The man with the whisky bottle kept filling my glass. I was thrilled; a 14 year-old drinking alcohol for the first time. It was a synagogue party and I had discovered the joy of sponge cake and scotch. Ultimately, this was not a good combination, as I staggered home drunk – or as we called it in Glasgow, legless. This was my first hangover and it turned me off scotch for about nine years.
In 1971 I moved to Israel and a Scottish friend reintroduced me to the stuff – this time a single malt whisky. (This friend, I subsequently found out, used to be a Mossad agent. But that’s beside the point.) It was a bottle of 18-year-old Glenfarclas, cask strength, and it was delicious. Thus started my journey into the wonderful world of single malts. After that whenever I travelled to Scotland, to the chagrin of my wife, I visited a different distillery. This story is just one small part of my lifelong exploration of uisge beatha, the water of life.
Most Scotch whisky is foul tasting. Right off the still it is disgusting, and after a few years in the barrel it is usually horrible and only worthy of blending. A man called Andrew Usher and his brother John are credited with making blended whisky palatable. Their blend was a mixture of malt whiskies from Glenlivet and Royal Brackla, plus some other nondescript malt and about two-thirds grain whisky. They were not the first to make blended whisky, but they were the most successful. Making this rotgut drinkable put scotch on the world map.
Whisky is basically made from distilled beer. You malt (germinate) some barley, chop it up, add hot water and yeast, and let it ferment for a while. You take that “beer,” run it through the still, and voila, you have…? It’s not whisky. It’s really moonshine. Stick it in various types of used oak barrels, and pray it tastes good at the end.
To tell the truth, it’s not really as haphazard as that. Now that a few large companies make it they have found a way of standardizing their product. For instance, after germination, when the enzymes and sugars are released, heat is applied to stop this process. In the old days, burning peat, which was the cheapest-available heat source in Scotland, did this. When peat burns, a lot of smoke is created and this smoke would often penetrate the barley and affect the flavor. Thus each batch was slightly different from the previous one. This artisanal effect made trying newer bottlings most interesting (similar to comparing vintages in French wine).
Most of the distilleries in Islay in those days did their own malting but now they have the Port Ellen Maltings, a one-stop shop for seven of the eight distilleries on the island. The individual distilleries instruct the factory how many phenols they want. (Phenols are the compounds in the peat smoke that impart the smoky aromas and flavors.) This ensures a consistent amount of “smokiness” to the barley and thus a consistent taste. This tinkers with the “terroir” and, even though the whiskies still tend to be good, I feel something is lost in this standardization.
Malt whisky was the only whisky made before the invention of the patent still. Somehow, through luck and later, skill, some of the distillers started making and bottling single malt whisky that was drinkable. And that’s the best part of this tale.
The best way to experience scotch is to go to Islay yourself – go to Laphraoig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. The flight from Glasgow is short, and the plane is filled with locals. This is a small island, and these three distilleries are about a mile apart from each other. They all use similar barley and water, the climate is the same, and their whiskey barrel warehouses are all buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean; yet, their whiskies taste totally different. When I’ve visited, the only immediate difference I could discern was the shape of the stills. I learnt later that most distilleries are superstitious about the shape of their individual stills and when they have to replace them, they re-create them exactly: bashes, dents and all.
I like the whiskies that Laphraoig makes. Their-10 year-old is the most popular but I find it rather raw and unfinished. (Although its ubiquity makes it perfectly acceptable in an emergency.) On the other hand, the 15 and 18 years are superb. But my all time favorite whisky is Lagavulin 16-year-old. It has intensity and a complexity that is rivaled only by fine cognacs and armagnacs. It is so peaty, salty and seaweed-y that it is not for everyone, especially novices. But, once you arrive there, hopefully after a lifetime of tasting, you will understand what I mean.
Ardbeg make very peaty whiskies. The one that I liked the best, ‘The Beist,” is now no longer available. Some of the others are very popular but not to my taste.
I visited the island in 2012 and the French company Remy-Cointreau had just purchased the Bruichladdich distillery. I noticed that they had casks from Chateau d’Yquem and also some used burgundy barrels – not the standard bourbon or sherry barrels. The investment in making malt whisky is enormous. You have to wait years before the product is drinkable. This can be eight or 10, 12 or even 15 years; in fact, you can’t even call it whisky before it is three years old. So there is an enormous push among distillers to produce what they call “New Style Whisky,” or, young whisky that is made drinkable. Bruichladdich have a bunch of them and they do this by putting the distillate in non-traditional barrels and hoping the flavors of the casks soften the harshness of the raw spirit. As somewhat of a traditionalist, I so far have not tasted any that I like.
Bowmore is also in Islay, and its distillery is cool. It sits in the center of the town of Bowmore and abuts the banks of Loch Indaal. It is over 200 years old and is the oldest on the island. The owners built a leisure center and swimming pool adjacent to the distillery, and gave it to the local municipality for free. The waste heat from the still warms the waters of the pool. Very ecological! Their whiskies are tasty but again, in my opinion, the younger ones are unfinished and have a slight afterburn. I would start at the 15-year-old and work upwards.
Once, on touring the facility, I noticed that they had a bottle of whisky on sale for 1,000 pounds (approx. $1,400). I queried my guide and he said, “We advertised it for 500 pounds and no one bought it. This year we doubled the price to 1,000 pounds and we sold three bottles.”
When I think back to that drunken day in 1961 I realize that I have been a lover of whisky for almost 50 years.
This romance started in earnest when I brought a bottle of malt whisky to my very first hi-fi show. It was an 18-year-old Macallan. In those days (over 30 years ago) it was affordable and rather unknown. (Now a bottle costs in excess of $200, which in my opinion is overpriced by $100.) This started a trend and to every show I have attended I bring a bottle or two. I now judge the efficacy of a show in which I exhibit by the amount of bottles we serve. A good show is eight bottles and an even better one is 10.
This generosity has caused some problems over the years.
One morning, Sam Tellig of Stereophile fame visited my booth where he drank more than one shot of whisky. He then went to lunch and shared a bottle of wine with his host. That afternoon he attended an “ask the writers seminar” and being drunk, made a real fool of himself. That evening a memo was sent out to all the staff at Stereophile.
“No writer is allowed to visit Roy Hall’s booth before five in the evening,”
Every few years I return to Scotland and stay with my old friend Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn Products. More than once we have sat down with a good bottle of malt and reminisced. It’s a funny thing, but in sharing these special moments, even though the bottle is usually empty at the end, neither of us is ever drunk.