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Issue 5 - Christmas Spirit

Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Christmas Spirit


News that around two thirds of Scotch whisky is now sold during the festive season would be no great surprise to those who invented the drink back in the 15th century. Originally whisky was very much a seasonal brew, distilled after the harvest and drunk until it ran out, hopefully not before the spring. It was a life-preserver against the deadening effects of a Scottish winter, and added an inner glow when all around was damp, dreich and drained of colour.

Today we may be better insulated and have less need of inner warmth, yet we still require help in chasing away the winter blues. And though it sounds like a cliché – to share a dram with friends beside the fire after a brisk walk on a cold winter’s day remains one of life’s undeniable pleasures. Not that you need spend December in the Highlands to indulge – anywhere in the northern hemisphere will do, though you could argue, the colder the better.

This Christmas, the big blended Scotch brands – the likes of Dewar’s, J&B, Johnnie Walker and Ballantine’s, will all be hustling for your attention – so there are bound to be some good deals around. Alternatively, seek out some of the less well-known blends. Two personal favourites are Black Bottle – based on the gloriously full-bodied malt whiskies of Islay, and Bailie Nicol Jarvie, a beautifully balanced blend from Scotland’s east coast.

Beyond these, there are the ‘deluxe’ blends like Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker Black Label whose carefully chosen mix of malt and grain whiskies are matured for at least 12 years in the cask. The end result is that much richer and more complex than you find in standard blends, though of course the olderthe whisky the more expensive it becomes. Scotland’s original national drink was malt whisky, but the taste for it almost disappeared thanks to the success of blended Scotch, which rose to prominence in the late 19th century. For all but a few die-hards and those living close to a distillery, malt whisky was like sex – ‘an invention of the 60s’ to quote the English poet, Philip Larkin. Since their rediscovery, the range of single malts (that is to say whiskies from a specified malt distillery) has boomed. This Christmas you will be spoiled for choice as never before.

Today, all but a handful of Scotland’s 80 or so malt distilleries bottle some of what they produce as single malt whisky. Most need a good decade maturing in a cask – usually in an old bourbon barrel, before they are ready for drinking. Some take that much longer – at Lagavulin on Islay not a drop is put on sale until it is at least 16 years old. But whatever the standard age statement of their main malt, practically every distillery has a range of older expressions on offer.

The latest trend is to finish the maturation process in a cask that contained something other than bourbon, to give the whisky an extra layer of flavour. Thus Glenmorangie, Scotland’s most popular single malt, now comes in a raft of special wood finishes such as Madeira and sherry. Though if you find you like the added sweetness and nutty character derived from an old sherry cask, you should try The Macallan, which spends its whole life in one. Or how about the Glenfiddich Havana Reserve? This exotic variation on the world’s biggest-selling malt is a 21-year-old whisky finished off in an ex-cask of Cuban rum. Sadly this fact means you cannot buy it in the States.

Both The Macallan and Glenfiddich are from Speyside where half the malt whisky in Scotland is made. Over in the west, on the island of Islay, any subtle variations in casks would probably be blown away in a cloud of peat smoke. The use of peat to dry the malting barley gives the malts their famously pungent style, especially in the case of Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Ardbeg. These three neighbouring distilleries on Islay’s southern shore are definitely not for the faint-hearted.

At the other end of the island, you can choose between the luscious, oily Caol Ila and the unpeated Bunnahabhain – the gentlest of all the whiskies on Islay. To the west lies the rich, spicy Bowmore and the wonderfully beguiling Bruichladdich whose various ages will be available as a set of miniatures this Christmas as a possible stocking-filler. Whisky is also distilled on Jura – try the recently released Jura Superstition, a heavily-peated 21- year-old – Mull, home of Tobermory, and the Isle of Skye, where the mighty Talisker sits like a time bomb, waiting to explode in the glass.

Of course, not everyone will appreciate the brooding, smoke-filled intensity of Talisker or even the soothing, heathery flavours of a Perthshire malt like Aberfeldy. Mysterious though it is to me, some people simply don’t like the taste of Scotch and never will. Others prefer it as the base for something sweeter and less fiery.

Scotland’s whisky liqueurs have a long history and are possibly closer to an 18th century concept of whisky. At that time few distillers had the patience or understanding to age whisky properly, even though the new make spirit would have been really rough. So, to soften the blow, a tradition began of adding herbs, dried flowers and sugar or honey.

The most famous of these is Drambuie whose recipe was passed to Captain John Mackinnon of Skye by Bonnie Prince Charlie while on the run after Culloden – or so the story goes. Lately, the Mackinnons, who still run the business, have introduced Drambuie Cream – still based on malt whisky and heather honey, but also with fresh dairy cream. It sounds quite indulgent, though apparently contains just half the fat of its arch rival from Ireland – Bailey’s.

Another liqueur worth trying is the award winning Drumgray Highland Cream from the makers of Tobermory. Alternatively, why not mix your own? One simple, heart-warming cocktail is the Whisky Mac in which you add a measure of ginger wine to a similar measure of Scotch, or the Rob Roy, made with Scotch, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and finished with a cherry. But whatever tickles your fancy this Christmas, if you really want to go native don’t forget the Irn-Bru! This sugary concoction with a curious taste of bubble-gum is Scotland’s answer to Coca-Cola, but with magical properties for the morning after. As any Glaswegian will tell you – it is the ultimate hangover cure.

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