinburgh to the ferry at Kennacraig in David’s BMW at 70 mph with the top down. It was 32 degrees F. Within minutes of disembarking at Port Ellen on Islay, we were in the Ardbeg tasting room. While too early to purchase bottles of whisky, the attendant offered samples of three fine Ardbeg whiskies. She packaged samples for David (who was driving) in diminutive vials to be enjoyed once the car was parked that day for good. The experience of tasting three powerhouse expressions of Ardbeg is a flavor freight train that remains unforgettable. It’s a three-dimensional, completely enveloping experience — my cheeks still rosy from the bracing convertible breeze, the smell of simmering spirits, wafting peat smoke, salt air, the creak of the ancient wood floor under my feet, the firm seat at the tasting bar, the lilt of the attendant’s Scottish accent, the rows of deep green bottles in soft light, the thunk of a pulled cork, and a glug of golden liquor swirling in an Ardbeg-labelled glass. All of this, before lunch. The experience is certainly worth the trouble to travel halfway around the world and the extra effort to travel to Islay. Every time I taste Ardbeg, these memories flood back to the surface. That morning, we tasted incredible peated whiskies from the three distilleries in the south of Islay: Laphroaig, Ardbeg, and Lagavulin. It seems these three houses produce the most deeply peated whiskies on the island of Islay. Later that first afternoon, we spent several hours at Bruichladdich for the full distillery tour in addition to the warehouse tasting. The next day, we hit another couple of distilleries, stopping at Coal Ila before boarding the ferry back to Edinburgh. The malted barley on Islay is dried in kilns heated by burning dried peat. The smoke circulating on the drying floor is absorbed by the barley, and some degree of peat smokiness ends up in the final whisky. That smoky flavor is what drew me to Islay. There are thousands of descriptive words that professional whisky tasters use to describe spirits, but the Ardbeg 10-year-old we tasted that day was a combination of sticky toffee pudding and campfire. A bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan was purchased as research for this article, and that sip immediately transported me back to the Ardbeg tasting room. Read the tasting notes from various professional scotch tasters with much more developed palettes, and you’ll find their assessment notes using words like hints of smoke, tar, and freshly dug soil to caramel, ripe or dried tree fruits and dark chocolate, vanilla, or lemon notes. WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL WITH SCOTCH? A BIT OF HISTORY According to Charles MacLean, in Malt Whisky: The Complete Guide, there’s a record of King James IV in 1494 requesting what would today equal 1,250 bottles of aqua vitae be produced by Friar Cor of the Benedictine Order for his royal pantry. Distilling spirits from fermented barley and other grains had been going on for some time before this. Crofters, the people who worked the land and harvested grain back then, have been enjoying the water-of-life produced from surplus grain. Whisky has been the drink of the common man for centuries and may well have been used as a form of payment to supplement land rent. The original whisky was rough; there’s a good reason it was called firewater. The Scotch whisky we enjoy today is very refined and can be a tremendously complex and enjoyable drink. HOW TO TASTE A WHISKY Whisky is big business and reported to be growing as new distillers set up shop and pour freshly distilled spirits into oak for aging. Most of the whisky consumed is likely poured into tumblers with water or ice and simply sipped or drunk — enjoyed without much fuss about fancy glasses or tasting protocol. But if you drop half a day’s wages or more on a coveted bottle of some magical dram, you may well want to extend the pleasure. The right glass and a few simple steps will help maximize your whisky experience. The lessons learned at Islay distillery tastings go like this: Pour and view. Have a good look at the whisky in the glass. Those rivulets of liquid that adhere to the sides of the glass are referred to as legs and indicate viscosity. Approach. Be careful, there might be a beast in there. Approach the poured dram with caution. Whisky, especially cask-strength spirits, is strong enough to overpower your nose. Proceed gently. Nose. Enjoy the process. Gently inhale the scent through both nostrils. Let your mind wander around those smells. Sip and savor. There are layers of tasting: the initial taste, the swirl, the swallow, and the aftertaste. Note each segment and how the taste of the spirit changes through the process. The first taste should be neat. Then, decide if you’d like to add water. Whisky tasters claim water helps open the whisky to make the aromas more accessible to your nose. Enjoy each step of the process. WHERE TO START Opinions are strong about scotch. Scotch lovers love it dearly, while others are hesitant to give it a taste. There’s nothing wrong with starting your scotch exploration with the big smoky whiskies of Islay — just save these peated whiskies for last if you plan on setting up a tasting flight combined with other non-peated scotch. While my strong preference is to have whisky neat or sometimes with a drop of water, there are times when a cocktail makes sense. There are plenty of options to explore in the world of whisky, and scotch is an interesting collection of stories and places to explore. Slow down, enjoy the process, and enjoy each leg of the journey. A NOTE ABOUT GLASSWARE While whisky drinkers like to think of themselves as less snooty than wine enthusiasts, there are a few glasses that are particularly well suited to tasting (or rather smelling) whisky. These four glasses tend to concentrate the aroma of whisky and put it right up front where your nose gets easy access to the delicious scent of that golden glory. All scotch-tasting glasses are designed to put the concentrated aroma right at your nose. From left to right: stemless tulip with lid, Norlan glass, Ardbeg stemmed tulip, and Glencairn glass. Left to right: the stemless wineglass, the Norlan tumbler, the stemmed custom Ardbeg tulip, and the classic Glencairn glass. COCKTAILS Here are two time-honored cocktails that highlight the flavor of scotch while making it more approachable. Directions to make a Rob Roy and the classic Rusty Nail follow. History claims the Rob Roy cocktail was developed by the barman at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in the late 1800s to celebrate the debut of an operetta of the same name. It’s a scotch pivot on the rye and bourbon-based Manhattan, with main ingredients of blended scotch and sweet vermouth. Add a splash of Angostura orange bitters and three Luxardo maraschino cherries as a garnish. (These cherries prepared by the Italian Luxardo brand are like none you’ve ever tasted and well worth the trouble to search them out for your cocktail party.) The classic Rob Roy is a scotch-forward cocktail enhanced with Luxardo maraschino cherries. Luxardo maraschino cherries are ridiculously rich and flavorful –– definitely worth seeking out for this cocktail. The Rusty Nail is a simple three-to-one blend of ice-chilled scotch and the scotch-based liqueur Drambuie. Rob Roy 2 parts blended scotch (The Famous Grouse blended scotch whisky) 1 part sweet vermouth (Red Noilly Prat) 2 dashes of Angostura orange bitters 3 Luxardo cherries Orange twist (optional) Mix the liquid ingredients with ½ cup of ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake and strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with Luxardo cherries. Rusty Nail 3 parts blended scotch 1 part Drambuie The Rusty Nail is a simple combination of scotch-based Drambuie liqueur and blended scotch. 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