The Wonderful World Of Scotch
Wednesday - October 28, 2005
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I first began my love affair with single malt scotch around the time I started singing in folk clubs and bars in Scotland. It was 1978, and I had a regular gig on Monday nights at The Waverly Bar, a small, poorly lit pub just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The gig didn’t pay - the owner, a surly man named Ian, expected us to play for love and tips - and the occasional sip of a good single malt. It suited me fine. So I sang songs until midnight, fueled by the occasional glass of wine and some very fine whisky.
A year or so later, still singing for my supper, I visited a distillery my friends were involved in re-designing. Distilleries are like golf courses in Scotland - they’re ubiquitous and you drive by and take them in as part of the scenery. But I’ll never forget driving up to The Macallan distillery and seeing the perfectly manicured lawns and the immaculately kept grounds for the first time, and sensing the pride of the people who worked there.
Inside the warehouse, a sign above the aging sherry casks stated simply “Shhh, whisky sleeping,” and I crept around the barrels as if it really were. After that, I started to notice how people were loyal to certain brands of whisky and how different situations called for different malts. After climbing on the mountain faces near Glencoe we’d head to the local pub and order pints of Guinness, chocolate bars and a shot of Balvennie or Bowmore. On snowy weekends at Aviemore after skiing, we’d drink The Macallan, and soak in its sherry-like sweetness, sitting in front of a roaring pub fire as we dried our wet socks and gloves.
In Edinburgh, on the last night in August of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, we’d park my friends’ Volkswagen bus in the same spot we returned to for almost a decade, and break out a bottle of Glenmorangie to watch the fireworks and listen to Handel.
But it was when I visited the island of Islay and stepped off the ferry, breathing air that was both salty and filled with smoke, that I finally realized why I love single malt. There are about 4,500 people who live on the tiny island of Islay, to the West of Scotland, and they rely entirely on distilling to survive. Each bottle of whisky is like a microscopic peek into the life of the island. Take a sip of any of the Bowmore whiskies, for example, and you’ll be transported to an ancient warehouse on the sea shore, where howling gales send roaring waves crashing against the distillery doors. And as the salt water beats against the warehouse, the whisky, already infused with peat and smoke, takes on additional qualities of ocean and seaweed and the air. At Bowmore and at Lagavulin and Bunnahaven, I met the distillers and toured their workplaces and stood in front of raging peat fires that warmed the floors of malting rooms above, and I found it easy to believe that the whisky really is uisgebeatha - the water of life.
So it was only natural, I suppose, to extend this love of whisky to other spirits that are similarly distilled with equal amounts of love, passion and tradition.
And that’s what I hope you’ll discover in this column over the coming months. Favorite new drinks and the stories behind them - all designed to keep us in good spirits.
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