Caledonia has contributed more than tartans, kilts and clans, more than Nessie and her loch, more than 12 pipers piping to the civilization of man. Scotland had givin us usquebaugh , "the water of life," scotch whisky.
Scotch whisky is the national beverage of Scotland. It cannot be produced anywhere else in the world. Lord knows they've tried!But, one of the most essential ingredients cannot be transported. That special ingredient is the environment of Scotland; it is just as important as the other three ingredients: water, peat and grain.
The method for making scotch is relatively uncomplicated. Barley is sorted, soaked and sprouted to produce green malt (germinated grain). The green malt is kiln-dried and smoked, then screened and ground into grist (meal). The grist is mixed with water, mashed and soaked, then removed, leaving a saturated liquid called wort, which, when mixed with pure yeast in grand vats, ferments. After fermentation is complete, the wort is called wash, which is first distilled in a pot still, becoming low wine, then re-distilled in a spirit still, where it becomes whisky (140 to 142 proof). Its alcohol content is then lowered to a respectable 124 to 126.8 proof, after which it is put into white oak casks, where it remains until it is bottled, by law, for at least three years, but usually five. Nothing to it, right?
So why, after mastering the terminology, can't I make scotch malt whisky in Rockville?
Lamentably, Rockville has no heaths and moors, and it is in these marshy expanses that the characters of pure malt whiskies are defined, for in these mysterious, chilly swamps peat is formed. Peat -- "After finding Magwitch on the moor, Pip was scolded by his sister for soiling his knickers in the peat. Eusticia Vye kept vigil on the heath, waiting for Wildeve to join her in the glow of her peat fire. Jane Eyre stumbled some 20 miles through one of these fen in her flilght from Mr. Rochester, only to bog down on St. John's doorstep, covered with peat." On the emerald isle, the moor became a Victorian meta-physical conceit. The practical Scots put it to other uses.
The Scots strip-mine their heaths, starting in early spring, gouging in the layer of carbonized vegetable matter, long trenches, harvesting the peat, which naturally filters and softens the "clean brown water of Scotland's streams, lochs and springs. Peat, when dried, has not only warmed for centuries the Celtic hearth. It is peat which fuels the drying kiln. Its smoke swirling around and through the sprouted grain, permeating the green malt with its indigenous, individual essence.
The peat from the islands and coast of Scotland has a particularly strong reek. My awareness of what "peat reek" really means came one morning while I was on Islay. I was having my morning coffee, and it tasted similar to the whisky i had drunk the night befor. The water on this island comes upp through a deep layer of peat which intensely flavors everything it goes into, including coffee. This "clean brown water is used in several steps of the distillation process. This adds a stronger peat reek to Islay whiskies.
Malt scotch is not to be confused with blended scotch. We are, most of us, acquainted with one or two of the nearly 3,000 blends -- Johnny Walker, Dewar's, Teacher's, etc. -- available on today's market. The fact is that most malt whisky is sold to be blended with grain whisky, bottled either in Scotland or the U.S. I belileve, and maintain that the majority of Scots agree with me, that only malt scotch is "true" scotch, because much of the malt's magnificent character is lost when blended with grain whisky.
Spiritually speaking, Scotland is divided into four regions: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Cambeltown, and the isle of Islay.
Combinations of malts from the four separate production regions are called blended or vatted malts -- but a purist prefers to sip a single-malt scotch, a whisky produced from one distiller. The Highland malts come from an area north of an imaginary line running from Greenock to Dundee, and are considered to be the finest, because they are fairly light in body and flavor. Among these are Glenlivet, Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich.Most of Scotland's distilleries are located in the center of the Highland district, along the river Spey.
Lowland malts are produced south of the imaginary line. Only a few of these are marketed as single malts, as most go for blending. While these malts are also light in body, their flavor is less smoky, lending itself more readily to blending. Glen Flagler, the only single malt not named after its producer, is available in the U.S. Most of the grain distilleries, conveniently, are located in the Lowlands.
Only two of Cambeltown's malts are marketed singly -- Springbank, soft, mellow and fragrant -- and Glen Scotia, heavier, with a strong, peaty flavor. m
Islay has a particularly deep layer of peat covering its bogs, and produces, because of this, malts that are quite rich and peaty. One of the most famous of these pungent scotches is Laphroaig.
I did not abandon my exploration when I returned to the States. I found over 25 single malt whiskies of various ages and many vatted malts in the Washington, D.C. area. A ten-year-old single malt should cost approximately $15 per bottle.
Most of the major D.C. liquor stores carry five to ten different single malts. The largest selections of malts can be found at A&A Liquor, Eagle Wine and Liquor and Rex Liquors, which list over 15 different distilleries (depending on current supply). Calvert, Mayflower, MacArthur, Woodley and Morris Miller also carry an expanded malt selection.
One can expect to find only one or two single malts in most of the Washington, D.C., area restaurants; usually Glenlivet or Glenfiddich. The Dubliner Restaurant located near Union Station has the largest selection of malts in the area and is a good place to experiment.Nathan's Restaurant located at the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, NW, also Kramer Book Stores at 1517 Connecticut Ave., NW and 1912 I St., NW have a large selection of malts.
A panel of ten individuals with varying knowledge of malt whiskies participate in a tasting of 12 different malt whiskies (11 single and one vatted). The panel followed a procedure similar to that in the wine tastings conducted at The Post. The identities of the products were concealed until tasting was completed. All of the whiskies tasted were found to be of high quality and excellent clarity, but represented a wide range of colors and aroma.
Cardhu, a malt produced by the same people that make Johnny Walker, was liked by most of the panel. Talisker, from the Isle of Skye, and Laphroaig, from the Isle of Islay, stood our from the other whiskies because of the rich color and deep peaty taste. Springbank, the only Scotch tasted from the Campbeltown area, was also found to have a stronger aroma and taste than that of the central Highlands whisky. Glen Flagler, the only Lowland malt tasted was found to be light, but quite plesant.