Friday, October 3, 2008

As With Absinth, the Good Stuff has no 'E'

I wrote out the companion article to the previous entry last night, but removed it so that I could clean it up with some editing, as well as remove some of my hostile, intoxicated impressions of a couple other patrons. No reason to list those here; anyone who knows me can probably guess what I said anyway.

So the evening got started: we were issued a little blue ticket (for later drawings) and little strips of paper with four discs on them, underneath which were listed the four scotches we would sample that evening. I was already excited. Several years ago I attended a bourbon tasting hosted by Fred Noe of Jim Beam Bourbon Whiskey, which was a real treat. I've also had the whisky flight of three kinds of Jameson and a shot of Red Breast at the Local, but there was no guided tour there. You get four shots put down in front of you and you quaff at your discretion.

This evening was substantially different than that, than either of those events. Fred Noe did touch upon the history of his distillery and guided us as to what we could expect from what we were about to drink. We had Maker's Mark, Knob Creek, &c., but as I said, this night was quite separate from these events.

Fiona MacNeill heads this show by herself (though sometimes bar own John Dingley helps her pour), and for $25 you get much more than "here's some drinks and an interesting story." She walked over to a large wall map and indicated where each dram's distillery came from. One drink had two flags, which meant that it had been created in one area but the distillery ended up in another. Remember the debate about Speyside? This was opening an entirely new world to me. Maybe my friend Bexley would know about this stuff, but it was definitely new to me.

A once-active blogger and accomplished musician and artist in her own right, Fiona transplanted from Scottish Borders a few years ago and started working at Merlin's Rest last year in June. Troy counted back and calculated that this was the tenth Scotch Flight event--toward the end of the evening I regretted missing the other nine, and not just because of the booze. This was a wealth of information that deeply intrigued me. As for my own heritage, I'm one-half UK and Irish. I've traced my ancestry down a likely path from Briggs to Mackerwithey to nothing less than Clan Ruari, one of six clans of Gallowglass, a source of personal pride for me.

So, Fiona announced we would be assessing each drink based on six criteria: strength, appearance, nose, palate, body, and finish. Jumping the gun, I had thought I'd apply what little I know of wine and tried to assess its legs and bouquet as well. That's just silly: of course scotch has great legs.

I've just decided i'm not going to run down all four scotches. That would be a disservice to Fiona's event: if you want to learn, you should just show up. I'm retaining my notes but will share with you my personal favorite scotch from the evening.

Ardmore: when it was announced this was 56.8% alcohol, the entire room went "Woo!" You'll note that "woo" is something you go, not something you say. A cheer was predictable, but "woo?" Were we no better than a sorority liaison on MTV? At least they didn't say "w00t." I would've walked out right then and there.

Anyway. This Ardmore was single-cask distilled in 1990, and were I a lesser man I would make a joke about women of this age as well, and so I won't. It's a newer brand we were drinking tonight, Fiona indicated, only recently gaining enough momentum to incorporate some kind of graphic design on its label. She described the process of making this scotch: it starts out being aged in an oak cask and then is moved to a quarter-cask, as per the distilling style of the 19th century. This distillery is one of the last to have its own cooperage (barrel-maker), but a scotch can never be made in a first-filled barrel, and this is where it gets interesting. They lease the barrels to Jack Daniels (Tennessee Whiskey (with an 'E')) since...

Actually, this is where I got confused. She said that bourbon can only be made in first-filled barrels, but bourbon can only be made in Kentucky. I have three favorite Kentucky bourbons. Whiskey (Tennessee or otherwise) is not the same thing as bourbon. Oh, wouldn't be funny if this was Scottish retaliation for Americans not knowing the difference between whisky and whiskey! I'll have to ask her about that when I speak to her next.

Anyway, Jack Daniels uses the barrels for their first-filled use, then sends them back to Scotland so they can be used there. I've really got to get my facts straightened out with that story, because it's dead fascinating. Also, this Ardmore distillery is the only one, Fiona reports, to fully use peat, a process common to Laphroaig. I'll have to ask her more about that, too.

The Ardmore dram was a light, pale yellow not unlike a white wine, honestly. It is barrier filtered, rather than chill filtered, and what that means is that more "impurities" will linger in the liquor. They don't taste bad; they give it character and identity, if anything. The only arguably negative effect is that the scotch will turn cloudy when water is introduced, purely an aesthetic consideration. When I added water, however, it didn't seem cloudy in the same sense that absinth or Pernod turn a milky jade or yellow: it just became a little streaked, light was refracted and then it went still again. So it's not even a consideration, as far as I'm concerned.

But here came some more education: why would someone add water to their drink, if not to dilute it? That was my preconceived notion. With scotch whisky, however, it's quite different. You add a couple drops to "expand" the drink, and that's my own misappropriation of the phrase, but I can't think of a better way to describe it. It spreads the smell out, it spreads the flavor out, and it brings different flavors to the fore. It's fascinating! I wonder how much I've missed out on, in my career of drinking scotch, by not adding a couple drops of water.

The Ardmore I found leathery and peaty to the nose, certainly. Fiona described it as "peppery" with an "underlying sweetness." It started out sweet on the tongue but went hot quickly, wow. A couple drops of water only muted the aroma slightly and it brought out the sweetness, but as our hostess indicated the heat builds up on the tongue and doesn't wash off, so further drinking resulted in further heat. That's entertainment value. The finish, therefore, lingers quite a bit and lasts with the more you have to drink. I was afraid to move my tongue afterward.

So yeah, for $25 you get four drams of obscure and classy scotch whisky, some geography, a little history, and homemade shortbread (Fiona baked it herself). If you can ignore the Festies coming down off their seasonal buzz, shouting their advice and corrections in the middle of Fiona's lecture, you're set.

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