All About the Dram-a
- Sebastian Howell
- 10 September 2009
No longer seen as the older gentleman’s drink, whisky is what all the cool kids are quaffing nowadays. We sent Sebastian Howell for a day of tasting and to find out what all the fuss is about
Two years after Columbus discovered America, a Scottish friar made an equally important discovery: whisky. However, his was not the golden delight that we now know as Scotch whisky. What Friar John Cor concocted was brutal and raw, and were it to be discovered now it would probably be used as nail varnish remover. Amazing how things move on.
To do justice to the surprisingly rich story of how whisky went from paint stripper to sensory enchantment is no mean feat. So, with a little trepidation, I negotiate Edinburgh’s steep, bustling Royal Mile to the Whisky Experience centre. Once though the doors I am surprised to see what looks like a ghost train at the fairground. Ushered into a giant barrel-shaped seat, I discover that I’m not far off. I am introduced to my 19th century ‘ghost’ guide; the ghost of a master distiller, or spirit of the spirits, if you will. If only my school had taken us here for a cultural trip …
The barrel ride takes my every sense through the process where barley, yeast and water is transformed into any number of variations of flavour – depending on how they are mixed, ground, smoked, heated, evaporated, distilled and aged in handmade barrels before being bottled. I am hit with rich aromas of smoky peat, fermenting barley and earthy oak.
I also discover that whisky is probably one of the most eco-friendly products; the water that cools the copper distilling stills is returned clean to source, spent barley is turned into animal feed, peaty grist smokes the best Scottish salmon, and the barrels that either become wood-chipping or garden furniture are sourced more and more from renewable forests. It’s enough to make you feel positively good about your drinking habits.
After I disembark from the barrel, I am steered to the first tasting area and rewarded with a dram of whisky, but only after being given a ‘smell tour’ of Scotland by my now human guide: from the biscuity Lowlands, the spicy Highlands, fruity Speysides and finally the smoky Islays, the Marmite of the whiskies, ‘you either love it or you hate it’, I am told. As a bit of a whisky whore, I, of course, love it.
The next room is a collector's dream; it houses the largest collection of individual whisky bottles in the world. Some of the 3,384 bottles are full, some so old the angels have definitely abused their ‘angel's share’ (the name given to evaporation, in case you are wondering). There are all shapes, sizes and ages from an 1894 vintage, to a quaint can of ready mixed whisky and ginger ale, and even a bottle shaped like a vintage mannequin.
The taste matching continues to the end and once the passionate bar staff discover I am a smoky Islay drinker, they suggest an Islay whisky I have never come across, Ardberg's Uigeadail. There’s an initial shock at the 54% breaking barrel wave of softly anaesthetising salty peat flavour, but then the soothing smoky sweetness kicks in and leaves me remembering why I switched to drinking whisky when I was 22-years old.
When you are presented with such a complex and carefully engineered drink in this modern world of mostly mass produced mediocre beverage choices, you can't help but want to taste them all, because you never know if the next one will taste like gingerbread men, Christmas cake, apples and pears, bonfires or a walk on a breezy beach. I’ll keep sampling and let you know.
The Spirit Guide
● There are two legitimate spellings of whisky. One is ‘whisky’ – as spelled by Scots and Canadians and the second is ‘whiskey’ – as spelled by the Irish and Americans.
● The dark colour of whisky comes from the wooden barrels in which it is aged.
● There are more than 5,000 types of single malt whisky.
● Whisky can be called whisky only when it is matured for a minimum of three years.
● Single malt whisky comes from a single distillery and a single grain.
● Blended whisky is called blended whisky because of the mixture of grain whisky and multiple single malt whiskies.
● A whisky stops maturing after it is bottled.
● After opening, a half-full bottle of whisky will remain good for five years.
● A closed bottle of whisky can be kept for more than 100 years and it will still be good to drink.
● Strange but true: Islays are so unique, US customs during the Prohibition didn’t even realise bottles of peaty Laphroaig – marked as medicine– were passing under their noses into the country.