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.
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.
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?
Which 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..
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.”)
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.
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!