Scotch whisky captures the essence of the Highlands

I knew I was in for an experience when I saw literally 900 shots of whisky lined up for the Whisky Tasting Seminar at the 2005 New Hampshire Highland Games held at the Hopkinton Fairgrounds.

I’ve managed to learn a bit about wine, largely as a professional hazard from this column, but whisky was virgin territory for me. John O’Connor from William Grant & Sons and representatives from Martignetti Companies of New Hampshire would be our guides. They would be serving up over 2,700 shots of whisky throughout the Games.

As with so many libations, monks are responsible for the first larger-scale production of whisky back in early Medieval times, although enterprising peat farmers probably had been making and drinking the stuff since time immemorial. Called “acquavitae” (water of life) in Latin, it was known as “uisage beatha” in the Gaelic tongue, then bastardized to “uishgi” and ultimately whisky.

All whiskys have their beginnings in malted barley, which is barley that has been left to germinate before fermentation. It is then roasted and mixed with water and yeast. The resulting fermentation produces alcohol, which is captured in stills through distillation. The nearly pure-alcohol distillate is reduced to a consumable 30 or 40 proof (60 to 80 percent alcohol) with water and aged for at least three years in barrels, either new oak or barrels that previously held sherry or port to impart a unique, subtle taste.

A whisky’s characteristics are a direct result of the type of barley, the region where the barley is grown, the water and the aging process, picking up the terroir, the essence of the Scottish Highlands.

As 150 of us tasters settled into the venue — a long shed not unlike a still house — we were greeted with a pour (thankfully a short one — there were five more whiskys to try) of William Grant’s Blended Scotch Whisky.

A blended scotch differs from a single-malt scotch in two ways. Obviously, a blend has several types of barley malt whiskys, but it also is blended with grain whiskys. A single-malt scotch is just that. If you’ve ever had a wine that is 100 percent of a specific grape varietal versus the typical 85 percent blended with other wine, you know the difference can be profound.

And that was the point. O’Connor wanted us to try a blended whisky as a frame of reference. The William Grant’s was a dependable whisky, with a gentle sweetness of brown sugar, a decent bite and a long finish. I’d use this as a base for some killer cocktails.

Next, we tried Balvenie Doublewood 12-year-old ($41.99, New Hampshire Liquor Commission), a single-malt scotch. The difference was stunning. Balvenie Doublewood is aged first in American oak, then gets a second aging in Spanish oak barrels that previously held sherry. It was very smooth and soft with a mellow nutty sweetness flavored with honey as the sherry notes came through. A gentle heat rounded out the finish. This was one of my favorites of the tasting.

Our third whisky of the afternoon was Glenfiddich Solera Reserve 15-year-old ($40.99, NHLC). This whisky is aged in European oak, American bourbon and Spanish sherry casks in a four-chambered contraption called a “solera” made of pine from Oregon. Portions are drawn off and subsequently flow into the cask immediately beneath imparting layers of flavors. I found its flavor more spicy than the Doublewood, with a much stronger and longer finish.

The Balvenie Single Barrel 15-year-old ($49.99, NHLC) is aged in a single bourbon cask from a single distillation. It is so special each cask is considered a “limited edition” and bottles are hand-numbered. This whisky had a wonderful vanilla flavor and an oakiness on par with some wines.

Glenfiddich Ancient Reserve 18-year-old ($47.99, NHLC) is aged in barrels that held Oloroso sherry and American bourbon for longer than many marriages. The result is a supremely mellow whisky, very smooth, and has a sweetness reminiscent of the sherry. This was my other favorite of the day, confirming me as a scotch drinker.

Our last scotch was the Balvenie Portwood 21-year-old ($74.99, NHLC). Like a college student entering graduate school, this whisky does its first 20 years in bourbon barrels then matriculates its final year in vintage port casks to take on a certain sophistication. The longer aging leads to a darker amber color, setting it apart from younger, more golden-hued whiskys. It was very smooth, almost silky, with the honey notes for which Balvenie is known.

By the time we tasters got to the 21-year-old, the crowd was pretty ebullient and singing the 259th rendition of the weekend of “Scotland the Brave.” Still, one hearty soul, Todd McGeehan of Somersworth, was coherent enough to tell me that the Solera was his favorite for its complex flavor.

After concluding our whisky tasting, it was on to try the haggis … but that’s another column.

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