Saturday, February 1, 2014

I Like Single Malt Scotch

Single Malt Scotch is not only a treasure in its own right, but a metaphor for life as well. However, before we get into that, let's first, look at some etymology. Distilled spirits, in the Middle Ages, were referred to as aqua vitae which is Latin for water of life. A little alcohol does make one feel a bit more lively. So, the name is not surprising. As the Romans penetrated into the British Isles, aqua vitae got translated into Celtic as uisge beatha again water (uisge) of life (beatha). Uisge (pronounced, roughly, as oose-gay) came down to us as whiskey. For reasons that may be obvious to some, but are opaque to me, whiskeys in the British Isle took on names from their countries of origin (Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky) while American whiskeys are named for ingredients such as Bourbon (corn whiskey) and Rye Whiskey. I also have no idea why there is an 'e' in Irish and American Whiskey but no 'e' in Scotch Whisky. 

As distilling evolved, something happened in Scotland that can only be described as magical. As in the valleys of southern France where soil and weather conditions produced grapes ideal for wine making, the raw materials of Scotland produced peat for roasting barley which made it ideal for making scotch. In fairness, I should point out that ideal conditions are not enough. In France it was the vintner's art applied to the ideal grapes which produces extraordinary wines. And in Scotland, it is the distiller's art applied to peat roasted barley which produces extraordinary scotches. 

Following the wine analogy we can see another parallel with scotch.  wines can be varietals or blends. Varietals are usually named after the grape variety from which they are made. So, a Chardonnay is made from Chardonnay grapes where as Pinot Noir is made from pinot noir grapes. If a wine is not named after a grape, it is usually (although not always) a blend. Varietals tend to bring out the flavor of a specific grape more clearly where as blends allow different flavors to compliment each other. Whether a varietal or blend is a superior wine is difficult to say as there are plenty of extraordinary wines as well as clunkers in both categories. This lack of clarity is not usually the case with scotch. 

Scotch is made from malted barley which produces alcohol much like fermented grapes produce alcohol. The process is a bit different but the result, in both cases, is tasty alcohol. And the tastiness is a result of the ingredients and the fermentation process. Scotches follow the same dichotomy that wines follow in that there are single malt scotches (like varietal wines) and blended scotches (like blended wines). Some of the most successful scotches such as Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal are blends. Blending scotches allows the distiller to compliment flavors from various malts in order to produce a more palatable product. But, connoisseurs of scotch nearly always prefer single malts. Why is that?

Single malts provide more intense, unique flavors. Unlike blended scotches where the various flavors round out each other, the flavors in a single malt and well defined and more pronounced. The down side of this is that one must develop a refined pallet in order to really appreciate a good single malt.

The first time I took a sip of Laphroaig (pronounced Lah-froyg) I almost spit it out. It tasted like somebody had taken a mediocre scotch, thrown in a half dozen used cigar butts and let it sit for a week. I was even angry at the person who had recommended it. But, over time as my pallet became more refined, I began to appreciate the complex symphony of flavors. I like the symphony analogy because it a person who had never heard music were to listen to a symphony they would be over whelmed with what would sound to them like a cacophony of random noises. But, over time, as their ear became more refined, they would begin to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the music.

This is how it is with single malt scotches. It takes work to develop a refined palette. But, once you do, the taste experience can only be understood by some one else who has invested the time to develop the necessary refinement. I think single malt scotches are the finest tasting experience on the planet. Granted, I am not entirely objective. There may well be wines that offer a similar experience. But, if there are, I cannot afford them let alone afford enough to develop the refined pallet necessary to enjoy them. So, for my budget, they simply do not exist.

I also said, at the beginning of this post, that single malts are a metaphor for life. As the tired old saying goes, you get out of it what you put into it. But the underlying metaphorical theme here is that most of the great pleasures in life take great effort and refinement to fully enjoy. Think art, opera, theater, culinary delights, and so on, as examples of things that you might not appreciate at first. But, once you learn to appreciate them, you allow yourself profound experiences of joy that cannot be understood by anyone who has not made the effort.

Lest I sound too elitist here, I would also point out that not everyone experiences the same level of appreciation watching a baseball game, horse race, or golf match. Not everyone gets the same level of enjoyment out of a book or a movie. The more you learn about what is to be appreciated by these things the more you will enjoy them.

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