You've no idea how relieved I was to learn that one does
not literally taste Scotch whisky. Tasters of Scotch, or
any other whiskey (there's no "e" in the one from Scot land), smell or "nose" the spirit. Even spitting, in the
way of wine tasting, would blunt the palate, whiskies being so much stronger. My relief had nothing to do with the quality of the whisky being poured by the Scotch Whisky Information Center. It's a personal matter between me and my head. However, after smelling about 20 blends and single malts, I think I may be getting a taste for it after all.
Richard Grindal, of the Scotch Whisky Association in London, led us by the nose through grain whiskies, premium blends and malts. What's the difference? Historically, malts came first by about 15 centuries. They are made from malted barley only and are double-distilled in a copper pot still. Strong and distinctively flavored, they are not recommended for everyday drinking or for warm climates. Their popularity in the Highlands, says Grindal, could have much to do with the protection they afford against a cold, damp climate.
Blends, or grain whiskies, are comparative newcomers, invented in mid-1800s and developed by the the very names we drink today: Johnnie Walker, Bell's, Teacher's, Haig and Dewar's. The secret of each blend remains exactly that, a secret. But the principle is the same. A small amount of malt whisky is blended with grain whisky, made from a mix of malted barley, unmalted barley and corn in a patent or continuous still. The blender's skill is to maintain the same style year after year.
More distinctive, and more expensive, blends use a higher proportion of malts and have longer cask aging. These premium blends include Haig's Pinch, Johnnie Walker's Black, Chivas Regal 12-year-old and Cutty 12.
Grindal prefers to drink his blends with an equal amount of cold water, but he doesn't mind how you drink yours. Scotch-and-lemonade seems to be popular with young women in Britain. He was, however, firm on the subject of single malts and premiums. They should be drunk like a fine cognac, in a snifter after dinner. No ice, no water.
Big Brand Time: The same source (sorry) that brought you Perrier is now selling an Italian wine called Bollini. Developed four years ago by Neil Empson, a Milan-based shipper of fine wines, Bollini has come under the wand of Bruce Nevins, the marketing magician who convinced us that life truly sparkles out of Indian club bottles. Empson and Nevins know that . . .
Today's magic word is chardonnay. Empson had found a supply of inexpensive chardonnay in the Trentino region of northern Italy, where the small growers had been calling it pinot bianco, an error that has been corrected to the advantage of all concerned. Aimed at the American market, 20,000 cases of Bollini's chardonnay were sold last year, and this year's projection is 80,000 cases.
So, a wave of a corkscrew and what do we find? The '82 Chardonnay, at the most acceptable price of $4.99, is okay. There's nothing wrong with it. It's designed to be swallowed smoothly; lightish in body, dry, all-appealing. On the other hand, it doesn't have much character. For my $4.99, I'll take Bollini's '82 Pinot Grigio, DOC Valdadige. It's more interesting: lively and tart, as a grigio should be. But chardonnay's the name and chardonnay's the game for Bollini right now.