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The World of Whisky (part 2)

Part two of our delve into the world of whisky is going to be a bit more wide ranging than part one.

We’re going to look at drinking vessels (obviously), food pairing, cocktails, whisky myths, interesting (hopefully) whisky facts and a few whisky heroes from days gone by.

So, let’s go!

Raise a glass.

Taking a sip and savouring a whisky – the texture, the range of flavours and how they evolve, not to mention the memorable finish – can be such a wonderful experience that our mouths may appear to be the ultimate ‘receptacle’ for the water of life.

That may be. But our palates are in fact fourth in a sequence of significant receptacles. The first is the cask, with whisky developing the majority of its character while aging. Second is the bottle, the style and design of which can certainly heighten our anticipation, and the sense of occasion. And third in line, performing the vital role of conveying the whisky to your taste buds, is the glass.

As we know, the shape and size of a wine glass can drastically alter our brain’s perception of wine and the same is true for whisky. There are hundreds of “specialist” whisky glasses on the market, and whilst aesthetics and personal taste must enter into it, having the right tool for the job is a must. And, as no two whiskies taste the same, different glasses for different types will make all the difference.

But let’s go back in time a bit. For hundreds of years, when preparing for your daily dram, you would have reached for your “quaich”. Derived from the Gaelic word ‘cuach’, meaning ‘cup’, quaichs first appeared during the 16th century. The design resembled a shallow bowl, with lugs (small handles) on either side.

But even the earliest quaichs made a style statement. Fashioning them from different types of wood provided a palette of lighter and darker tones, which could be arranged to create a pattern.

A Laburnam quaich from the mid-19th century.


The next stage of the quaich’s evolution came in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when silversmiths began to embellish them with silver mounts. And in the quest for more impact, quaichs also began to be made from silver.

Some were engraved with lines to give the impression of wood, and so replicate the appearance of their predecessors.

Quaichs played an essential role at social gatherings. On arrival, guests were offered a quaich filled with Scotch whisky, the host proposed a toast, then the whisky was consumed in its entirety (technically a quaichfull, this drinking vessel having developed its own vocabulary). At the end of the evening, quaichs were refilled to provide a parting gesture, with the host once again proposing a toast.

The quaich’s monopoly began to wane during the 19th century, as glass making became more prevalent and glasses themselves became cheaper, with the tumbler then becoming the vessel of choice.

However, the extraordinary growth of interest in single malt whisky since the beginning of the 1990’s (until that time Scotch whisky was essentially all about blends, with only a small number of devotees drinking malts) inspired the most knowledgeable following of any spirit category, with fans eagerly exploring every aspect of the “whisky experience”, including different shaped glasses.

Riedel’s single malt whisky glass, for example, made its debut in 1994, after a request from Campbell Distillers to come up with a glass that would highlight the very special characteristics of single malt whisky. The “elongated thistle shape on a truncated stem” is great for emphasising the creaminess and sweetness of a whisky like Aberfeldy.

However, if I’m being honest, I think the fatter “belly” and taller “chimney” on the Riedel Rum Glasses focuses the aromas better in a peatier Ardbeg or Lagavulin.

Whisky and Food.

Like a good glass of Cabernet, there are some foods that pair wonderfully with whisky, and others that should be completely avoided.

Like wine and food pairing, you should be aware of the tasting notes of your particular whisky before deciding what to eat with it. As whisky tasting notes can be pretty wide ranging, from “light and malty-sweet with pear and vanilla notes” for Glenfiddich Our Original Twelve, to “dark chocolate, tangerines, figs and ginger” for Arran “The Bodega” and even “notes of sea, salt and smoke” for Lagavulin 16, there’s a whisky for almost every bite you take.

A few pointers.

Light Whiskies

Pair with: Seafood and spicy meals.

Light whiskies with notes of sweetness, like most Japanese and American varieties, contrast nicely with spicy dishes so one flavour doesn’t dominate over another, while the hints of tanginess complements fish, especially sushi and sashimi.

Medium Whiskies

Pair with: Proteins. Grilled chicken and gamey proteins such as beef, roasted pork, and lamb fare well with whiskies of moderate or medium intensities, like a good Scotch or Bourbon, because of their smoky, rich flavour notes.

Add a few drops of water to open up the smoky profile and enhance the flavour of the dish.

Full-bodied Whiskies

Pair with: Hearty dishes. The high alcohol content and spiciness of full-bodied whiskies, like a flavourful single malt or rye whiskey, marry well with rich, fatty dishes like grilled salmon or BBQ.

They are also an excellent choice for bitter pairings such as strong cheeses (Roquefort) or dark chocolate.

Whisky Cocktails

Old Fashioned

A traditional whisky cocktail with bitters, soda water and a simple orange garnish. Serve in a tumbler with plenty of ice.

· 2 tsp sugar syrup or 1 tsp granulated sugar
· 1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
· splash of water
· 60ml Scotch whisky or bourbon
· soda water (optional)
· orange slice

The Old Fashioned, still going strong after almost 150 years.

Put the sugar, bitters and water in a small tumbler.

Mix until the sugar dissolves if using granulated.

Fill your glass with ice and stir in the whisky. Add a splash of soda water if you like and mix. Garnish with the orange.

Simple.

Whisky Sour

In a whisky sour, the lemon juice is (almost) as vital as the bourbon. A generous, foamy top is what you're aiming for.

· 100g soft light brown sugar
· 50ml whisky or bourbon
· 25ml lemon juice
· 1 egg white

For sailors in the 1700 and 1800's, a Whiskey Sour was considered the best a man could drink.

Put the sugar and 100ml water in a pan and heat gently, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Cool.

This will make more than you need but will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

Put the whisky, lemon juice, egg white and 25ml of the brown sugar syrup into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously for 15-30 seconds.

Strain into coupe or martini glass and serve.


Irish Coffee

Try experimenting with this decadent, boozy coffee using different spirits like bourbon, cognac, dark rum or amaretto. It's a great way to round off a dinner party, or just as an indulgent treat.

· 50ml Irish whiskey (or use a blended scotch)
· 2 tsp brown sugar
· 150-200ml freshly brewed black coffee
· 50-100ml double cream, chilled
· nutmeg, a generous grating

Yesterday's lunch at Riedel Towers, (slightly messy) Irish Coffee in Riedel Coffee and Nick & Nora Glasses

Fill a glass with hot water and rinse out.

Pour the whiskey into the glass along with the sugar and mix until the sugar has dissolved.

Add the coffee and stir.

Lightly whip the cream until slightly thickened, then very slowly pour the cream over the back of a teaspoon into the glass so that it floats on top of the coffee in a layer.

Grate a little nutmeg on top and serve.

Whisky Myths

Single malts are the purest form of whisky.

If I had a dram for every time I’ve heard a “whisky snob” say that they only drink single malts, as they are “purer” than blends, then I’d be very drunk indeed!

I think that this comes from misunderstanding the naming conventions in whisky, which I’ll admit can be confusing. Single malts come from just one distillery – that’s what the single refers to. But from that distillery a number of casks, in fact a very large number of casks, goes into each batch. They’re all blended together, to ensure there’s consistency to the flavour, but that doesn’t make them a blended whisky.

Older whisky is always better.

Wrong! While older whisky might be rarer, it doesn’t always mean extra flavour. The whisky industry used to market age as a sign of quality, so it’s no surprise many people still think older is synonymous with better. In reality, the only thing that matters is your taste preferences.

Colour is a good indicator of the quality.

Because whisky gets its colour from the cask it’s been aged in, many people believe the darker the whisky, the older – and therefore better. In fact, whisky can legally be artificially coloured to make it more marketable, so watch out for E150a on the bottle, it’s a caramel coloured additive!

It has to be drunk neat.

Another snobbish, outdated attitude towards whisky tasting! There are no set rules. If you enjoy whisky neat, with ice, with a splash of water, with coke, with ginger beer or in a cocktail then that is the best way to drink it. As well as with various mixers and in countless cocktails, I’ve had whisky in marmalade, in shortbread, on haggis, in Christmas pudding, in ice cream… the list is endless! In fact, I just googled “whisky flavoured…” and the suggestions were beer, chocolate, coffee, cake, cigars and condoms!

My grandad’s bottle of Famous Grouse says 8 years old on the label, but he’s had it since the 80’s so it’s probably more like a 40-year-old…

Hmmmm… No. Whisky only ages when it’s in the barrel. It’s the interaction of the liquid with the wooden staves that matures a whisky. Once the liquid is in a glass bottle it can’t mature any further so that bottle of Famous Grouse will only ever be 8 years old.

Interesting Whisky Facts.

·        Approximately 42 bottles of whisky are exported from Scotland every second.

·        Kentucky is home to more barrels of maturing bourbon than people.

·        However, with a population of 5.4 million, and more than 20 million barrels of whisky in store, Scotland has almost four casks of whisky per person.

·        Frank Sinatra was buried with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

·        The co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, demanded whisky on his deathbed but was refused it.

·        John Jameson, the founder of Jameson’s Irish whisky was Scottish.

·        In 1956, Whiskey replaced William in the NATO phonetic alphabet.

·        The average measure of whisky contains just 64 calories – fewer than a banana.

·        Joe Sheridan, a head chef in Foynes, County Limerick claims to have invented and named the Irish Coffee. A group of American passengers disembarked from a Pan Am flying boat on a miserable winter evening in the 1940s, so Sheridan added whiskey to their coffee. When they asked if they were being served Brazilian coffee, Sheridan replied, ‘No, Irish coffee”.

·        When Norman Lamont was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the early 1990s, the Red Box which he waved at photographers outside No 11 Downing Street contained a bottle of Highland Park Whisky, while the Budget speech itself was carried in a plastic bag by his then-aide, William Hague.

·        Iceland is home to just two whisky distilleries, both of which use sheep manure in place of coal/peat as a fuel for kilning barley.

Whisky “Heroes”

Peter Dawson

Peter Dawson was a Scottish whisky maker who was born in 1852 in Glenlivet, Scotland. He was the third generation of his family to be involved in the whisky industry, and he began his career as a grain merchant in 1882. In 1892, he founded Peter Dawson Ltd., a distilling and blending company, which grew to be one of the largest whisky blenders in Scotland.

He was also a pioneer in the marketing of whisky, and he was one of the first to advertise his products in newspapers and magazines.

     

Peter Dawson whisky advert 1948

Peter Dawson whisky advert 1967


The marketing obviously worked, as in 1910 Capt. Robert Falcon Scott chose Peter Dawson’s Towiemore malt whisky as his “whisky of choice” on his ill-fated attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. It was also the “whisky of choice” of Simon Templar, The Saint, in the books by Leslie Charteris.

I have a lot to personally thank Peter Dawson for, as my beautiful other half, Em, is his great-great-great-grandaughter!

John and James Grant

Since the mid-19th century, the label on every bottle of Glen Grant has featured two plaid-clad Highlanders, sitting by a cask and sharing a dram.

The men are the brothers John and James Grant, who founded the distillery.

One of them was a whisky smuggler-turned-distiller who developed an international market for Glen Grant.

The other was a politician who marched in the last clan rising in Scottish history.

John (1797-1864) became a grain dealer, but there wasn’t a lot of grain to deal in: it was a well-known fact that there were hundreds of illicit stills working in the area, and most of the local barley crop was distilled into whisky.

So John’s stated profession was really just a cover – in fact, he made his living as a whisky smuggler.

John bought illicit whisky from his neighbours and sent it south across the hills, in casks slung across the backs of sturdy ponies. He sold it to customers in Perth, Dundee and the small towns along the way, and he was instrumental in establishing the enormous popularity of smuggled ‘Real Glenlivet’ whisky.

The brothers opened The Glen Grant distillery in 1840 with John in sole charge of the distillery’s management. It was an instant success. They began distilling 1,500 gallons of their ‘Glengrant Glenlivet whisky’ each week, and sent a large proportion to their own warehouse in London, but, by 1854, “the produce of the distillery of Glengrant… found its way direct from the distillery to North and South America, Sierra Leone, Gibraltar, the Cape of Good Hope, Bombay, Calcutta, 500 miles up the Ganges, Canton, Hong Kong and Australia”.

Paddy O’Flaherty

Patrick J. O’Flaherty, better known as Paddy, sold what became his namesake whiskey in pubs across Ireland for an incredible four decades, spanning the turn of the 20th century. Magnetic, outgoing and generous, Paddy bought rounds and made friends everywhere he went, always making sure everyone had a great time. Kind and wise, with a good natured, rapier wit, Paddy was always welcomed and was by all accounts universally beloved. 

After 40 years of service, the whiskey he sold took on his name.

When it came to ordering or reordering from Cork Distilleries Company (Paddy’s employers), landlords soon came to ask simply for Paddy’s whiskey, and in 1913 CDC bought the rights to use his name and officially rechristened the brand Paddy.

Initially, the firm used the correct O’Flaherty version of his surname, but ultimately dropped the O in the facsimile signature that appears on the labels.

John Jameson

John Jameson was originally a lawyer, before he opened his distillery in Dublin in 1780. Before founding the distillery, he married Margaret Haig in 1768. She was the eldest daughter of John Haig, who had been producing Scotch whisky since 1720.

What few Irishmen, or women, care to admit though, is that Jameson was actually a Scotsman, born in Alloa.

By the turn of the 19th century, Jameson was the second largest producer in Ireland and one of the largest in the world, producing 1,000,000 gallons annually. Dublin at the time was the centre of world whiskey production. Irish whiskey was the second most popular spirit in the world, after rum, and internationally Jameson had, by 1805 become the world's number one. Today, Jameson is the world's third largest single-distillery whiskey.

Aeneas Coffey

Aeneas Coffey was an Irish inventor and distiller, who is best known for his invention of the Coffey still, a continuous still that revolutionized the production of whiskey.

He was born in Calais, France, in 1780, to Irish parents. He studied at Trinity College Dublin and then worked as a customs and excise officer in Ireland. In this role, he became familiar with the different types of stills that were used to produce whiskey.

In 1822, he patented his continuous still, which was able to produce whiskey more quickly and efficiently than the traditional pot stills and also made it possible to produce whiskey with a more consistent flavour, which made it more appealing to consumers.

Coffey's invention initially met with resistance from the Irish whiskey industry, but it eventually became the standard method of production, and is still used today to produce whiskey all over the world.

In addition to his work on the Coffey still, he also made significant contributions to the science of distillation. He published several papers on the subject and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1830.

 

Well, that’s it, The World of Whisky, on World Whisky Day, well done if you made it this far, you deserve a wee dram!

I’ll leave you with my grandfather’s favourite toast.

May your heart be light and happy,

May your smile be big and wide.

And may your pockets always have a coin or two inside.

For each petal on the shamrock, this brings a wish your way.

Good health, good luck, and happiness for today and every day.

Sláinte Mhaith

 


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