"A noble spirit," "a soft and mellow liquid," "aqua vitae," "liquid gold"; also "usquebaugh" (pronounced ooku-bey-a); sometimes, less politely, even known as "booze."
It is, of course, Scotch whisky, varieties of which--single malts, vatted malts, grain whiskies and blends--were promoted here yesterday, sniffed, discussed, diluted and, at last, consumed.
Accommodating officials of the Scotch Whisky Information Center poured out the stuff at the Ritz-Carlton for members of the press. It was 11:30 in the morning. Tough reporters lush, but few, save the most hardy, do so before noon.
The promoters made it easy. First of all by offering detailed instructions: "Break the seal, open the bottle and pour a finger of the soft, mellow liquid into a glass. 'Rock it gentle,' warming it with the side of your hand, then sniff the bouquet. Now take a few judicious sips . . ."
While those sips were being sipped, gracious Richard Grindal, the SWIC's executive director--who, so it was claimed, "has drunk more Scotch than any other man alive"--proffered bits of whisky lore. A number were distributed on sheets of whisky-colored paper. Others he provided in his lulling brogue. To wit:
* The tasters in distilleries do not taste the potation. They "nose" it. "If they had to sample 100 casks a day, they would not survive."
* Scotch has been around, oh, for years and years, at least since 1494 when it was first mentioned in the Exchequer Rolls, wherein it is noted that "eight bolls of malt went to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae." (A boll, by the by, is an ancient Scottish measure of not more than 152.4 kilograms.)
* If it's bourbon (or rye or Irish) there's an "e" in the whiskey. If it's Scotch, there isn't.
* Scotch whisky was traditionally aged in barrels that once held sherry. Nowadays, however, it usually is matured in oak casks that previously contained bourbon.
* Grindal doesn't only promote Scotch. He writes mysteries. In longhand. On airplanes. He plots them in the bath. He prefers baths to showers. His latest is called "Death Stalk." He is no fan of Agatha Christie, but admires Raymond Chandler. Grindal often visits the Isle of Jura in the Hebrides. George Orwell wrote "1984" there, but, as far as Grindal knows, the islanders have not planned commemorations.
* "No two brands of Scotch look alike; observe it as you pour. It might be a brilliant topaz or the color of ripe wheat. Some Scotches are pale as citron, others have a mellow tone of amber or a flash of burnished brass."
* Scotch is made of barley and water. That's it. Barley and water. That it is only made in Scotland has a lot to do with the rain and with the peat.
* Dr. Johnson said a Scotsman's best prospect is the road to London.
* "During the Napoleonic Wars, soldiers rubbed their limbs with whisky. Funeral bearers traditionally took five glasses before 'the lifting' and, in some areas, it was customary for wedding guests to wash a new bride with the spirit."
Richard Grindal's predecessors, all gifted Scotch promoters, include Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy, Queen Victoria and Capt. Bill McCoy. Sir Duncan, in 1622, wrote that he'd given certain guests the "best" entertainment, "For they wantit not wine or aqua vitae." Queen Victoria so enjoyed a visit to the Lochnagar distillery near Balmoral Castle that she named its proprietor "Supplier to the Queen by Royal Warrant." McCoy, a bootlegger who smuggled Scotch from Nassau to New York during Prohibition, shipped spirits of such quality that he is remembered in the phrase "The Real McCoy."
There are 129 distilleries in Scotland. Worldwide exports now exceed $1.7 billion annually. Scotch ages in the cask, but once it has been bottled it does not mature.
The Scotch Whisky Information Center is funded by scores of distilleries and shippers.
Would Grindal please name the finest single malt, and the finest blends available in Washington?
"Certainly not," he said.