A Holiday Taste Of The Highlands

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - November 18, 2005
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I’ve always thought it important to know where my whisky comes from. I suppose it’s because I grew up within a shout of distilleries and golf courses and I think of them as places where people make their living, rather than as tourist attractions or, as in the case of my home-town of St. Andrews, a kind of Mecca.

If you know where whisky is made and how it defines itself, you’re halfway to understanding the character in each bottle. Wine enthusiasts love to say that their wines have great finesse or that they show well. Oenophiles nurture their wines in temperature-regulated refrigerated units and serve them in crystal glasses. Whisky is rarely treated as well. Americans do terrible things to whisky. They put ice in their single malts and mix Coke into blends that are almost perfect already.

Whisky doesn’t age once it’s in a bottle, unlike wine, which gets better (or worse) depending on its age. Whisky already has its character long before you pour it into your glass, and it’s a character that’s formed by salty air and peat-filled bogs and heather on hillsides and a thousand other elements that contribute to its individuality.

And whisky is something more too. A classic single malt stands alone as a testament to great distilling and awful weather and freezing winters, but it can also be the heart of a blend.

Blended whiskies have for years been thought of as not as respectable as single malts. The truth is that some of the finest blended whisky contains some of the greatest single malts on earth.

Take Clynelish, for example. The Clynelish distillery sits between Brora and Golspie in the Eastern Highlands of Scotland. The beaches on the coast a few miles from the distillery are a great vantage point to look for bottlenose dolphins and seals. Golf nearby is at Royal Dornoch and Brora. The weather can be bitterly cold, with biting winds blowing in from the ocean all year long. I spent a winter there not too long ago and we started every morning by scraping ice off the windows of our log cabin and then digging our van out from under thick, freshly fallen snow. We’d sit on the balcony of the tiny cabin in the late afternoon as the sun turned the sky a wonderful shade of purple and the imminent nightly snowfall sent gray clouds across the sky. And we’d pour a glass of whisky.

Clynelish was one of our favorites, of course, with the distillery less than 20 miles from where we were staying. Clynelish just recently arrived in Hawaii. The 14-year-old is something that should be in every serious drinker’s collection - and at every bar that prides itself on carrying a full range of whisky. And while the whisky stands up beautifully on its own, it has for years been the heart of Johnnie Walker Gold. Yellow gold in color it has a rich, spicy, peppery appeal. It’s very light on peat and that makes it perfect for anyone who wants to try something new - but is afraid of being bowled over by peat or salt.

And what I love most about Clynelish, especially around the holidays, is that it reminds me of Christmas cake. Not that horrible fruity thing that someone invariably brings over to your house, but a real Christmas cake, the kind my father used to make, with Madeira and dried fruit and lots of cranberries and raisins and prunes. Delicious, complex and scrumptious.

If you’re looking for something special for the holidays - and something with a nice body that’s light on the palate, then try this. Hawaii might not have the weather that Scotland has, but pour a dram on a slightly cool night just after Thanksgiving and you can almost imagine yourself in the highlands, waiting for the snow.

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