It’s a sad little blogeen that plagiarizes himself but I’m eager to publicize the imminent Whisky Live event in Toronto on October 24 (go to http://www.whiskylive.com/canada/toronto-2008/ for actual facts and coordinates) and with Gold Medal Plates suddenly looming up on the horizon I don’t have time to extrapolate on the theme of Scotch whisky. Or Canadian whisky, come to that (having just sampled the beguilingly smooth and delicious Century Reserve 15-25 year old Canadian rye from Highwood Distillers of Alberta). More about GMP next time but, for now, consider the opportunity to spend a delightful evening at Whisky Live. I have no personal axe to grind here, except to point out that this is an opportunity to taste some pretty stupendous waters of life. If you do go, check out Marc Laverdiere’s masterclass in room 2 at 8:30pm: he’s pouring the Highland Park 40 year old for the first time in Canada. It’s a total treat. Like an unexpected kiss on the cheek from Greta Scacchi in the foyer of a cinema on Wardour Street, 25 years ago. Pause and count to ten. Twenty maybe. Make a promise you’ll remember the moment for ever.
Where was I? Oh yes, whisky and autoplagiarism. This time from A Matter of Taste.
“Single malt whisky,” frowned The David, chewing the words as if they were a toffee he did not enjoy. “You wish me to teach you to understand single malt whisky…” The great bushy eyebrows descended further towards the nose. The shoulders rose up behind his head, a mountain range of weatherbeaten tweed. “Aye, I could do it.” Then one pale blue eye fixed me like a moth on a pin. “But who’s paying for the teaching aids?”
And so we began.
“Do ye ken how whisky is made?” asked The David.
“Oh, I think so. Barley is malted by soaking it and then drying it over peat fires. Hence the smokiness. It’s milled and mixed with warm water and yeast to begin fermentation, then the fermented wort is double-distilled in a copper pot still, the spirits aged in oak barrels then diluted-”
“Whisky,” interrupted The David, “is made when the great principal elements of life conspire together: the good grain of the earth embraced by the pure clean water off the hills and by fire to release its majestic spirit. But the earth is always with it, in the black peat that smoulders in the maltings, in the granite that blesses the rills and streams as they pass over its face.” He jabbed a finger down onto the table. “Man’s ingenuity plays a role, I grant you that! But the birth of a whisky is an elemental mystery! The evidence is plain to see. There are near a hundred distilleries in Scotland making a single malt whisky and each is unique.”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you about,” I explained. “How does one find one’s way through so many, without having to taste them all?”
“And why shouldn’t you taste them all?” asked The David incredulously.
“They say you can categorize them by region?”
“There’s something in that,” he grudgingly agreed.
“I mean, the whiskies of Islay all have that medicinal, iodine flavour, don’t they.”
“And so would you,” roared The David, “if your water had trickled over the peat moors and you had been confined in a sherry cask for a generation, with the wood spreading and shrinking with each passing season, and the sea knee-deep at the walls of the warehouse when the wind is high, and the brown kelp scenting the air you breathe! Aye, you can feel the ocean in a whisky from Islay’s south shore – Laphroaig or Lagavulin, Ardbeg most of all.
“And what of the other islands? Talisker from Skye, Highland Park from the Orkneys? Are they as phenolic?”
“Talisker is a king, high and civil and deep. But Highland Park…” The David allowed himself a rare chuckle. “There’s the honey of the heather in her and the sweetness of smoke, and sherry from the butts if you find the twenty-four year old.”
“The older the better, eh?”
“Pach!” grunted The David. “Didn’t I say each whisky was unique? Some iterations are best at ten or twelve, some at twenty, though there’s more of the oak in them. And it matters where the barrels are from. Have they held sherry – or bourbon from America? Glenmorangie is finishing some of its whisky in port wood, or claret or madeira -”
“I tried the port wood! It’s magnificent! The colour of copper and you smell butterscotch, mint and bitter chocolate, citrus and sandalwood!”
“With a drop or two of water, you do. But add a little more and you’ll smell hazelnuts and the hay of summertime. And before you add any, take a sip of it neat, to judge its body and texture. Glenmorangie’s pot stills are the tallest in all Scotland, so the spirit is more delicate.”
“That’s a Highland malt. But what about Speyside?”
“The heartland. Half of all Scotland’s distilleries are there. You know The Macallan? Was there ever such a big, bold self, full of malt and sherry tones. The older the better with The Macallan for my money. Or for yours, I should say. There’s sherry on the nose of The Glenlivet as well, when it’s been long in the wood, but that’s an altogether more delicate offering – flowers, peaches, all elegance. The Glenlivet, mind. There are other whiskies from near the Livet river that claim the name, but only one is the definite article.”
“And what of them all would you like to drink now?” I asked. The David’s eyes narrowed. He seemed to be staring deep into the past.
“I’ll take Lagavulin.”
“Ice and soda?” It was a joke, but The David did not take it well. Barbarous was the kindest epithet he bestowed upon the suggestion. I had to buy him more than one wee dram before the dust could be said to have settled.
Hie thee to Whisky Live. I’ll be in Montreal, still doing the dishes after Gold Medal Plates, but I’ll think of you there and wish I was at your side.