Feel the Scotch burn: Surviving a whisky primer

The smell churns up nausea, and the liquid burns my throat like chili peppers. It conjures up memories of raiding my parents’ liquor cabinet and the evil after-effects of juvenile idiocy. And I didn’t think my tender, newbie palate (or stomach) could handle it, but I actually survived Scotch whisky.

With an impending vacation to Scotland — which makes no wine to speak of — I reluctantly admitted to sampling whisky (for reasons unknown, Americans and Irish insert an "e" before the "y"). This dark, alien spirit sipped in dim, leather-laden lounges seemed something only haughty rich men enjoyed, but the cult called me. Wide-eyed, I plopped down at a Scotch whisky seminar, hosted by kilt-enrobed Jeremy Bell, a burly stand-up-comic-turned-Scotchmaster. Humor made the initiation easier as his sing-song Scottish brogue explained the difference between East coast (sweeter) and West coast (smokier) Scotch whisky — called simply "whisky" in Scotland since there is "no other." With a skewed face reminiscent of eating brussel sprouts, I "nosed" and daintily nipped three different versions, from a 10-year single malt to Chivas Regal blended whisky. Then something magical happened. I learned the taming secret everyone else knew — add water. And it’s not a wimpy cheat — the Scotchmaster encouraged it. A dollop of H2O or a few ice cubes brings out aromas and eases the pungent burn. At least some of it.

Armed with a modicum of knowledge, I confidently entered the hallowed Oban ("O bun" not "o BAN") distillery in the West Highlands of Scotland, our liquid classroom. Oban produces only one whisky, a 14-year single malt. "Single malt" means the whisky comes from one distillery, and "blended" generally indicates a malt and grain whisky combo. Although I’ve heard Scotch snobs proclaim single malt superior, I admit it tastes the same to my numbed, unappreciative palate.

Though I’m vastly oversimplifying, smokier Scotch whisky differs in the process and grain that’s used — primarily malted barley dried over smoldering peat (clumps of decaying vegetation found in Scotland’s wetlands). Then there’s orange peel: Our tour guide told us that contact with the massive copper still gives the Oban version its citrus flavor that I never tasted. Hmm …

Once it’s distilled, the pure, 70-percent Scottish moonshine ages in barrel. One strong sniff of this slightly salty-smelling, newborn whisky revealed how much oak aging adds to the final product — the amber color and essentially all the aromas. I found it interesting that the Scots have used heavy-toasted American Bourbon oak barrels since the early 1900s — an odd nod to the New World. After only three years of aging, the alcohol can officially be called whisky in Scotland, but many distilleries keep it much longer (exact or average age reflected on the bottle). For this reason, it isn’t cheap. In Scotland, I saw a 30-year-old whisky that cost $350. I suppose the wealthy need gifts for their attorneys, right?

Before bottling, whisky producers add water to bring the alcohol down to a more palatable 40-43 percent or "drinking strength." Our $10 tour included a tasting. (I added more water to make it "Taylor drinking strength.") As much as I tried to man up and enjoy it, no can do for this woman. I smelled and tasted charred honey and salt but still felt the burn like bad tequila. And it’s not like Oban is bathtub rot gut (a bottle is $60). Perhaps with more sipping practice and exposure, I can develop a palate for Scotch — or be trashy and add Coke. Or maybe I should turn to the other ancient Celtic beverage — mead — sweeter and easier on my wine-soaked throat.


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