It was the only tasting I have ever attended where half the participants carried weapons. They wore dirks - daggers - either on their belts or thrust into the tops of their knee-length stockings. “This is a skean dhu,” said the man next to me, (all spellings approximate) drawing his dagger and placing it on the table. “It means ‘black knife’ in Gaelic. The blade was blackened by the peat smoke, you know.”
He was a ghillie laird. Don’t ask me exactly what a ghillie laird is, but he and others
belonged to a club devoted to tasting single-malt scotches and they had gathered to sample three vintages of Macallan single highland malt scotch. If you think this a casual enterprise then try to pronounce the club’s name, Cuideagh 0 Corn 0 Uisghebeathe (roughly, “tasters of the water of life”). I tried with some success to distinguish among multiple peaty heats while keeping a clear head.
The ghillie laird had more to tell me, but the bagpipes got in the way. He stood up, smoothed his kilt, and went off for a chunk of smoked salmon. I ate another oatcake to mop off my taste buds, concentrating on the task at hand: evaluating an array of amber liquids, accustomed to tasting wine, not single malt scotch, subjecting them to the regimen of wine tasting, a humbling experience.
The whiskey industry is no longer in precipitous decline and sales of single-malt scotch have romped for a couple of decades now. Its popularity reflects the heightened awareness of quality among drinkers of everything from tequila to cognac and a willingness to pay for it.
“Single-malt,” as everyone knows these days, simply means the whiskey that comes from a single producer. The process enjoys more latitude than you might think, and the results, though they all taste like scotch, are as various as the components: malted barley, peat smoke, in some cases old sherry or bourbon casks, good water, and something else unquantifiable. According to one Cuideagh O C’orn Uisghebeathe enthusiast the Japanese attempted to assemble their own “scotch” over there, with ingredients – including water - imported from Scotland, and failed.
There are more than a hundred scotch distilleries in Scotland, most of them tiny. The scotch that Americans are most familiar with is blended, and comes mostly from the Lowlands. It’s generally lighter in appearance than single-malt, sometimes with caramel dumped in to make it look “authentic," and the various blends taste more or less the same. Single-malts come from the Highlands farther north, and from the west coast, and are highly individualistic. Devotees collect vintages of single-malts, and trade them like well-ranked Bordeaux.
Scotch is made from barley that has been soaked in water so it will germinate, kiln-roasted, and subjected to peat smoke in varying degrees. It’s then “mashed” and soaked again to liquefy the starches and convert them to sugar, and fermented like beer or wine. The resulting brew goes into a pot still that eventually produces a clear spirit of about 140 proof. Later, spring water’s added. The whisky will already bear the taste of the cooking and the peat.
But another palatable element is yet to come – oak - which adds more taste and color. Traditionally scotch was aged in casks once used for shipping sherry, a lovely symbiosis. The advent of tankers for bulk shipment made sherry casks rarer, and therefore costly, so most scotch found its way into old bourbon barrels brought over from the states. These became the most common cooperage for scotch, but some of the good single-malt distillers still use sherry casks. Firms like Macallan made arrangements with sherry houses of Spain that supply them with staves imbued with the taste of Amontillado and Oloroso.
What this does to clear spirits dripping from a pot still in the Scottish Highlands reminds me of those glasses of single-malt lined up on the table. They contained a 10-year-old Glenmorangie, still one of Scotland’s most popular single-malts, and three Macallan vintages, aged 12, 18, and 25 years. I learned that the way to smell any strong spirit was to pass the glass under your nose twice at most. The Macallans were “lightly peated” and lacked the oily quality of heavier single-malts made in the west of Scotland, which I discovered on a trip to the inner Hebrides and will write about another time.
Lagavulin and Laphroaig are neighbors on the isle of Islay (pronounced “Eye-lay”), that smell vaguely of tea and iodine derived from the vast ocean on their doorsteps and the wind that blows off it pretty much all year. The older ones are deeply amber, with a sweetish, complex nose. A more lightly-peated - and less expensive - single-malt from Islay is Bowmore.
Finally, single-malts taste better with a dollop of (un-chlorinated!) water. And forget about an ice cube if you find yourself in the presence of a single-malt partisan wearing a skean dhu.