Arthur J A Bell
Part One (A to L) of this article can be found at Whisky Alphabet A to L. The graphics below are via Wikimedia.
If you've worked you way from A - K, dear reader, you'll by now have worked up a thirst for the rest of the alphabet. So here we start with the most distinct individual whisky in the world…
L is for Laphroiag. The most heavily peated whisky widely available is distilled in the most beautiful site on the seashore of Islay. Founded by Alex and Donald Johnston in 1815, after three generations it passed into the hands of Miss Bessie Williamson, who had joined the business as a temporary typist! Now part of Giant Allied Domecq, it is a fierce windswept seaside whisky, just bursting with wondrous bouquets of peat, and full of flavour. Dare you try it?
M is for MacAllan. Often referred to as "The Rolls Royce of whiskies" this comes from Craigellachie in Speyside. Now owned by Highland Distillers PLC it was until a few years ago owned by a family, and the chairman was a Hollywood Oscar winning screenwriter. Rich and full, it is full of sherry flavours, always being matured in old sherry barrels, and has lots of fruit in the taste. The perfect after dinner dram!
O is for "On The Rocks." - This is a term not much used in its native Scotland, but widely practised in warmer climes. Whisky should be drunk as you like it, and as a purist who only adds a dash of spring water myself, I'm not used to the clunk of ice in my tumbler of malt! But go ahead if you like it, as long as you're a consenting adult.
P is for Peat. When the water flows off the mountains down to the distilleries it often runs through peat, thus adding character to the whisky. Then peat is cut and burned to help germinate and malt the barley, which is to be fermented. The amount of peat smoke used at this stage affects the flavour. Particularly peaty malts are made on the islands, and Highland Park, Caol Ila, Ardbeg, Talisker, not forgetting Laphroaig above and Lagavulin, are the best examples.
Q is for Quaich. This ancient whisky-drinking vessel is nowadays usually made in pewter or silver. Originally it was turned out of wood, and as it has two handles, was often passed round for communal drinking. Early in the 17th century craftsmen took the basic vessel and started decorating it with bone and silver. 'The Keepers of the Quaich' is a highly prestigious association of grandees who wish to keep up the lore and traditions of Scotch Whisky.
R is for Rosebank. A distillery on the less than salubrious Forth & Clyde canal, it is now closed. However the distillation from Falkirk, near to where the Carron cannons used at Waterloo and Trafalgar were cast, is superb. A lowland whisky, it can be very pale indeed, whilst on the nose it has sweet toffee tones. You'll find some honey flavours in it although it finishes with a dry perfume flavour. Whichever accountant decided to close this deserves to be sent to Kosovo or Rwanda!
S is for Springbank. At the turn of the century there were over thirty distilleries in Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre. Today only two, of which this is one, remain. Built by a farmer called Mitchell in 1828, it is still run by his descendants. Their product is supremely smooth and light. You find traces of sea-saltiness combining delicately with sweetness in it. Wherever you find yourself in a bar in the world and you spot this, don't miss it. But don't be like my wife in Waterloo. There she consumed a huge measure in a tall glass, thought it was watered as it went down so gently, had another, and found difficulty with her legs thereafter!
T is for Teachers. One of the world's most famous blends it was developed by a Glasgow grocer, William Teacher. His blend was one of the reasons his business expanded to 18 shops by the 1850's,while today over 2 million cases a year are shipped bearing his name. Largely Highland and Speyside in character it boasts of its creaminess and its well rounded smoothness.
U is for Uisge beatha.(pronounced oos-kay-ba). This Gaelic expression means "Water of Life", and the word "whisky" is derived from it. The word can be traced as far back as the mid 13thC in Ireland, and Dr Johnson in his first English Dictionary used it to describe " a compound distilled spirit, being drawn on aromatics…in Scottish they call it whisky."
V is for Vat. The most famous use of the word for a wooden storage vessel for whisky was when one William Sanderson made up lots of different vats, mixing different whiskies, numbered them, and all his friends agreed the best was Vat 69! Vatting or mixing different malts to develop new flavours, bouquets, and taste sensations can be great fun!
W has to be for Water. This essential element explains why everyone from Japan to India, from Australia to Oregon tries and fails to reproduce Scotch. Billions of tonnes of the stuff fall on old Caledonia, it then flows through rocks such as granite, picking up mineral traces, over peat and through mossy meadows, till it reaches a distillery dam, or bursts up through a spring or a well. It cannot be reproduced anywhere, by any chemist! I've tried whiskies distilled over the road from each other, with water from different sources, and they've been quite different. You are allowed to dilute your dram a little with this natural product, but make sure it's not fizzy please.
X is for Excise Duty - the tax paid by distillers (and ultimately the consumer) on all alcohol produced by a distillery. Adam Smith wrote: "It has for some time past been the policy of Great Britain to discourage the consumption of spirituous liquors, on account of their supposed tendency to ruin the health and to corrupt the morals of the common people." Samuel Johnson on the other hand was less supportive in his 1755 dictionary: "EXCI'SE. n.s. ... A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid."
Y is for Yeast. When the water is mashed with the ground malted barley (grist) and heated, it then goes into a huge wooden container called a washback. Here the natural yeast IS the alchemy, as it ferments what is a basic brew into an alcoholic drink (that sounds better! ed.). When the British Government during World War 1 thought about bringing in Prohibition, it was quickly scuppered by the distillers threatening not to produce yeast, and thus destroying the bread baking production! "Nae Whusky...nae breed!"
Z…bet you thought you had me there. No it's not an honourable Japanese blend called 'Zen', as drunk by all the best Bhuddist monks. Z is for "ZING". That's the wonderful sensation on the sides of your tongue as you start to taste a particularly fine malt whisky. And there's so many of them you'd better start now!
Any reader who is particularly interested in the A _Z would enjoy "Whisky" by Gavin Smith, now published in paperback by Neil Wilson Publishing of Glasgow. It's a full encyclopaedia of terms used in the making and enjoying of the world's finest spirit, but it does not contain a guide to different distilleries.
Return to Index of articles on Whisky by the Whisky Connoisseur, Arthur J A Bell
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