A Wee Tipple on the Lore of Single Malt Scotch

Cara/Andrea here,
CEBOOKMARK  OBAN As some of you may know, I have, by virtue of default, I think, been elected Wench Team Captain of Sports and Spirits (er, no, no—not the rah-rah kind, the intoxicating kind.) This past summer, I laced on my spikes and took you on a walk through the fairways of golf history. But now, as the winter pervades the air here in the Northeast and the  pace slows to celebrate the holidays with family and friends, it seems the perfect time to turn to golf’s 19th hole (for all you non-golfers, that’s the bar) and take a wee tipple into the origins and traditions of Scotland’s national drink—single malt whisky.

Vintage-drawing Uisge Beatha
There’s a great Gaelic bruhahha over who actually invented whisky. Most historians agree it was probably the Irish, as there are 12th century documents making reference to it.  So the Scots merely claim that they perfected the spirit. The earliest mention of distilling in Scotland dates from 1494, when an official record notes that a certain Friar John Cor of Dunfermline purchased malt to make “acquavitae’—which is Latin for water of life.

Scotchpainting In Gaelic, the phrase is “uisge beatha” . . . which somehow turned into “whisky” in English. (No doubt after the speaker had imbibed several glasses of the brew.)  Note that yet another brangling between the Scots and the Irish occurred over spelling. In Scotland, it’s always “whisky” while in Ireland and the rest of the world it’s “whiskey.”

What IS Whisky?

BarleyWhich begs the question of what exactly IS whisky. I’m glad you asked. Many countries make whiskey, but what we’re going to talk about here is “scotch” in its  purest form. To begin with, single malt (We’ll get to that term later) whisky is made from barley—-and only barley. Golden Promise is the the most popular variety, but each individual distillery has its favorite, depending on local growing conditions..

Distillery-1 Earth, Wind & Fire
The grain is soaked in water and allowed to germinate, forming “malt.” (A grain is said to be malted when its core starches covert to sugar.) This malt is then dried over heat—usually oven a peat fire—and ground to a coarse grist, Once again it’s soaked in hot water and yeast is added to ferment it. The resulting alcoholic slush is distilling in pot-shaped copper stills. (Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, so its essence can be concentrated and collected as . . . uisge beatha.

Bowmorebarrels Heart of Oak
Scottish law specifies that “real” scotch must be aged in wooden casks for a minimum of three years within Scotland, but many are, like fine wine, aged for considerably longer. The only wood allowed is oak, and the preferred species are Quercus alba (White American oak) and Quercus robur (European oak.) Single malt distilleries traditionally usually use old sherry or bourbon casks, as the residue of those spirits is said to impart a subtle flavoring to the whisky.

Vintage-photo The Singles Bar
Now that we have the basics down, let’s move on to the fine points. The term “single malt” means that the whisky has to come from the same distillery. (If you look on a label and see “Blended Scotch whisky” that means it a mix of a variety of brews from around the country.) Most distilleries are small because of the hand crafting involved, and their products are very distinctive because of the local ingredients. Water, peat, barley—even the surrounding rocks—affect the taste. On the other hand, blended whisky usually aims to create a uniform flavor from batch to batch.

Pot-still The Art of Malt
Single malt distillers think of themselves as artists, creating a unique work through a magical combination of ingredients, fermentation and aging. All the steps require tweaking and special techniques, which they jealously guard.  Now, you be asking, how different can it be? The answer is—very!

Glenfidd Scotland is a country of varied terrain and microclimates. The coast is flavored by brine and seaweed, the Highlands by granite and peat. Speyside is known for its elegance and refined smokiness while the wind-lashed whisky island of Islay produces sturdy, strong, iodine-tinged brews. Some people are adamant that the rock and soil over which the local water flows influences the taste—marshy land imparts a grassy taste while the sandstone of the northeast creates a firm-bodied whisky.

Map In other words, whisky has much in common with wine, where terroir and temperature affect the regional vintages. I never knew that until I visited Scotland and attended a single malt tasting. It was fun to sample a sip from the different regions—there are close to 200 single malt distilleries!—and the difference among them really is amazing. (Not that I sampled 200. I take my research seriously, but not that seriously. Hey, I have to actually write, not snooze.)

Malt-poster Wee Tipples
The oldest of the modern distilleries date back to the early 1700’s. (Some random facts: Justerini & Justerini, the legendary London wine merchants, first sold whisky in 1779. John Dewar, who started his business in 1806, was the first person to sell whisky in bottles.) The phylloxera bli
ght, which destroyed so many French vineyards in the late 1800’s, helped popularize the spirit outside of Scotland, for along with wine, much of the cognac production was disrupted and people turned to whisky as an alternative.  Today, of course, it is one of the world’s classic spirits, sipped neat or with just a single drop of water to stir the flavors. (Like fine wines, single malts are never served “on the rocks.”)

Glenfiddich1937 Scotch Hot Toddy:
Take a glass and add a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of honey (Scottish heather honey would be best), add a shot of whisky, and fill the glass with very hot or boiling water.

Even better, here’s a recipe for a cake flavored with whisky:

Chocolate Whisky Bundt Cake
Makes 12 to 14 servings

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process) plus 3 T for dusting pan
1 1/2 cups brewed coffee
1/2 cup Scotch whisky
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

1.  Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325ºF. Butter 3 qt. (10”) bundt pan well, then dust with 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, knocking out excess.
2.  Heat coffee, whisky, butter, and remaining cup cocoa powder in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, whisking, until butter is melted. Remove from heat, then add sugar and whisk until dissolved, about 1 minute. Transfer mixture to a large bowl and cool 5 minutes.
3.  While chocolate mixture cools, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together eggs and vanilla in a small bowl, then whisk into cooled chocolate mixture until combined well. Add flour mixture and whisk until just combined (batter will be thin and bubbly). Pour batter into bundt pan and bake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes.
4.  Cool cake completely in pan on a rack, about 2 hours. Loosen cake from pan using tip of a dinner knife, then invert rack over pan and turn cake out onto rack.

Glemorangie I have to admit, I’m not much of a single malt whisky drinker, though once in a while, on a cold winter night, I do sip a glass of Glenmorangie or Balvenie. Do you enjoy a glass of scotch and if so, do you have a favorite single malts? If you don’t drink it, what image comes to mind when you hear the word? I always think of Cary Grant in one of those swanky ‘30s comedies when I think of whisky.

How about any other great whisky recipes?  Please feel free to share—-after all, we’re got lots of holiday baking to do!

Historical Honesty

0003 Funny how things bubble up in the news that reflect something we're already thinking about. I saw an article that touches on what's on my mind again lately, writing-wise … the question of historical accuracy vs. historical honesty in fiction.

Mel Gibson made a new comment on William Wallace, all these years after the film "Braveheart" (1995 – woh, has it been that long??) … he was quoted in the UK news saying that in reality Wallace was not the hero depicted in the film–but a "monster" and a berserker, and that the film was not historically accurate.

Not accurate?! Not too surprising for those interested in medieval history, or for those who've seen the film — the writer and filmmakers made stuff up about Wallace, basically. It's a necessity in creating historical fiction — enhancing the historical record, speculating, extrapolating, obscuring fact or inserting fabrication. And it's a constant dilemma for writers of historical fiction (books or films) — to tweak, or not to tweak?

Braveheart is beautifully done, with enough basic facts in place to powerfully evoke character, emotion, a pulse-pounding story with heroics, complexity, a deeply romantic side and a solid sense of authenticity. It masterfully evokes a historical era and a powerful cause in history.

Wallace sword But Gibson's comment, and the kerfuffle over whether or not the film accurately depicted Wallace's life and times, raises an interesting question. Should we expect total accuracy in a book or a film about a historical subject? Sometimes we do want the facts — and some historical novels provide all the grit and the nasty stuff, the ugly truths, major and minor, the long gaps in the actual timeline, the complexities of history intricately interwoven with the elements of story. These are rich novels and big reads, for the most part. The pitfall in a book like this tends to be pacing, and the risk of information overload.

Sometimes, though, we want a galloping, rollicking good story that informs and entertains –  even if it is history streamlined, dynamic, distilled to its most essential facts and qualities. Historical fiction does not always have to account for every truth in the scope of the subject and the story — it is uniquely capable of evoking and conjuring the past, even if that means taking shortcuts and bending truths here and there.

Lady Macbeth paperback cover I'm a stickler for accuracy in my own historical writing and I will go a far way to make sure the details of what I'm describing are right. But I am not always a stickler for historical truth in every aspect of the book. Story and character come first: I am a novelist before I am a historian. 

Does it matter if the movie was accurate to the real Wallace? We know only a few intriguing facts about Wallace. True, he was probably never the hero in his own day that he's become now. With or without the film, Wallace is half legend in Scottish history.

Braveheart Yet he committed some heinous acts (he flayed the skin from the English treasurer killed at Stirling and made a purse of him; OK, so he had a sense of humor…). It's accurate, but did it belong in the movie? Wallace had his bad moments, but he wasn't a monster – he had good moments, too. As a rebel and a freedom fighter, he initiated an effort that eventually helped liberate the Scots from English oppression at the time. The situation was far more complex than could have been presented in a two-hour film.

There have always been quibbles about "Braveheart" — the kilts aren't right (the kilt we know wasn't worn then, but they were using plaids as cloaks and wraps) and Wallace was more Lowlander than Highlander, so he would have worn chain mail armor as a minor knight rather than a Highlander. Princess Isabella was a child; Wallace was possibly 6'7" (Edward I was 6'6", so of course the Scots claimed Wallace was bigger, yet there is some evidence to support it); the battle of Stirling was fought at a bridge, not on a field; what about that blue face paint…and so on.

My guess is that historical accuracy was never the point of the film in the first place.Christine de pisan There's accuracy. and there's authenticity. A writer often must decide between what will improve the story and what will detract from it. Story must be folded in with facts, but ultimately the result is fiction.

Here's my favorite Mel Gibson/Wallace story… Several years ago in Scotland, I met a historian who had met Mel Gibson during the filming of the movie. This older gentleman did not know who Mel Gibson was as he answered questions about Wallace, Bruce and the Scottish war of independence. He learned that Gibson was making a movie about Wallace, and directing the movie. Then he asked who was playing Wallace, and Gibson answered, "I am."

Wallace_statue The historian paused, looked him up and down, lowered his glasses to the end of his nose, and said tactfully…"Did ye know Wallace was a big man?" 

Ah, but there are camera angles. And there is the skill of evoking. There is authenticity over accuracy. And sometimes we learn more, and find more substance, through characters, plot and emotion than we do with just the facts.

How important is accuracy in historical fiction to you? Is less more in a good historical read — or do you find a detailed read more successful?


P.S. Book giveaway! I'll send an autographed copy of my historically accurate yet judiciously fictionalized novel, LADY MACBETH, to one of the readers of this blog — post a comment and add to the discussion of historical fiction before midnight on Sunday, Nov. 8, and you'll be entered in the drawing!