absinthe taste test | cocktails with rachel maddow | best home coffee roasters liquid culture
Hello, Gorgeous Discover the World of Scotch Whisky
Zen and the Art of Saké The Secret Life of Speakeasies Georg Riedel’s House of Glass
One week, eight distilleries, and everything you think you know about Scotland and its whisky can change.
Story by CAMPER ENGLISH Photos by DOMINIC AZ BONUCCELLI
Fling IMBIBE january/FEBRUARY 09
I was expecting more mud, I guess.
And soot. When I thought about
Scotland, the landscape that came to mind was the barren, slippery hillsides of Braveheart. Now I find myself in the Highlands, sitting beneath a shady tree in the sunny late afternoon on the grass-covered shore of the famous river Spey, waving to the gillie as the fishermen pack up for the day. I’m on a weeklong press tour of eight different whisky distilleries, and as I get up to wander back to my room in the house depicted on The Macallan’s bottle label, I think that the movies have almost everything about Scotland dead wrong. Almost, but not all: On my first morning in Scotland, four days previous, aside another flowing river on another perfect spring day, I’d gotten an earful of the true-to-cinema fierce protectiveness of the Scottish people. The speaker was Campbell Evans, director of government and consumer affairs for the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), a trade association made up of representatives from most of the major whisky brands. Evans has the tall and hearty commanding presence of a powerful politician—which he is, essentially, because the SWA’s legal recommendations usually become U.K. (and by extension, E.U.) law. Evans gave my tour group a quick introduction to the importance of whisky to Scotland’s economy on the outdoor patio of our hotel before joining us in the mini-bus for part of the trip. He also explained just how carefully the SWA guards its namesake spirit, going so far as to sue any non-scotch that displays tartan, Highland imagery, or even words like “Mac-” or “Glen-” on the label. “We have five lawyers who will sue anyone, anywhere in the world,” he announced. “And they are assiduous, voracious, and have between 60 and 70 court cases ongoing at any one time. Our main priority, as far as our members are concerned, is protecting scotch whisky as a drink that can only come from Scotland.”
Scotch whisky is Scotland’s largest indigenous industry after oil and gas and, barring golf, its most famous export. The industry directly employs two percent of the Scottish population (and many more in retail), exports 2.8 billion British pounds’ worth of whisky to 200 countries (the U.S. is the largest importer) and saw 1.2 million tourists visiting its distilleries last year alone. Scotland’s heritage, industry, whisky and natural environment are so intertwined that, during my travels, I often lose track of which topic we are discussing and who is in charge of what. The stills at The Macallan were depicted on the Bank of Scotland 10-pound note from 1995
IMBIBE january/FEBRUARY 09
to 2007, and the (whisky) Smugglers’ Trails on the Glenlivet Estate are owned by the monarchy-stewarded Crown Trust. The ancient Celts practiced distillation and called their spirit uisge beatha (“Water of Life”), but the first documented record of whisky in Scotland appeared on a tax record in 1494. For the next couple hundred years, distillation techniques improved and sales picked up as whisky became less medicinal and more recreational. But taxation by the Scottish and then English governments in the early 1700s drove most whisky distillation underground for the next 150 years—hence those historic Smugglers’ Trails. Up to 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated each year until 1823, when more reasonable tax laws were passed. The invention of the column still, which allowed for the production of lighter blended whiskies, combined with the phylloxera epidemic that destroyed the wine and brandy industries in France in the 1880s, helped scotch whisky gain popularity throughout the U.K. and beyond. By 1909, a definition of scotch whisky was written into law, and the precursor to the SWA was formed in 1917. Today, the international thirst for whisky—especially in emerging Asian markets—is so huge that many whisky makers are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on new and expanded distilleries and warehouses in Scotland. Behind the scenes, Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya, who in 2007 purchased Whyte and Mackay Company (owner of The Dalmore, among other brands), is trying to pressure the Scottish government to loosen regulations and allow new scotch variants in order to attract younger consumers. He has proposed the SWA allow the sale of flavored scotch, and even patented the technology for diet whisky in the U.S. But Mallya’s attempts seem only to strengthen the SWA’s resolve to protect scotch’s legal and historical definitions. While you can find flavored American whiskey on the market, to the members of the SWA, the word “scotch” is sacred. “We will not see flavored scotch or energy scotch,” says the SWA’s Campbell. “If people wish to drink such drinks, fine, but they are not scotch.”
Campbell Evans of The Scotch Whisky Association works vigilantly to protect the heritage of scotch.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Scotlandâ€™s lush barley fields; barley drying at The Balvenie; barrels outside the Glenmorangie distillery; the stills of Strathisla. 52
IMBIBE january/FEBRUARY 09
What Scotch Is Scotland is home to nearly 100 active distilleries, more than 40 of which are open to the public. Though I’ve been to dozens of other distilleries in other countries, it takes me a few visits before I understand some of the subtleties of the process here in Scotland. Scotch whisky starts with the barley that’s grown all over the countryside. To entice the grain to release sugars that are fermented into alcohol, it is first steeped in water until it’s about to sprout, then dried. The result is called malted barley. At one time, each distillery malted its own barley onsite, spreading it out over a large floor and handturning it with a shovel for several days. Peat, the compressed, partially decayed vegetal matter that forms in wetlands (like a softer version of coal) was burned underneath the malting
Know Your Scotch Single-Malt Scotch Whisky: Distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley without the addition of any other cereals, and by batch distillation in pot stills. Single-Grain Scotch Whisky: Distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley, but possibly with whole grains of other cereals added in. Blended Scotch Whisky: A blend of one or more single-malt scotch whiskies with one or more single-grain scotch whiskies. Blended Malt Scotch Whisky: A blend of single-malt scotch whiskies, distilled at more than one distillery. (This category is often referred to as “vatted malt” or “pure malt.”) Blended Grain Scotch Whisky: A blend of single-grain scotch whiskies, distilled at more than one distillery.
floor to dry out the barley and stop germination. The iconic gray pagodas atop most scotch distilleries are not just an aesthetic choice; they are hoods used to recirculate the hot air and smoke within the barley drying rooms. The malting process is space- and labor-intensive, so only a handful of distilleries still have operating malting floors— and most of them do it primarily as a show for tourists, purchasing outside malt to meet the bulk of their demand. (Only the small Springbank distillery in Campbeltown malts all of its barley on site.) Today most barley is malted at large-scale
facilities that do the work for several brands, which specify the barley variety and peating level, among other things. Though peat is no longer necessary to dry barley (hot air is piped into industrial-sized kilns), it’s still often used to impart a smoky flavor to the barley and resulting whisky. Way back when, all scotch whiskies had an intensely peat-smoke flavor profile, which was diluted with added column-distilled spirits in blended whiskies; today, even some single-malts don’t have any peat smoke at all. Touring eight distilleries, I find the production differences between them fairly minor until I see the still rooms, where the contrasts are more dramatic. The shape of the pot still is considered as essential an element in a new whisky’s flavor as the barley, water and yeast that go into it. Towering stills, such as the ones at Glenmorangie, produce light-bodied, more floral whiskies. Squat stills with shorter necks, like those at Oban, produce heavier, oilier, stronger-flavored spirits. Once distilled, the new-make spirit is aged for a minimum of three years, but usually 10 or more, before being bottled as a single-malt scotch with an age statement on the label. Most scotch is aged in old bourbon barrels, thanks to U.S. laws requiring barrels for bourbon to be used only once. These are sold relatively cheaply to Scotland and other countries for aging. In recent years, many whisky brands (following the success of Glenmorangie’s experiments) have released products aged partially in Port, Madeira, Cognac and other wine and brandy barrels, which impart a little of their former contents’ character into the whisky. These are not considered flavored whiskies, though; they’re usually called “finished” or “additionally matured” in these other casks. Single-malt whiskies—those coming from a single distillery made from 100 percent malted barley—grab much of the public’s attention, yet they account for just 12 percent of scotch whisky sales in the U.S. Most of the rest are blended scotch whiskies, made up of more neutral column-distilled grain (corn, wheat, unmalted barley) spirits plus one or more single-malts to provide depth of flavor. These blended brands also host visitors’ centers, usually located at a single-malt distillery that influences the blend’s flavor profile, such as Chivas’s center at the gorgeous Strathisla distillery in Speyside or the Dewar’s World of Whisky at the Aberfeldy distillery in the Highlands (where I had fun playing with Dewar’s guess-that-smell machine).
Whisky Regions Regional preferences for peating levels are one of the main differentiators between whisky styles of the five appellations in Scotland, though stylistic crossovers are increasingly common. The most heavily peated whiskies generally come
IMBIBE january/FEBRUARY 09
Hulla Baloo Jason Scott calls this drink “a wee cheeky tip o’ the hat to the kitsch classic, the Banana Daiquiri.” 2 oz. Glenfiddich 12 1 oz. fresh banana and cinnamon puree (see below) V oz. fresh lime juice V oz. vanilla sugar syrup (see below) Ice cubes Tools: shaker, strainer Glass: coupe Garnish: 3 overlapping slices of banana Pour all ingredients into shaker and shake rapidly. Double strain into a glass and garnish. To make the puree, blend 1 ripe banana, 2 ounces water and half a barspoon of powdered cinnamon into a smooth consistency. Remember, you can’t taste cinnamon, you can only smell it. The spice is there for aroma only. To make vanilla sugar syrup, combine 1 pound of white granulated sugar, 1 pint of water and 1 split vanilla pod in a saucepan. Bring to boil, remove from heat and allow to cool. Jason Scott, Bramble, Edinburgh
IMBIBE january/FEBRUARY 09
from Islay (pronounced “EYE-luh”), an island off the southwest coast that hosts eight distilleries—including Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Laphroaig—with one more, Port Charlotte, under construction. Nearby in Campbeltown, just three distilleries remain in operation out of the dozens once located there before the area’s economic decline more than 100 years ago, with whisky from this region largely similar to that from Islay. Islay whiskies tend to be pungent with peat smoke, iodine and brine flavors. They are macho scotches, reflecting the rugged landscape, salty air and maritime peat of the island. These whiskies have a cultish following among consumers, and it’s a very big cult. Mainland Scotland is split into the Lowland and Highland regions, with the Speyside appellation a subsection of the northern Highlands along the tributaries to the Spey River. The Lowlands holds five active distilleries (producing whisky often described as sweet, light and gentle), in the Highlands there are more than 30 (these whiskies tend to yield a light smoky or peaty element and flavors ranging from heathery and spicy to fruity) and the Speyside region holds another 50 (with gentle, elegant and refined whiskies). Many of the bestselling whiskies come from Speyside, including Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet. Driving north from Edinburgh in the Lowlands, through the Highlands and Speyside regions, takes a traveler past endless fields of grass and sheep, Highland cattle with blond bangs falling into their eyes, thick forests in dozens of shades of green, and medieval-looking stone villages around every other bend in the road. Castles rise out of earth like storybook images come to life. The differences in climate, vegetation and resulting flavor between maritime and inland whiskies are quite dramatic, but even within smaller regions people wax poetic about how the particular landscape is reflected in the local spirit. Iain Kennedy is a senior global brand director with Bacardi-owned whiskies like Aberfeldy, which sits in what’s sometimes called “the heart of Scotland” in the southernmost slice of the Highlands. That’s where I meet him, and where he gestures as he says, “There is a terroir at these distilleries. The soft, plush rolling hills and fresh clean air can be found in the soft, round, honey taste of the whisky.”
City Sipping Back in Edinburgh, despite my preconceived notions of a sooty, depressing city (once again, I’ve been misinformed by a movie—this time, Trainspotting), I find a mix of magnificent gothic buildings and stylish shopping boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs. Picture Hogwarts Academy mixed with San Diego’s Gaslamp District and you’ve pretty much got it. Continued on p.59
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Olorosoâ€™s Humberto Marques; venison and scotch are a perfect pair at Minmore House; mixing scotch cocktails at Tonic Bar; the back bar at Bramble.
Scotch Mist Sam Kershaw has left his native Scotland for the bustle of New York City, but he crafted this cocktail for Edinburghâ€™s Tonic before he moved. 2 oz. Chivas 12-year-old blended scotch whisky V oz. St. Germain liqueur V oz. maraschino liqueur V oz. honey syrup (honey diluted 1:1 with water) 2 dashes Fee Brothers Barrel Aged Bitters Ice cubes Tools: barspoon, mixing glass, strainer Glass: old fashioned Garnish: orange twist and rye-soaked cherry Stir ingredients in mixing glass, strain into a glass with a large ice cube and garnish. Created by Sam Kershaw for Tonic in Edinburgh
IMBIBE january/FEBRUARY 09
12 Scotches To Try
With more than 40 distilleries open to visitors, deciding which ones to visit can be a tad daunting: Is it like the California wine country in the high season, with overflowing parking lots and packed tasting rooms full of bachlorette weekenders? Thankfully not, say locals. Many visitors’ centers refuse large tour busses, and traffic never gets tight except around the northern tip of Loch Ness. The off-peak months of May and September are better than July or August, as the weather is good but you’ll avoid families vacationing on summer break. Information for most of the distilleries’ hours and prices can be found on scotch-whisky.org.uk. Some distilleries are open for tours by appointment only, so do your homework before getting in the car. • Distilleries offer different levels of tours, with additional tastings for increased admission fees. You may have to make a reservation for a deluxe tour. • A few distilleries, including Bruichladdich and Spring-
bank, offer multiple-day whisky schools where students do everything from harvest peat to select barrels for blending.
• Don’t want to drive? Many single- or multi-day tours (look for ones with low maximum numbers of passengers) are linked from scotlandwhisky.com. • Feis Ile, the Islay Festival of Malt and Music, brings thousands of people to the island at the end of May each year. Hotel rooms sell out early. feis.streamlinenettrial.co.uk • The Spirit of Speyside Festival in 2009 is being extended to 10 days of events in May. spiritofspeyside.com • 2009 is promoted as “Scotland Homecoming Year” for visitors with Scottish heritage in honor of the 250th anniversary of poet Robert Burns’s birth. homecomingscotland2009.com
• With seven distilleries in Speyside’s Dufftown, you can walk to many of them and establish a home base for driving to others. Towns Keith, Rothes and Aberlour are also close by in the Speyside region and surrounded by plenty of distilleries. • The Speyside Cooperage, where they assemble or repair 100,000 casks a year, is worth a stop for its “acorn to cask” exhibit. Tourists can try creating a mini cask or watch the coopers working. • The Macallan hosts the engaging Wood Experience exhibit, showing the types of barrels used, the colors wood can impart, how barrels are made, and the biology of wood interaction with the spirit. • Dewar’s World of Whisky at the Aberfeldy distillery has a nice exhibit on blending, as well as a single-malt distillery tour.
Robin Wood Humberto Marques says he was looking for a spirit to complement the flavor of malt whisky in a drink similar to a Manhattan or Rob Roy, and he found Madeira to be a perfect match. 2 oz. Auchentoshan 10 Year V oz. Madeira V oz. Aperol 1 tsp. Grand Marnier 3 drops orange bitters Ice cubes Tools: barspoon, mixing glass, strainer Glass: cocktail Garnish: orange twist and raisins Stir ingredients in a mixing glass, double strain into a glass and garnish. Created by Humberto Marques for Oloroso in Edinburgh
12 Scotches to Try In the countryside, even the smallest bar seems to have dozens of single-malt whiskies crammed haphazardly onto shelves and carts, which the locals mostly drink neat—a little soda or ginger ale is about as fancy as the mixing gets. Edinburgh is also full of venerable old wood-and-brass pubs serving little more than beer and whisky, but along the busy shopping area on George Street in the New Town district, the ultra-modern cocktail bars and restaurants reflect mixological influences from London and New York. And while the makers of scotch whisky are intensely protective of their native drink, the people and pouring and consuming it in Edinburgh are a cheerfully international lot. “It’s a multi-cultural industry,” says the Australian-born Jason Scott, general manager of Bramble, a basement lounge chosen as one of the U.K.’s best bars by the London-based newspaper The Observer. “We have an Aussie, a Scotsman, an Englishman of Asian descent, a Kiwi and a lass who’s half-Cuban, half-Scot.” Far from diminishing authenticity, argues Scott, his crew’s United Nations flair “keeps things interesting for the punters,” especially since those “punters” are a cosmopolitan lot themselves: Scott says his customers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, tend to be wealthy college students and young financial industry employees from London and other parts of Europe. Portugal-born Humberto Marques has worked in his native country and in the south of France, and he is now a cocktail consultant and the bar manager at Oloroso, a swinging fourth-floor restaurant with fantastic view of Edinburgh. Here, he creates drinks mixed by bartenders whose concentration and precision with droppers, strainers and measurements is either impressive or a sign of neurosis. Either way, the results are heavenly. Such precision cocktail-making is also on display at the tiny bar Tonic, where bartenders outfitted in vests and ties hand-crack ice, use a large selection of bitters, and craft housemade syrups and rye-soaked maraschino cherries to serve in the drinks. On the menu at Tonic and most other cocktail bars in Edinburgh, the vast majority of the drinks on the menu call for white spirits—especially white rum—instead of the local whisky. “[Rum is] a little sweeter than scotch or even bourbon, so I think it’s an easy way out when mixing,” explains Scott. All the scotch cocktails I had in the city were made well, even if there weren’t that many of them, and while mixing with scotch can be challenging, it’s certainly doable. “You just need to know your product,” says Scott. “You have to appreciate the varying flavors from the different regions and distilleries.” There’s yet to be a movie made that can help you do that.
SINGLE-MALTS Ardbeg 10-Year A smoky, peaty scotch with a chewy mouthfeel and a lingering finish. Region: Islay, $$ Auchentoshan 21-Year This refined and balanced single-malt combines notes of fruit, bread and honey. Region: Lowland, $$$$$ The Balvenie 12-Year Double Wood A bourbon-lover’s scotch. Velvety smooth with perfectly balanced layers of vanilla, honey and spice. Region: Speyside, $ BenRiach “Curiositas,” 10-Year Bold peatiness is balanced by softer layers of vanilla and honey. Region: Speyside, $$$ Bowmore 16-Year Wine Cask Matured This peaty yet fruity scotch is aged in both bourbon casks and Bordeaux wine casks. Region: Islay, $$$$$ Edradour Un-Chillfiltered Signatory A full and rich single-malt with layers of caramel and butter. Region: Highland, $$$ Glenfiddich 21-Year Gran Reserva Four months of resting in rum barrels gives this whisky a buttery richness with notes of molasses and coffee and hint of spice. Region: Highland, $$$$$ The Glenlivet Nàdurra 16-Year Robust and herbaceous with a creamy mouthfeel and notes of vanilla and spice. Region: Speyside, $$ The Macallan Fine Oak 15-Year Loads of honey and fruit, particularly ripe banana, mingle in this velvety, balanced scotch. Region: Speyside, $$$ BLENDS Chivas 18-Year This scotch has a lot going on, with layers of fruit, chocolate and toffee and a touch of peat. $$$ Compass Box ASYla A blend of Linkwood, Cameron Bridge and Cambus (the latter two are grain whiskies) resulting in a well-balanced marriage of vanilla, honey and fruit. $ Johnnie Walker Black Label A well-balanced blend with notes of pepper, vanilla and smoke and a smooth, lengthy finish. $ $—$30–$45 $$$$—$81–$100
IMBIBE january/FEBRUARY 09
" World of scotch Whisky" With the participation of Humberto Marques, jason Scott and Sam kershaw