I read a blog today that lists the benefits of drinking whisky (though they spelled it with an “e” so we know right off that it has a very American slant). It lists pretty much the same health benefits as red wine. No surprise there. Other than showing the whisk(e)y glasses with ice in them, the part of the blog that made me smile – okay, smirk—was the bit about the “nutritional benefits” of whisky. No fat or cholesterol. As long as we’re reaching, I’m going to reach for a Single Malt and carry on here; feel free to join me.
As discussed earlier, I first experienced the spectrum of whisky on my first trip to Scotland. My dad was pleased that I reported liking the Grants Reserve, since he was a Grants man. I also discovered Edradour, Highland Park and Glenmorangie (as well as its correct pronunciation). There is something very special about tasting the whisky at the distillery, and so we made certain that there were tastings to be had on this trip.
Whisky, like wine, has many complex flavors, and, like wine, it can vary greatly depending upon the flavor factors that combine to make the taste that is the whisky. Water, soil, grain, fermentation, and the wood used for the barrels, all combine to make the flavors. Single Malt Scotch Whisky is whisky produced only from water and malted barley at a single distillery in Scotland. The distinct smoky flavor of Highland Single Malt Whisky comes from the malt drying process, at least part of which is done over a peat-fueled fire. This allows the smoke to come in direct contact with the malt. Although smoke defines the Scotch Whisky, each of the whisky regions of Scotland — Islay, Lowland, Highland (and Islands other than Islay), Speyside and Campbelltown– produce different and distinct flavor characteristics.
If one were to place the flavors on a clock face, with smoky at the “twelve” and rich at the “three”, delicate at the “six” and light at the “nine”, the various combinations of tastes can be plotted on the “clock face”. In the quadrant between smoky and rich (12:00-3:00), the flavors move from smoky and peaty to the fruity flavors, much like a sherry. The rich-to-delicate area (3:00-6:00) moves from the fruity, to spicy & woody and a nutty/grainy flavor as the barley is more pronounced. Delicate-to-light flavor (6:00-9:00) moves from the grainy flavors to grassy & more of an herbal floral and then in to a fresh citrus flavor. The light-to-smoky area (9:00-12:00) moves from the crispness of the citrus flavor, through spiced fruit and then to heavier spice and a peppery taste. Laphroaig (“the hollow by the big bay”) would sit almost at the 11:00, and Talisker (“sloping rock” from the Old Norse) at the 12:00. These are tastes I think one has to work hard to acquire. My taste of Laphroaig reminded me of a dusty attic. Highland Park and Oban are about as smoky as I like, Oban being a bit lighter than Highland Park.
I tend to the rich/delicate whiskies (translation from the Gaidhlig in parentheses) :
Aberlour (“Loud Confluence”): rich/delicate; more spicy-sweet
Balvenie Doublewood (“Beathan’s farm”): toward the fruity-spicy edge of rich/delicate
Cardhu (Creag Dubh, “Black Rock”): light; citrus and spice
Edradour(“Between Two Waters”) rich/delicate; more nutty-sweet
Glenmorangie (“valley of the big meadows”; pronounce the “morangie” like “orangey” with an “m”): near the center of rich/light/delicate; a lot of floral-fruit with a hint of nutty and spicy
Oban (“little bay”): on the smoky side of the middle of the four tastes; a bit more malt taste, with smoky-fruit
Scapa (“boat” from Skalp, Old Norse for boat): delicate; nutty-herbal floral
Strathisla (“The Valley of the River Isla”): rich; spicy-fruity-nutty with enough malt to give it a chocolate finish
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a Glenfiddich (“Fid’s valley” or “the valley in Fidach”) that I like. Right in the middle of the rich spectrum, the 15 Year, formerly known as Solera, is quite yummy. I tasted the Solera at a wonderful place on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. I had just checked out The Whisky Experience, and was standing outside, waiting for Kyle and Liisa (and watching a pretty sad display of a street “performance” of a William Wallace a la Mel Gibson, posing for pictures with tourists whom he pretty much badgered in to it). Once we were all together again, we went downstairs in the Whisky Experience to the Amber Café to have some lunch. The food there was spectacular; one of the best meals that we had. Kyle had vegetarian haggis with tatties (mashed potatoes) & neeps (mashed rutabagas) in whisky cream sauce; Liisa had beef and mushroom pie; and I had sweet potato soup and a mushroom soufflé with lemon vinaigrette, along with the wee dram of Glenfiddich Solera. We were obviously having a great meal of it, and as we left, the Manager gifted us each with whisky tasting glasses. Love that Scottish hospitality!
Another place where we found great hospitality, and coincidentally, more whisky to taste, is the Dornach Castle Hotel. North of Inverness on the A9, Dornach, (Dòrnach: “pebbly place”) is a beautiful little town and it was a great place to stop for lunch (tea, really). I’ve found that the Scottish Breakfast holds one over until mid/late-afternoon, and then it’s a perfect time to find a nice place to have tea, which is generally a good meal. On a previous trip, I had a wonderful meal at the Dornach Castle Hotel while sitting by a roaring fire which, along with the whisky, took the chill of the rainy April day away. This trip, the weather was sunny; and, while it wasn’t warm, it certainly wasn’t cold. I wished that the fire had been lit anyway just because the fireplace is so magnificent.
The food was excellent, as expected. I had potato-leek soup, salad, and a Dornach cheddar cheese sandwich. Kyle had the same, and Liisa had a turkey sandwich. The bartender was very gracious and listened to the list of whiskies that we know we like, and then suggested three for us to taste: Balblair 89 (“the farm on the moor”), GlenDronach (2002), and Bowmore Islay 15. Liisa wasn’t fond of any of them; but Kyle liked the Bowmore (“big hut”), and my favorite was the GlenDronach (“valley of blackberries”).
While driving through Speyside we stopped in at the Strathisla Distillery, the oldest malt whisky distillery in the Highlands (founded circa 1786). I first tasted Strathisla at a wonderful whisk(e)y bar in Ithaca, NY. Enchanted by the chocolate “finish”, I put it up near the very top of my favorites list. I was happy to be able to visit the distillery. As beautiful a building as the distillery is, this was the most disappointing of all the tastings. It had everything to do with the woman who so begrudgingly came to help us at the tasting bar. Her perfume was completely overwhelming and we could not taste the whisky, much less find the aromas that blend to give it its taste. Too bad, I really like Strathisla.
That experience was more than made up for by the wonderful tour and tasting at Edradour.
When planning the trip, I looked for the possibility of organically produced whiskies, and was pleased to find that there are two beautiful ones in the Highlands. Bruichladdich (“brae by the shore”) is an organic, bio-dynamic, artisan whisky that made me sorely wish we had had the time to travel to Islay in the Hebrides (Oirthir Gaidheal, pronounced “Argyll”–“The Coast of the Gaels”). Their Organic 2003 is called Anns an t-seann doigh (“the way it used to be”). Next time!
We were able to easily find Benromach (“shaggy mountain”) just outside of Forres as we left Nairn and headed to Aberdeenshire. The smallest of the Speyside distilleries, Benromach went so far in the making of its organic whisky that instead of using the usual brandy or wine casks, they had special barrels made from virgin American oak cut from natural, wild growing forest. No pesticides or chemicals were used to treat the wood. I enjoyed the Benromach, although Liisa did not and Kyle was ambivalent.
We were not, however, ambivalent about bringing whisky back from the source, and we needed to get another suitcase to accommodate all of it. Top of that list was the Edradour Cream Liquor (Edradour Single Malt Whisky and heavenly Scottish cream) which I savor in tiny sips and share only with the closest of friends. Thankfully, it was savored by one friend so much that she has been inspired to invite me to go to Scotland in 2015.