a belt of scotch

The last food/drink entry about the UK I have to offer is a post from the northern highlands in Scotland, home of the legendary drink, scotch. Now, I was a mediocre fan of scotch before I came to visit Adam and Lindsay this summer (my gracious hosts and the reason I came to visit) – it was another alcohol, albeit one of the more expensive and, uh, snobby ones, which is probably why I hadn’t tried that much of it. Adam is a connoisseur, as was Garret, my other tour buddy, and Adam gave me a sampling of what was to come in his home. I had always thought that scotch had to be harsh. Like brandy. I don’t really like brandy.

To be honest, most of the scotch I had tried was blended scotch, a distinction which was made clear to me again and again. A blend comes from a number of sources and while it is still quite nice and tasty in many cases, it lacks any kind of finish, an important distinction. Single malts – as their name may indicate – come from a single batch, and like wine, take distinct smells, tastes, and finishes from their unique conditions. And those conditions create an amazing world of flavours and effects, one which I discovered this summer.

We visited three distilleries, each with a different kind of tour. For me, the uninitiated member, it was a perfect combination. Glenmorangie offered a very basic tour giving basic very basic information: how the grains are put in water to steep (we got a heady whiff of that – like a hammer up your nose!), how they are filtered and then head for the stills (see pic of the still) and boiled to take the alcohol off. It was then over to see the barrels and barrels of scotch sitting and waiting to age properly and gain their own characters. Afterwards we tried many types of scotch (well, the other boys did. I nerded it up camera-style), trying one of our favourites through the entire trip – the 30-year-old scotch done in a Spanish sherry oloroso cask.

The other two distilleries were pretty much the same tour in basic content, although the Balvenie was a very in-depth explanation of everything, from the fact that they are one of three (or two – not many) distilleries that still do their own malting (sprouting and roasting) of the barley, as well a short tour of their own cooperage (barrel-making and fixing). I think they may be the only place with both in operation. We saw the peat that is sometimes added for smokiness, the barrels (they had a 50-year-old barrel in the basement that we got to smell. It was a sweeter batch, but had so much character to it I almost reached out to shake its hand), and the wooden washbacks (where the water and barley sit at first – the other distilleries we visited had metal ones).

The devil is in the details, that much was made obvious to me. Shape and height of stills, material of washbacks, where the water and peat come from, type of barley used, even small differences in times for fermenting and boiling. Of course, the barrels used make a huge difference, since that’s where they sit most of the time. It started as the frugality of the Scots had them using American bourbon barrels and Spanish sherry casks – used good, low prices! – and now it’s carefully controlled by each distillery. Everyone’s got their source, and the difference it makes is fantastic.

Our last tour was Aberlour, and while it didn’t differ in technicalities at all, the guide made all the difference. He was an energetic young man who sat us down and gave us a history of scotch, of the English disdain until other alcohol crops failed and all that was available was this product from Scotland. He was funny, flippant, and well-informed and the tasting was the most fun I had on any tour. The other people taking the tour were very friendly and with a little booze in all of us (it was our second of the day), conversation and laughter flowed about as freely as our spirits.

The whole process has been an eye-opener for me. I’ve found that I like sweeter scotches, those that are finished (or spend their whole life) in sherry and port casks, while those done in bourbon or wine casks tend to be a little harsh for me. I’m definitely not a fan of smokiness (peat) – a little goes a very long way. That said, I’ll try them all, as you never know. Scotch flavours are very strong as well. As I type this I’m sipping a Bowman bordeaux-cask that is very smoky and tastes heavily of licorice. Licorice? I know! But it’s there. Others taste buttery or oily or have hints of vanilla. They’re like wines, though I find scotch flavours almost overpowering compared to wine. Then there’s the scotch flavour itself – not exactly light!

All in all, I’m very glad I took this tour. In addition to new food and beautiful scenery, I got a peek into this world that I had sort of thought was populated by greying gentlemen and cigar-smokers. It doesn’t have to be that way and while I may not drink scotch every day in the future, I will be sure to have a good bottle on the shelf in case someone who wants to appreciate it visits.

Thanks to Adam and Garret for the company, the expertise, and the many good times on this trip!


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