Zen and the Art of Scotch

Miranda Grant is enthusiastic about whisky. At last December’s whisky auction in Edinburgh, a bottle of 55-year-old Glenfiddich was sold for just under £47,000. For Miranda, who runs Bonhams auction house in Edinburgh, it was very satisfactory. She enjoys a dram as much as the next Scotswoman, but she did not taste that particular whisky.
However, the price pointed to the extraordinary rise in Scotch whisky connoisseurship that now embraces not only the traditional markets of the United Kingdom and western Europe, but India, China and elsewhere in the Far East. Russia is joining in, with Moscow and St Petersburg becoming increasingly important cities on the world whisky map.

What is about Scotch that makes it so special? To some extent, the answer is the same as the answer to the question of what makes champagne stand out among other wines. Scotch is special because of its name. It is, as the expression goes, the real McCoy. Other countries can produce whisky, and even England has now got in on the act, making a product that has been fairly favourably received by whisky enthusiasts. But it is not Scotch, just as the excellent sparkling wines that Australia and the south of England produce are not champagne. What they lack is mystique, and that also plays a major part in Scotch whisky’s reputation. That mystique is also sufficiently important to keep a team of Edinburgh lawyers busy, ready to sue anyone, anywhere in the world, who starts to deck their South American or Indian whisky in tartan or call it a Scottish-sounding name.

Of course, it is not all smoke and mirrors. Scotch whisky has a particular taste and nose that makes it readily distinguishable from other whiskies. The origin of  these qualities is one that is the subject of constant debate among connoisseurs. It is not just the water — indeed, there is a view that the water does not play a major part. Certainly, the water used to make Scotch, taken from Highland burns, is unsullied by the sort of pollution that one might find in rivers running through more heavily populated places, but that is not in itself enough to give a whisky its distinctive taste.

The real flavours come in at the stage of maturation of the spirits in the wooden casks that must, by law, be made of oak. These will have once been used for the making of bourbon or sherry and will impart flavour to the maturing Scotch. During that stage, though, other factors will play a part, including even the air of the place in which the whisky is being stored. As anyone who has visited the Highlands will know, there is a particular quality to the air. It has the sea in its breath, and seaweed, and heather, and the coconut smell of gorse, and sometimes a hint of peat smoke. All of that counts just as much, perhaps, as the shape of the great copper stills in which whisky is  distilled, or the quality of the barley used in its manufacture.

At the end of this process, Scotch whisky will be taken from the casks, bottled, and given a name. Most of it will be sold in a blended form, in which whisky from several distilleries is mixed. These are the whiskies that are known not by the name of their distillery but by some sort of trade name. These can be general, knockabout whiskies sold in bars, but they can also be very good, and expensive — Johnnie Walker’s Jubilee Blend will cost you over £100,000 a bottle. The precise mixture is important, and the person in charge of keeping it consistent is called the blender or, better yet, the nose. Noses ensure that a brand keeps its taste over the years, by remembering its characteristics and, importantly, remembering how to achieve them.

Another sort of nose is the expert who conducts whisky nosings, the equivalent of wine tasting. The doyen of these experts is Charles Maclean, an award-winning whisky writer who travels all over the world talking about his passion for Scotch. In a warm and accessible manner, Charlie exemplifies the difference between the world of whisky connoisseurship and its wine equivalent. Wine enthusiasts tend to resent accusations of snobbery — and one can sympathise with them in that — but there still seems to hang about the wine world a whiff of pretension and exclusivity. An agreeable little wine, with a strong note of blackberries, long in the finish etc may be a parody of wine language, but it does exist and it is sometimes difficult to listen to such descriptions with an entirely straight face.

In contrast, the language that Charlie, like other whisky noses, uses is robust. I have been at nosings conducted by him where he described the whisky as tasting of wet straw or, on one memorable occasion, having notes that should remind one of the inside of one’s grandfather’s old Rover. That is a long way from the language used in a refined wine tasting. Sometimes, of course, the Zen of Scotch simply requires silence, as no words will suffice to describe its beatific effect.

The robust nature of the world of Scotch whisky is also underlined by Charlie’s openness to different ways of enjoying the drink. He stresses that there are rules for appreciating the subtlety of whisky, but for personal appreciation ‘do what you like’ is the gist.

You can add water and ice to your heart’s content, although Charlie will point out that this changes the drinking experience. Water brings out different features of a whisky, and ice may close down its taste a little. But if that’s what you want, then that’s what you should do. And if you want to add Coca-Cola, as some people have been known to do? Charlie’s moustache bristles, but only slightly. Once again, it’s up to you. I wouldn’t be inclined to suggest that at a wine tasting, of course. That, I think, would be disagreeable and would lead, one might imagine, to a distinctly short finish.