In search of the perfect Whisky

A TRIP TO SCOTLAND, whether to golf at St. Andrews, hunt grouse and blackcock in the Highlands, or fish for wild salmon on the River Spey, is not complete without a dram of whisky. Drinking whisky is as much a part of Scottish life as the national passion for soccer or fondness for strong, black tea – almost any occasion calls for a dram.

An early morning fishing trip might start off with a snifter of Talisker. Or, if you’re lucky enough to catch the start of the salmon fishing season on the River Spey, you’ll enjoy a dram of Glenfarclas before the ritual pouring of the rest of the bottle into the river accompanied by the stirring sound of bagpipes. But with more than 80 distilleries and hundreds of bottlings, finding a favorite single malt can be challenging.

It’s helpful to know that there are five basic whisky-producing regions in Scotland – Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown – and that a single malt must be the product of one Scottish distillery and matured in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. Whisky, unlike wine, is not technically influenced by terroir (the subtle changes in land and climate that affect grape harvests).

Stylistic differences within the same regions, sometimes between distilleries less than a mile apart, are proof that somewhere between malting barley and aging in oak, something akin to alchemy takes place.

“There’s some unknown in the distilling process that makes it fascinating,” says Master of Whisky for Diageo Tom Turner. “Last year, we were at a distillery with chemists in Scotland, who told us they could isolate all the properties in Oban. They told us ‘this particle makes the honey flavor and this particle gives the salt.’ But at the end of the day, when they put them all together, it tasted nothing like a whisky. It tasted like chemicals. What makes whisky taste like whisky is a mystery.”

That “unknown” is something that Scottish distillers take seriously, even reproducing dents and scratches in new copper stills, for example, just in case they affect the character of the spirit.

“We’ll monitor the new still carefully to get the same amount of vapor and reflux and maintain the character of the whisky,” says Dalwhinnie Distillery manager Donald Stirling. “Maintaining the character and the nuances of the whisky is what’s crucial.”

High above the tiny village of Newtonmore, though, the whitewashed walls and pagoda turrets of Dalwhinnie Distillery serve as a beacon to thirsty travelers on the Whisky Trail. And with a following of dedicated malters devoted to the light, clean taste of this “gentle spirit,” no one wants to take chances on any change in character.

But it’s helpful to the novice drinker to lay aside superstition and stylistic differences, and instead make sweeping generalizations about the regions and their styles.

The Highlands and Speyside, for example, where more than half of Scotland’s distilleries are located, produce whisky that is elegant and light, commonly with a hint of smoke. Lowland whiskies are generally without the influence of coastal brine or Highland peatiness, and in Campbeltown, where there were once 30 active distilleries, you’ll find smoke and salt, and effortless craftsmanship at work in the highly regarded Springbank.

But it’s on the island of Islay, where much of Scotland’s whisky is produced, that it’s easiest to see the relationship among whisky, land and sea.

Off the west coast of Scotland, accessible only by ferry or plane, the tiny island is home to eight distilleries, including Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bow-more and Kilchoman, a privately owned farm distillery that started production in 2005.

Islay smells like whisky. Or rather it smells like the elements that make its whiskies unique. The sweet, nutty fragrance of malted barley mixed with yeast from the island’s bakery and brine from the ocean salt spray hang in the air, and as you walk the narrow, single-lane streets breathing in the muggy scent of hedgerows, peat and wild grass, it’s easy to see why this island produces some of the greatest whisky in the world. Ferocious waves that batter against distillery walls in winter, fertile land perfect for growing grain, lochs and rivers filled with soft, clear, pure water and fields of thick, tarry peat create an unparalleled environment in which to distill.

From the intensely peaty, salty Laphroaig to the smoky, full-bodied flavors of Lagavulin or the light, sweet fruit of Caol Ila, Islay whiskies are an outstanding example of the complexities to be found in each bottle of whisky.

“You find the influence of this island everywhere,” says master distiller Jim McEwan, a native Ileach and the man responsible for the resurgence of Bruichladdich Distillery. “And what’s more, you’ll find generations of people here who’ve worked their entire lives at the same distillery.”

For those in search of less dramatic whisky than those found on Islay, Highland Park, from the Isle of Skye, provides possibly the most complete balance of sweetness and smoke. Unlike 95 percent of Scotland’s whisky, Highland Park is aged in sherry oak barrels, not the bourbon barrels used by almost all other distillers.

“We like to think that we achieve a classic balance of what Scotland’s whisky is all about,” says Highland Park’s Martin Daraz, who adds that any of the great distilleries are a good place to start.

“The important thing when starting out with scotch,” he says, “is to have something of great quality in your glass.”

Highland Park should certainly be in any serious collection. It currently holds the World Whisky Awards title as “Best Whisky in the World.”

“One of the great things about whisky is that as people start to drink, there’s an understanding that scotch is as complex and as individual as understanding wine,” says Daraz.

For those who can’t wait to start the journey, local wine stores such as Tamura’s, Fujioka’s Wine Times, R. Field Wine Company and The Wine Stop have impressive whisky collections as well.

HOW TO TASTE SINGLE MALTS

START LIGHT

Start with a Lowland malt, moving up through Speyside, into the highlands and then over to islay, where the heavier, peatier malts are produced.

FIND THE RIGHT GLASS

toss your crystal tumbler and invest in a snifter – a tulip-shaped glass. riedel has an excellent glass, and the Whisky Connoisseur glass is considered by some to be the best on the market today (available at www.wilsonandmorgan.com).

BREATHE SLOWLY

the nose can pick up 10 or more aromas, so breathe and inhale the whisky before you drink.

Sip, then “chew.”

ADD WATER

add a splash of water to open up the alcohol molecules and soften any harshness.

LEAVE OUT THE ICE

go ahead and add one ice cube if you must, but do not serve a single malt on the rocks. you’ll close up the flavors and compromise the Whisky.

Jo McGarry was born and raised in St. Andrew, Scotland. She has been writing about whisky since 1992, and conducts whisky seminars and tastings in Honolulu.