When Scota, the Egyptian wife of the Spanish Celtic King Milesius, invaded the island in 1699BC from Ireland, who’d have even in passing thought of the power this meagre colony would possess in the modern era. They used their advanced knowledge of chemistry to concoct beverages using native ingredients primarily to restore health and what started as a medicinal endeavour developed into producing a spirit called aqua vitae or aptly ‘the water of life’. Local farmers of these fertile lands took up distillation as a secondary occupation, converting their excess grain into whisky, seeking some extra income. The fortunes it yielded for these poor farmers were rather handsome and attractive, as also providing an alternative to their commoner local tipples and therein emerged an industry, and a drink, that have never looked back since then.
Surviving endless wars, dodging the bane of the Prohibition period and the heavy taxations that ensued, managing to usurp Cognac’s dominance in Europe and more recently, that of vodka in the US, Scottish whiskies have had a journey like no other spirit. They belong rightfully to a world of royalty, grandeur, and celebration even if they are somewhere a matter of snobbery for us Indians.
Swirling in a small-cupped stemware, a bright golden liquid with a regal sheen, gently settles in the bowl leaving lazily trails of descending tears, a burst of aromas kindle a silent excitement, providing a soul-stirring emotion – that’s the enigma of a Scotch. Some say that a minute sniff of a dram can evoke a vivid image of the environs where the whisky originated. Whisky expert, Dave Broom, describes the landscape as a place where you can read the rocky poetry of the Earth’s birth. With an abundance of clean springwater making its way to the distilleries, healthy grains glistening in the gentle sunlight, and a familial passion seeped down generations of distillers – the stage is indeed set for this unctuous drink to be born.
In the early years (circa 15th century) , every house had a miniature pot-still distillation apparatus that produced the house’s supply of aqua vitae. While the men worked in the farms to produce the grains, it were the ladies of the house that produced the spirit and used it intelligently when someone took ill. As the knowledge of this art grew, farmers turned towards the profession of distillation indefinitely. The agricultural scene in the Highlands was much more developed than in the Lowlands and so was the overall quality of produce and lifestyle. With distillation being introduced, Highland focused on smaller batch production, and lavishly double-distilled their spirits, taking them to a higher alcoholic strength, as they yielded lesser but richer (read: pricier) returns. Lowland distillers took the easy route of rushing through the process, producing a foul and weak spirit in contrast. By the end of the 18th century, these two styles were well-established, and Highland was the preferred one. Lowland fell so far behind that today it only features three operational distilleries. Towards the western frontier was the jungle of distilleries that mushroomed so close to each other that they not only shared the dividing walls but the neighbours could actually smell each other’s spirits from their own cellars. This was the land on either sides of the River Spey, unimaginatively called, Speyside! Just falling short of the mainland on the eastern edge was the Island of Islay. It was banned from using coal to roast the grain for malting and the wood was mostly too moist to burn easily with a reassuring crackle. Thus, they were left with only one option: to utilise the natural resource of ‘peat’, which was compressed vegetation that had died over millions of years ago to become a semi-carbonised fuel. It burns freely releasing mammoth fumes, imparting to the grains, and consequently to the whiskies, their key character of smokiness and pungency.
To simplify the matters for the untraveled, particular regions make a particular style of whisky. Or so goes the common adage. And it is true to some extent, for a label can often help a buyer decipher just what kind of a whisky he is in for. Various stories can be narrated attempting to explain as to why the landscape is divided in to Highland, Lowland, Speyside, and the Island of Islay and further be used to generalise their respective whisky styles, and while there does exist a sort of a taste template for each region, exceptions do exist, and that’s what makes it exciting. Approaching them from a distance, Highland scotch are marked for their sweet, fruity, and citric appeal, Lowlands are light and gentle, Speysides may be appreciated for their floral and fragrant character, and Islay malts are identified by their smoky masculinity. However, the key to how a scotch may taste rests upon four pillars – water it uses (after all a whisky is more water than alcohol), raw material (generally malted barley, its grade, and blend), distillation finesse (speed, quality, and size), and finally, the art of blending.
That last one, blending, is the key to every whisky, or rather every spirit we leisurely swig. It is also the one thing mired in much controversy in the Scotch world for it launches a debate about which is better – blended or single malts – and has kept the two schools’ tempers raging. In geekspeak, a single malt whisky is made from a single grain, in this case malted barley, while blended whisky uses a blend of grains and cereals as its base. While single malts are the crown jewel of the distiller’s art, a master blender takes pride in meticulously crafting the blended whisky every year and making it taste just the same as its first batch even after decade. In the passing of the tradition from one generation to the next, the art has remained unaltered, but some have graduated to become the epitome of their regions. In the Highland, sweetness of Dalwhinnie, tight fruity and slightly tart charm of Glenmorangie and Ardmore, and the heaviness of Dalmore have established themselves as style icons of their respective profiles . Speyside has a web of distilleries producing a range of styles to satisfy every whisky type of connoisseur. While Glenfiddich and Glenlivet bear the flag of the fragrant, floral, light-bodied, easy-sipping whiskies, Glenfarclas, Balvenie, Macallan, and Cragganmore fill the richer, fruitier style cabinet in the collection. One travels to Islay looking for what all other whiskies fail to deliver, the love-it-or-leave-it ‘liquid cigar’ alikeness. While Ardberg, Caol Ila, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig are the bad boys of the region, producing the mouth-coating fumé style, Jura, Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain are the alter-ego, unpeated styles of whiskies. Bowmore and Talisker aim to please both the sides and do a fair job of it. Returning to the mainland to the least populated whisky area, Lowland is the home of Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan, which are generally considered light and gentle.
It’s often said in connoisseur circles, “A drink makes you travel without requiring you to leave your armchair.” Scotch, after wine of course, does a handsome job of keeping that spirit alive. It is a produce of nature, crafted with the art of the distiller, nurtured in the hands of a wise blender, all combined and softened with the patience of the breathing barrels, till finally it is bottled and makes it journey to you, reaching your discerning palate only so to take you back to where it all began. It’s an experience worth the pause it evokes. No matter where it comes from, you’ll be happy to go there.
First published in Times of India Luxpresso in Feb, 2014