The Education of a Reluctant Whisky Drinker
“The water was not fit to drink. To make it palatable, we had to add whisky. By diligent effort, I learned to like it.” ~ Winston Churchill
In Latin it is aqua vitae. In Gaelic it is uisge beatha. Both have the same meaning: the water of life. Over the centuries the mispronunciation of uisge beatha (oosh’-ge ba’) gradually morphed into the word now known the world over as whisky, specifically, Scotch whisky.
The earliest proof of distillation in Scotland is from a 1494 tax roll showing that one Friar John Cor had enough malt on hand to produce 1,500 bottles of spirits. Back in those days water of death might have been a more accurate term for the potent product of their primitive stills, but by the 16th and 17th centuries considerable scientific advances led to it becoming a medicinal beverage prescribed to preserve and prolong life. It was believed that whisky would relieve colic, palsy and even deadly smallpox. Even in my own native land doctors would prescribe whisky as a medicinal beverage, making it the only alcohol permitted during the Prohibition era of 1920 – 1933.
My introduction to the fabled water of life came when I was seventeen. My family was visiting Scotland and toured a distillery near Glasgow. It was fascinating going behind the scenes, seeing the huge machinery and stills that transformed humble barley grains into single malt Scotch, but I remember few of the details. What I do remember quite clearly is the thrill of excitement I felt knowing that at the end of the tour we were promised a free taste of the finished product. Yes, the real thing. Booze! The legal drinking age back home was twenty-one, so the thought of being served alcohol in public was a heady one. Finally the tour brought us to the tasting room and I eagerly queued up for my free sample.
Picture me, if you will, standing among the adults on the tour, swirling the light amber liquid in my small, sample-sized glass as the others were doing. Previously my wildly exotic fancy drink of choice was a virgin piña colada, but now I was joining the big leagues. Like a cowboy bellying up to the bar in an old Wild West saloon I casually slurped a generous sip. My initial reaction was, hmmm, tastes like cough medicine; then I swallowed. The liquid scorched its way down my oesophagus until the vapours found their way to my lungs and squeezed all the air out of them. Coughing, sputtering, eyes watering, afraid to speak because my mouth and throat had gone numb, I handed my glass to my step-dad with the consummate dignity of an inebriate and staggered outside for some fresh air.
Did people actually pay good money to drink this stuff? Did they drink it just to look cool, because clearly no one could possibly drink it for enjoyment? It was hideous. Give me a virgin piña colada any day over that nasty, noxious potion.
And that was my first taste of Scotch. At the time I vowed it would also be my last.
Eventually my taste buds did mature beyond the realm of piña colada territory. Living in the wine growing region of Eastern Washington for over twenty years expanded my horizons and helped me learn to appreciate and enjoy fine wine, but when it came to hard liquor my tastes remained permanently frozen in time at seventeen. The farthest I was able to stretch was to occasionally drink some Bailey’s Irish Cream, but even that I could only take served over ice and diluted with two-parts extra cream.
Then, the unexpected happened. After being a widow for five years, my mother remarried. My new step-father roared into our lives wearing a T-shirt declaring ‘Old Guys Rule’ and driving a sporty red car with personalized license plates reading: SNGLMLT. The times they were a’ changing, and little did I know it, but my education as a whisky drinker had begun.
Papa G’s favourite tipple was a 12 year old Macallan single malt. On hot summer evenings we came to know the sound of ice cubes landing in the bottom of his favourite glass, followed by the thwook! of the cork being pulled out of the whisky bottle. He told us stories about touring the Malt Whisky Trail in Scotland and sampling the single malts at the distilleries along the way. A happy, reminiscent gleam came into his eyes just thinking about it. He told us about the different nuances of flavour resulting from the water used, the region of production, the type of barrels used in the aging process. He told us that 2% of each barrel evaporates through the wood, which the distilleries refer to as the Angels’ Share. It was Papa G who taught me that single malt means just that – a single batch of malt not blended with any others.
He made it sound much better than I ever remembered it being. Over twenty-five years had passed since my first, revolting taste of the stuff, and I began to consider having another go. One evening I could feel the scratchy tingle of a sore throat coming on and I decided to give whisky’s antiseptic and numbing properties a try. Even if it tasted as horrid as I remembered, at least it might help my poor throat feel better. Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures, so I gave whisky another chance. Perhaps the fact that I gargled it like mouthwash didn’t exactly help – after all, no whisky drinker’s guide advises tossing it back like liquid Nyquil – so I emerged from that little experiment still disliking whisky, but with a greater appreciation for its medicinal qualities.
When Mr. H came to visit, he and Papa G would sit and share a tot together in the evenings. Papa G was in his element then because he actually had someone who could discuss things like smoky and peaty flavours, and nose and finish – someone who cared about such things and didn’t just try to listen and look polite. In fact, so simpatico were those two that when we finally got engaged, instead of rushing off to a jewellery store to buy me a bit of bling for my finger, Mr. H rushed off to a liquor store to buy Papa G a bottle of cask strength Macallan.
(For the record, I went with him to the liquor store and thought it was a fine idea for him to curry favour with his future father-in-law in such a shameless way. We had chosen to not go public with our engagement for a few months until we had the details sorted out, so we were in no hurry to rush out and buy rings.)
Fast forward from our engagement to a cold, damp, miserable winter night a few months after I came to live here. I sat in our sparsely furnished living room wrapped in a blanket, cradling a box of tissues in my lap, no longer caring that I looked like something the cat dragged in. My head was plugged, my throat was burning, my nose was running and my muscles ached. I had a granddaddy of a cold. Mr. H was hovering solicitously. Could he get me anything? Anything at all?
I declined all offers of help stoically and no doubt maddeningly. Finally, Mr. H decided he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He probably just got sick of listening to me moan.
“I’m going to make you a hot toddy,” he said in tones that brooked no arguement, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Too sick to protest, I sat amidst of a sea of used tissues listening to the sounds coming from the other room. My husband has a chemistry degree, and he brings that sort of experimental scientific thinking into the kitchen with him. He eyes the spice cupboard as if he is trying to discover the structure of a new compound, so I sometimes get a little worried when I start hearing lots of noise from that direction. I heard the kettle boiling, a spoon clinking against the sides of a mug, and pictured him adding a dash of this, a sprinkle of that, and a generous glug of something else. If I hadn’t been so ill I would have gone to investigate and make sure he wasn’t putting too much of the ‘real thing’ into my cup.
After a few minutes of suspense he returned bearing two steaming mugs – he’d made himself a toddy, too. He handed mine over, then hovered, watching me take the first sip. It was warm and spicy, slightly sweetened with honey, with the most soothing, rich flavour. This was no liquid Nyquil! The warmth coated my throat and coursed through my veins. It was delicious. By the time I reached the bottom of my cup I was half asleep and feeling better than I had in days.
From that first hot toddy Mr. H made for me I began to see whisky in a new light, and so began my transition from seeing it as purely medicinal to learning to enjoy it for its own sake. My education had begun in earnest. With each new variety I sampled I gradually learned to discern the flavours, some rich and spicy, some smoky and peaty. It was fascinating. At last I could understand why Papa G was so intrigued by it, and why he rhapsodized about the Whisky Trail in Scotland. Tasting whisky in Scotland is like tasting cheese in Cheddar – it’s where it all began, where they perfected the process. It is the ultimate experience for a whisky drinker.
Someday Mr. H and I would like to go to Scotland and sample our favourite single malts at the distilleries where they are made, but until that time comes we do have a tasting experience practically on our back door, so to speak, at the Penderyn Distillery in Wales.
Whisky is not usually something people associate with Wales, although there is a long history of distillation dating back to the Middle Ages. In the 19th century the temperance movement led to the decline and eventual closing down of all legalized production, but in 2000 that all changed when the first distillation once again took place in Wales, and in 2004 the first commercially produced Welsh whisky in a century went on sale.
The Penderyn Distillery is located in the foothills of the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park. Using a unique single copper pot still which removes impurities traditional stills leave behind, their spirit has the highest strength of any malt whisky (92% alcohol by volume). The Penderyn derives its unique ‘style’ from being matured first in hand-selected bourbon barrels, then finished off in Portuguese barriques which have previously been used for Madeira wine. This two-cask maturation process allows the spirit to develop the character and sophistication of a much older whisky. The finished product, diluted with clear Brecon Beacon spring water, is fruity and deliciously smooth.
Last year we sent some sample-sized bottles back home for Papa G to taste. Although none of us particularly care for the smoky flavour of their peated variety, we all agree that the Penderyn Madeira Single Malt is truly one to savour. For those of us living in the Southwest of England, a trip across the border to Wales to visit the Penderyn distillery is highly recommended. It may not be Scotland and the Whisky Trail, but if you like single malt you won’t be disappointed.
And if you don’t like whisky at all (I write this for the sake of certain family members – you know who you are), the Penderyn Distillery is located close to one of the most spectacular waterfall trails in the Brecon Beacons. It’s simple enough to combine a walk to some of the waterfalls with a visit to the distillery. Throw in a picnic lunch and everyone is happy, even the dog.
I am still, at best, a casual whisky drinker. It’s a fun new avenue in life to explore, and something else to share and enjoy with my husband. For me, that’s what makes it special.
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” ~ Mark Twain