02 Mar
There are no rights and wrongs for whisky
IN THE cold far north of Europe. you won’t find any vineyards; in their place there are fields of barley. Acres of golden promise. For centuries, wine was a dream of indolence and the drink of the warm south. Here in the north there was a need for something stronger, something to keep us going through the freezing gloom of the long, dark Scottish winter - not to mention the disappointment of the Scottish summer. This vivifying spirit has had different names across the centuries. In Latin it is aqua vitae, in Gaelic it is uisge beatha and, to you and me, it’s whisky.
I don’t like to spoil the romantic illusion you get when you close your eyes and think of Scotland, but, to tell the truth, there isn’t as much barley grown here as there used to be. This is because the price has gone through the floor and a lot of Scotch whisky is now made from barley grown in Ukraine.
There are as many myths about whisky-making in Scotland as there are about the Loch Ness monster. And that’s an excellent thing. It’s all part of the noble whisky marketing tradition.
I want to believe everything the marketing people tell me about whisky, and more besides. I’d rather believe my whisky came from barley sheaves standing in stooks in glens of tranquillity than admit the importance of the giant combine harvesters rolling across the Ukrainian plains. I want to think of heather-covered moorland, icy burns and mist-covered mountains. I want to believe in the magical properties of shiny copper stills, barley, yeast and water. I want to think that whisky is made by people whose knowledge has been passed down through the generations.The good news is, I can believe all those things because all those things are true, although whisky is also mass-produced by people whose knowledge has been passed down through global strategic planning and forwarded in a very short e-mail.
With whisky-making, you have to count your golden-promise blessings, because the best things about the process and the places where whisky is made are still true. Whisky-makers themselves will tell you it’s what you do with it that counts. It’s about drinking it, after all - but if you can go and drink it in spectacular Scottish scenery then so much the better.
There are different drinks for the different times in your life. Whisky tends to come later. In your teens, you try alcopops - sweet, sticky things - because you are heavily involved in groping with the sweet, sticky side of life. In your 20s, you get more sophisticated and drink heavily oaked, New World wine (those were my chardonnay years, when I was but green in judgement). And when you get to your 30s, at last you discover whisky.
Stay up late in Scotland, be among the last to leave a party and you’ll find people drinking the heavier Islay malts - smoky and dark as a late-night conversation. An Islay will withstand most topics. For old friends in the wee small hours and for arguments about sex, politics, religion and what, for God’s sake, is happening to Scottish rugby - well, for that kind of conversation, you need something robust. You need an Islay.
It’s also the best drink for sitting very still at sunset and watching scenery from your tent. West coast sunsets seen across a campfire on the beach, with a dram in your hand, rate very highly indeed. To spend time in Scotland with whisky, scenery and conversation is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Last time I went to Islay, I camped at Kintra with my friend Annabel Meikle from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. We shared our whisky with two very nice German bikers. It was their third visit to Islay, and their big BMW roared up to the Tarbert ferry. One of them was an aeroplane salesman. Sitting on the beach together, watching the sunset and sipping Ardbeg, we asked how much a plane costs. He said it all depended on whether we wanted one aisle or two. We discussed fixtures and fittings and eventually arrived at an estimate for a private jet, but most of the time we just admired the sunset, drank our Ardbeg and watched a plane take off from the tiny airport behind the sand dunes. It circled the bay in the big pink sky and disappeared.
This was not the ‘correct’ way to nose and taste fine whisky, but it was certainly one of the best. Being something of a whisky nerd I love to hear about the right way to appreciate a good dram. I love those little details of temperature and so on. The ‘right’ temperature for serving whisky is 10¡C or 52¡F (traditional Scottish room temperature).
You should nose it, taste it, add water, nose it again, taste it again. Drink it. Keep going. Take your time and sip your single malt and appreciate it in the proper manner. For connoisseurs, that’s something for work hours. But when you drink whisky on your holidays, it’s like appreciating scenery in the wild - and you can go ‘off piste’, as it were.
On one trip north, my husband took me to a nice hotel near Lochinver. You could lie in the bath and admire the view of the mountains through the window. We took a bottle of one of our favourite whiskies - an extraordinary pale-pink Lowland from Rosebank. It’s a crisp, clean aperitif and excellent served chilled. My husband poured it over ice for me and I drank it in the bath before dinner. My dream of beautiful Scotland.
Abigail Bosanko was a whisky-tasting tutor at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society before leaving to become a full-time writer. Her first novel is Lazy Ways to Make a Living (Time Warner, £5.99).
Article Courtesy of The Scotsman