E— Whisky lore
In the last ten years more. books have been written about whisky than in the previous 80. Catherine Fellows samples a few drams with Charles Maclean, the author of a new, all-you-need-to- know, pocket-sized guide.
A commission to write a guide to Scotch whisky is something to be coveted; just imagine bottle after bottle am'ving with the post every morning, awaiting your delectation. It's enough to make the accompanying gas bill seem like a mere bubble in a pool of contentment.
As with wine or brandy, the aromas of whisky are best brought out and contained in a balloon-shaped glass.
Charles Maclean was certainly not complaining when his publisher asked him to expand his proposed survey of the oft brushed-over blended whiskies to include single malts, the grands eras of the whisky world. His original intention speaks volumes about Maclean. though — he is certainly a connoisseur. and his enthusiasm for uisge bear/m is irrepressible. But as his book reveals, he is also refreshingly down-to-earth. if people get pleasure from putting Coke or lemonade in their whisky, then who's he to criticise them, is his attitude. As for blends, he says: ‘They are to the malts what bread is to cake — probably what you feel like most of the time; and since 96 per cent
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of whisky drunk is blended, well worth
consideration.’ Signiﬁcantly, apart from his notes on blends, the section Maclean is most proud of is his step by step aid to enjoyment, which he has
F called simply ‘how to enjoy Scotch whisky.’
There is more to this than opening the throat wide, or even sipping steadily. One of the things I discovered, as Charles Maclean sent back the three drams he had ordered for us to compare, is that if you want your money’s worth from your high class malt. don’t drink it in a traditional tumbler. As with wine or brandy. the aromas of whisky are best brought out and contained in a balloon-shaped glass. Another revelation was water. Once you‘ve taken a first tentative sniff (too bold and you risk anaesthetising yourself completely). a dash of water is not a crime, but actually releases the flavours. Most whiskies are diluted to 40 per cent alcohol with water anyway. The only logical reason for drinking it neat is the pungency, bite and viscosity, which some value as much as the ﬂavoun
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As Charles Maclean explains in his book, the variety of different aromas that can be detected from sniffing whiskies. the differences in body and texture in the mouth. the sweetness or astringency on the tongue, and ﬁnally the way flavours change as you swallow and linger afterwards, are all factors determined by tiny departures by individual distilleries from a standard list of ingredients and production method. No two single malts are quite the same. The romantics have it that the character of the water used — to soak the barley and then to dilute it once it has been malted and milled — is the crucial determinant of ﬂavour. But Maclean argues that the wooden barrels that the spirit is matured in for at least three years have more of an impact. These are either used sherry or bourbon barrels or new oak, sometimes charred, depending on the effect the distillery is trying to achieve. There is nothing quintessentially Scottish about these - and yet Maclean says that no one outside Scotland has been able to replicate a Scotch malt whisky.
‘Blonds are to malts what bread is to cake - probably what you feel like most oi the time.’
While he acknowledges that it is very difficult to categorise single malts. Maclean is able to identify certain characteristics that tend to be shared by the products of particular regions. Lowland whiskies are often pale and light, the malty, cereal flavours not overshadowed by peat or sherry; lslay whiskies tend to be strongly ﬂavoured, redolent of peat, smoke, iodine and carbolic, with Laphroaig the most extreme version; those of the
Highlands, including the heartland of whisky production, Speyside, vary enormously. but are more likely to exhibit subtle combinations of herby, ﬂoral, nutty, spicy and even fruity aromas.
No one outside Scotland has been able to replicate a Scotch malt whisky.
One of Maclean’s favourites, and a good example of the heights that can be achieved on Speyside, is Cragganmore. It is clean and fresh, begins dry and finishes sweet; there are distinct elements of peat and sherry and a whole lot more designed to tax the imagination and vocabulary. ‘Pine essence, spices, cider apples, leathery notes’ — they can all be found in Scotch whisky by a trained nose. But anyone would be struck by the contrast between Cragganmore and the famous Macallan, produced just a few miles down n'ver. This is the only single malt matured entirely in sherry barrels. and as Maclean says, it is as full and rich ‘as fruitcake', not so much a play of different tastes this one, as a smooth, all over golden consistency. if anyone needed convincing of the variety of Scotch whisky, these two should do it, and, what's more, they exemplify the wonderful fact that it is all pretty much a matter of personal taste. a matter of enjoyment.
With wines, there is a hierarchy which is not only intimidating, it also means you can end up with a totally duff bottle. With whiskies, one person might argue that this. that or the other malt was too salty. ill-balanced, bland — another might think it sublime, drain his glass and reach for the bottle . . . The Pocket Whisky Book by Charles Maclean, published by Mitchell Beazle y at £7. 99.
88 The November—2 December I993