Spirit in the Sky: Usquebaugh revisited

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“…When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best. When I lay me down to die, goin’ up to the Spirit in the Sky. Goin’ up to the Spirit in the Sky.”


Greetings and welcome back to bonny Scotland, where the rain continues to fall. Not always, mind you, but enough to keep you from putting that raincoat away. There’s no point in complaining about it, though, as it could be worse (Atlanta anyone?), and really, there’s little sympathy for someone traveling overseas. So, I take my rain like a swarthy Scot, and look on the “bright side” of things – there’s always the whisky here.

Suffice to say, I’ve become a passionate fan of whisky. Before coming here, I found most whiskeys to be barely tolerable at best, and just brutal at worst. “Why not just keep this stuff in your medicine cabinet and use it as antiseptic?,” I’d ponder. I mean, really, aside from the old drunks in the bars, the occasional testosterone-induced session of  “SHOTS! SHOTS! SHOTS!”,  and the lone cowboy who throws back his red-eye before unleashing hell in the saloon, who was actually drinking this stuff?


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Another type of Hell – unleashed.


Like most things intense and out of the ordinary, whisky is an acquired taste. Think about the first time you smelled and tasted truffles. You can’t tell me that you were like, “Mmmm… poop.” No, you had to give this new flavor some good thought, consider the layers of taste, aroma, and lingering sensations on your palate. And in time, you probably grew to appreciate, even love this flavor. I know I have. Such is the case now with Scotch and myself. But it’s not only the subtle flavors and intense aromas that I’ve fallen for. The mystique and romance behind this elixir have also won me over.

*    *    *

In its own land, whisky is a philosophy, a mystique, an embodiment of primary elements recognisable in the earth and the people.”

Alastair M. Dunnett, Land of Scotch, 1953.

I started to research the term “spirits” before writing this post, hoping to get some insight on this mystique. One of the more interesting tidbits I came across was the fact that the word for spirit and breath are often one and the same. In Sanskrit it’s prana. In Hebrew, ruach. In Greek, pneuma. And in Latin, spiritus. And of course, to “respire” is to breath and breath again. So how did alcoholic beverages like whisky become linked to these meanings?

One idea is the concept of the spirit as a moving entity. The ancients would see how certain liquids would evaporate and ascend into the air, thus associating this movement with “spirits”. The alchemists would often be called to conjure up certain spirits with their chemistry, and blame those same spirits when the poor sucker who actually drank the stuff behaved badly.

Whatever “essence” you decide to tag onto alcohol, you have to admit how fitting – and ironic – religious notions are when considering alcoholic beverages. Clearly, the key steps in distillation are when evaporation and condensation occur. That is, when the essence or spirit of the liquid is released and then caught again in order to return it to its watery state. It really is a magical process worthy of lure and legend.


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Scottish terroir?

And then there’s the land with all its fields of barley, rivers, hills, and sea lochs. More than postcard pretty, they all play their part in creating Scotch, and some would argue, the main reason why this type of whisky trumps all others. Does all that rain I bitch about result in superior barley? Doubtful. But you can’t deny the fact that the combination of rain, seawater, earth elements like peat, heather, and of course, barley all add to up to an incredible display of natural – and maybe supernatural – wonder.

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My latest endeavor into the world of single malt Scotch is a “double cask matured” 12 year Speyside from Aberlour. And oh, is it a beauty.  Hailing from the highlands, this whisky was first aged in traditional oak (likely American bourbon) and then again in Oloroso sherry casks. The result? Mmm-mmm, good. Imagine smelling warm pecan pie drizzled with warm caramel, sprinkled with orange peel, and topped off with a splash of peach nectar. The mouth-feel is creamy and rich up front, toasty and nutty in the mid-palate, and spicy (mint?) and intense on the finish.

There seems to be a trend for many single malt producers to age or “finish” some of their whiskeys in casks that previously held things like port, Bordeaux wines, and most commonly, sherry. It’s not exactly a purist version of single malt Scotch, but I gotta tell ya’, the flavors and aromas they pick up from this type of finishing is out of this world. And for a rookie like me, the power and heat behind whisky, even something as superb as a fine single malt, can stand a little muting from the wood it ages in.

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I’m not a particularly religious person, and I hope this post doesn’t evoke blasphemy to those who are. But there’s something truly ethereal about this drink, and no that’s not just the 43% alcohol talking. In fact, as I take another sip from my dram, I’d have to admit, I’ve been filled by the holy spirit.

With warm, dry thoughts from a cool, wet land.

Jared



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~ by Jared on August 18, 2009.

6 Responses to “Spirit in the Sky: Usquebaugh revisited”

  1. That’s a dangerous religion to worship, brother! :o) The Oloroso casks make me excited, yu-um!

  2. A lovely post. I appreciate that you’re literally getting to the soul of Scotch.
    I tried Dalwhinnie 15 yr old this last weekend. Also a highland. Very smooth and tasty. I’ll get some for you when you return.

    • Well done, my friend! A 15 yr Dalwhinnie, eh? My whisky bible tells me that the term Dalwhinnie means “meeting place” in Gaelic. A sign of things to come? Surely…

  3. I love the bottle! I have three of them I have saved and use to put a lone tropical flower in! That is the Aberlour of course! I once had Dalwhinnie 15 yr old in Vegas at the Lucky Lady for $1.50 would you believe!!!! It was a special – I almost fell off my stool! We were allowed only one drink and let me tell you I savored every last drop!!!

  4. “Lucky Lady” is right… 😉

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