Scotch whisky, is one of the most complex and nuanced alcoholic drinks you can try. And you don't have to be an expert or an aficionado to appreciate it. Visit a distillery in Scotland and the experts there will be happy to teach you what to look for in this king of drinks.
That's why the popularity and appreciation of made-in-Scotland, well-aged, single malt whisky has been growing. According to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which reports year on year export sales, Scotch whisky accounted for 20 percent of all UK food and drink exports in 2017. Exports rose 14 percent in 2017 with 122 million bottles exported from Scotland's distilleries.
There are whisky clubs, whisky magazines, special whisky glasses and whisky connoisseurs willing to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for special bottles. And for travelers, there's the good news that Scotland's most interesting distilleries are in areas noted for their beauty, wildlife and outdoor activities.
You don't have to be a Scotch whisky aficionado to enjoy whisky tourism in Scotland. In fact, as I've been discovering, visiting a Scottish distillery or two is the best way to become one. The more you know, the more you'll appreciate the complex chemistry that goes into making what the 16th century kings of Britain called aquae vitae - lively water, Scots Gaelic speakers called uisge beatha and the rest of us know as whisky (without an "e" if you please).
Here's a few pointers I picked up recently when I visited the Bowmore distillery on Islay.
Red for meat, white for fish? Well, not quite. But did you know that some single malts are terrific with chocolate. It brings out the toffee, caramel and vanilla notes that come from toasting the insides of casks (yes wood has sugar in it that caramelizes when burnt). While in Scotland recently I discovered that:
- a whisky with light peat smoke and notes of raisins was gorgeous with mushroom risotto and a poached egg
- a light and fruity whisky that picked up a lot of bourbon notes in its cask was very interesting with filet of halibut.
If you are planning to take a distillery tour or distillery break, look for one that does a whisky pairing lunch as part of its package. Tourist authorities in distillery areas can tell you about restaurants that offer whisky and food pairing experiences.
The glass you use for a fine single malt can make a big difference in how much you get out of the experience.
Since 2001, a new style of drinking glass has replaced the sturdy, straight-sided Old Fashioned glasses people have used for years. It is slightly tulip shaped, wider at the bottom than the top, and has either a stem or a thick, knobby base so you can hold it without warming the bowl and the whisky inside of it. The shape of the glass is meant to allow more of the surface of the drink to make contact with the air. The molecules of the spirit that carry its complex aromas are held within its bowl shape. The glass won the Queen's Award for Innovation after it was introduced and is now used at whisky festivals and competitions all over the world.
There's a lot of nonsense and snobbery associated with properly nosing a whisky but one piece of advice I was given was useful. Hold the glass at arms length and then pass it a few inches under your nose. The action seems to evaporate the stinging alcohol and what you smell is the true character of the whisky - smoky peat, raisins, toffee, sultanas, nuts and so forth. It really works.
Nosing glasses are sold in liquor stores, at whisky specialists and in distillery gift shops all over Scotland. Or you can buy them direct from Glencairn, the company who designed them in the first place.
Rough and Ready Nosing Like a Pro
Haven't got a fancy special glass with which to "nose" your precious malt whisky. Well if you can bear to waste a few drops, you could try the method used by maltmasters when checking cask strength whisky.
Straight from the cask, whisky has such a high alcohol content that if you simply sniff it, all you will get is the knockback of firewater. Some distillery professionals pour a few drops into the palms of their hands and then rub their hands together. The warmth evaporates the alcohol and when is left is the true character of the whisky. It's just like waiting for the alcohol to evaporate before you sniff a dab of perfume you're thinking of buying.
Water for the Water of Life?
A lot of people think that real whisky connoisseurs should drink whisky neat and that putting water into a glass of single malt is blasphemy.
Whisky experts disagree and at most distilleries adding a few drops - literally two or three drops of water - is recommended to "open" the whisky. What they mean varies with the expert you talk to. Some will tell you that the water reduces the burning effect of the alcohol content so that the real aromas and flavors come through. While others explain that complex chemical reactions take place when water is added, releasing long chain molecules of oily esters that carry scent. Both explanations are probably partly true and in my own experience, adding a tiny bit of water does change the character of the drink.
The idea of never adding water to whisky is silly because water is added to balance the alcohol levels during maturation and when whisky is bottled. And, for most people, cask strength whisky is unpleasant without a little water.
The fact is, whisky is a drink you should enjoy and whether or not to add water or ice is completely up to you.
What kind of water? Forget all you've heard about adding distilled water or spring water. Unless your local water is very unpleasant, any old water - except carbonated water with single malts - will do.
The Angel's Share?
Even the tightest grain wood of casks, sherry butts and barrels is porous. As whisky ages, some of the alcohol evaporates, concentrating the flavors. In fact whisky makers lose about 1.5% of the whisky for every year that it matures. They call that the angel's share.
The Little White Lie
You may think when you buy a bottle of 12, or 18, or 24 year old whisky, all of its contents is of that vintage. But, in fact, like an elegant woman of a certain age you're being told a little white lie.
Single malts are blended to achieve a particular character or to maintain the distinctive qualities of a brand. The difference between single malt and a so-called blended whisky is that blended whiskies can be made of the products of several distilleries while all the whisky in a single malt bottle comes from the same distillery.
But it hasn't all come from the same cask. By law, the age a Scotch is labeled is the age of the youngest whisky in the blend. But much older whiskies may also be added.
Most Scotch whisky is exported from the UK to markets all over Europe, the Far East, North and South America. According to a list of the top 10 whisky consuming countries compiled by the SWA in 2017, Brits don't even get a look in.
The number one Scotch consuming country in the world, by value, is the USA, importing $922 million of the stuff in 2017. Looked at by volume, the surprising first place importer of Scotch whisky is France, importing A close second is France, importing 178 million 70cl bottles in 2017.
Interestingly, the biggest market for French champagne in the world in Britain. The French hardly touch the stuff.