A Wee Dram of Scotland

Article excerpt

A Scotch drinker's guide to a promised land.

SCOTLAND IS A SMALL COUNTRY," the artist Ian Gray said over drinks at a pub in Edinburgh recently. "Yet wherever I go around the world I find it is incredibly well known for its kilts, its monsters, and its whisky."

For most of us, wearing a kilt would be a fashion faux pas. Nessie is elusive. But an appreciation for fine Scotch whisky is not difficult to acquire.

Scotsmen have been making Scotch for over 500 years, and Scotch can only come from Scotland. There may be no other beverage in the world as intimately linked with a culture, history, and identity as Scotch is with Scotland. And don't discount its economic importance: Scotch is among Scotland's most important products-after North Sea oil, of course. The latest figures released by the Scotch Whisky Association showed exports up 4 percent last year to $4.34 billion.

More Scotch is sold in the United States than in any other country. In second place is France where Scotch is more popular than Cognac. Other parts of the world-Spain, Korea, Taiwan, India, China, and Russia, for example-have been drinking increasing amounts as well. At a posh cocktail party I attended in Sao Paulo, Brazil, not long ago. only two beverages were on offer: South American wine and Scotch whisky.

The word "whisky"-spelled without the "e" unlike Irish and American whiskey-evolved from the Scottish Gaelic uisge beathci, meaning "water of life." That's not an uncommon derivation: I n French, they speak of eau de vie and in Scandinavia of acquavit. Yet I never really understood the concept until a distiller in the Highlands described how, in earlier times, farmers would come in from their fields dead tired, imbibe a "wee dram," and feel miraculously reinvigorated. (A "wee dram" is a small amount; how small is entirely subjective.)

SCOTCHES FALL INTO TWO CATEGORIES: blended whiskies and single malts. Your father's Scotch almost certainly was a blend: think Dewar's White Label or Johnnie Walker Red, brands that combine spirits from as many as 40 Scottish distilleries. Such whiskies are still the most popular and are commonly consumed in cocktails or on the rocks with plenty of soda or water.

But over the past few years, there has been a surge of interest in the single malts: distinctive whiskies made only from barley-no other grains need apply. Each single malt comes from a particular distillery in a particular corner of Scotland. In 1995, only 6.3 million bottles of single malts were consumed in the U.S. Last year, the number was up more than 100 percent to 12.7 million bottles.

Good single malts deserve to be appreciated neat or with just a splash of pure water. Connoisseurs may regard even the addition of ice-which restricts flavor and aroma-as equivalent to wearing earmuffs while listening to a symphony.

The growing appeal of single malts can be seen as a back-to-the-future phenomenon. Generations ago, a Scotsman would drink the whisky made by his local distiller and that was almost always made from barley malt. But beginning in the 1830s, distilleries began to sell their products by the cask to blenders who were using a new kind of still to produce less intense spirits made from a variety of grains.

I don't mean to suggest that a blend is always bland. True, at the low end are blends that are 80 or even 90 percent grain alcohol, flavored with minimal quantities of malt. But there also are premium blends made mostly of malts, with just a little grain whisky added to lighten the taste. Examples would include the Famous Grouse, Scotland's best-selling whisky, Johnnie Walker Black Label, and Chivas Regal. And there are now "vatted malts" such as Johnnie Walker Green Label and Monkey Shoulder that orchestrate several single malts, with not a drop of grain alcohol added.

The enthusiasm these days, however, is for single malts. In the U.S., the best-selling single malt is Glenlivet. …