Uisge beatha.


Edinburgh on a beautiful spring afternoon.

Greetings and excellent cheer to you all. I affectionately write to you from the city of Edinburgh. And what a city. Huge castles, stately mansions, historic walkways, people from all over the world. Incredible. And the whisky’s pretty good too.

May is whisky month in Scotland, and so I’ve tried to make it a point to explore the “water of life”, Scotland’s best-known export. The really good news is that I knew absolutely nothing about “Scotch” before I crossed the pond.  Why is this good news? Well it’s always a great thing to be introduced to something different, whether it be whiskey, wine, or brussel sprouts (ew).  So get your dram ready and let’s all have a wee nip, shall we?

First stop: Glasgow, The Whisky Shop.  A slick, comprehensive and very impressive retail company, The Whisky Shop is the U.K.’s largest retailer of single-malt whiskey. Just so were clear here, “whisky” as I will be referring to it in these posts is SINGLE MALT only, or whisky made in one, single distillery. I figured I would get some good advice and some even better whisky at this shop. But first, a quick and crude primer on what exactly a single malt Scotch is.

“Whisky” is the alcoholic beverage we have all up-chucked from at some point in our lives. It is made by fermenting some type of grain (rye, corn, barley) and distilling this to reach a certain level of purity and alcohol. Although not quite as historic as wine production, whisky production can be dated to the 6th century. Apparently people were puking from shots of this back then too. Whisky gets it golden/amber color (and some aromas and subtle flavors) from the wooden casks it is aged in. If you want to geek out some more concerning the many, many fine details concerning whisky fermentation and distillation, e-mail me and we can chat about washbacks, mash turns, kettle stills, types of cooperage, and so on.

“Scotch” as those outside of Scotland call it, is made from malted barley. The malting, wherein the harvested barley is soaked in water in order to germinate and then dried at a particular point to stop germination, is key here. This malting process ultimately gives Scottish whisky it’s distinct flavor and style. Very cool stuff…

I went to TWS (ha-ha, more acronyms…) and spoke with the guys there about the different whisky regions in Scotland and how this effects the final product. They kept harping on water. Water, water, water. This is a big factor in differentiating lowland from highland to island (actually there is a movement now to eliminate all “island” region distinctions in favor of just “Islay”, one single island.) There is enough romantic, poetic, GUSHING about the distilleries water sources to fill a large book. Reminds me of wine-speak and terroir. Another factor, and definitely a more obvious one, would be the way in which the malted barley is dried; should the barley be dried over peat fires, well there you have it! “…this whisky has strong aromas of smoke and peat.” Ya think?


The goods. Brought home from TWS.

The gentlemen at TWS allowed me to sip the difference between a classic highland single malt and one from Islay. Now there are many ways I could describe what I smelt, tasted, and felt afterwards. Pam, are you out there? I didn’t drive home, promise. But I think the very best way to do this is to refer to……(Nerd alert1) The Lord of the Rings. Yes, that is correct. I will now describe and analyze two single malt whiskeys using the wonderful world of J.R.R. Tolkein.

The first, a highland whisky, and more specifically, a Speyside single malt, was light, ethereal, almost mystical in it’s sweet, floral qualities. Clearly this was made by the elves, and maybe even by the Lady Galadriel herself. There were aromas of vanilla wafer, pear, orange blossom… really complex stuff and barely any “kick” on the finish. I could almost drink this with a nice seafood dish.

And then there was the single malt from Islay (pronounced EYE-la). On Islay, the distilleries are known for using liberal amounts of peat-smoked barley, and thus take on a more aggressive and intense quality. The guy who was pouring my samples began to smile as he handed me my taste. Imagine, if you will, taking a sip of whisky, and suddenly all the lights go dim, a dark, sinister music fills the air, steam rises, FLAMES are all around. It’s… a BALROG! Yes, this is what I called the demon whisky. Straight from the bowels of middle earth and sent to destroy your palate. (Nerd alert2) Remember when Gandalf faces the balrog on the bridge and yells “You shall not pass”? Well that was my throat. I tried to play it off cool and just exhale deeply afterwards. My eyes watered and my mouth was scorched by the demon. The guys in the shopped laughed and mutterd something in Gaelic/Mordor.


Jared vs. an Islay single malt

And you know what? A few days later, I wanted that whisky again. It was so full of dark, roasted notes of tobacco and peat smoke, it just blew me away. There were complex and alluring flavors there underneath all that devilry, and I had to try it again. And I did. And others. I’ll report more next time as I detail some of my distillery visits in the highlands– and islands.

Until then, beware but don’t be too afraid of the the dark. It’s usually more fun there…

Slàinte mhath!



~ by Jared on May 28, 2009.

6 Responses to “Uisge beatha.”

  1. Now, why am I not surprised you used The Lord of the Rings to compare whiskey. It makes me wonder what other things you have used this model/scale for? women? shoes? stationery?

    • Women: definitely. I’ve always been turned on by chicks with pointy ears.

      Shoes: yes. Although hobbits have The Best shoe style– None.

      Stationery: hmmmm… Not… that I know of… although the secret scrolls concerning the war of the ring, recorded by the Numenorean kings of old is pretty cool. Parchment of some sort. Brownish, weathered, and dusty. Like me!

  2. Auchentoshan Scotch is one of my favorite scotches!!!

  3. Haven’t tried them- although I recognize that label…
    They’re actually right between where I am and Glasgow, so I’ll be passing by them a lot this summer. Which means you know what.



  4. must try highland, sounds tasty but do you think it’d go with a cigar?


    • g-man,

      The Glengarioch single malt you have is indeed a highland whisky. And judging by the pics of us, stogie in one hand, glass of this in the other, you already know the answer…

      Now you need to find yourself a small bottle of a single malt from Islay- Bowmore, Laphroaig, or Caol Ila.



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