Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Highland Whisky



Last month I had the pleasure of attending a Highland festival outside of Portland, OR. I don't know why, but every time I think of all things Scottish I get a Scottish accent in my head. Maybe it's from growing up with Scotty snarling, "I canno' do it, Captain!" and then proceeding to do whatever it was he 'canno' do!' It's the wee pictsies that make me want to say things like, "Ay, Laddie!" and "I'll take a dram of that peaty nectar, if you dunna mind, my bonnie Lass!" and "Hoot, Man!" though I don't know exactly what makes hooting Scottish. I guess all owls are just Scots.

Well, so. Down to business. The festival was at a community college which provided plenty of space indoor for book sales and wool tartans and shortbread. Outside there were stages for kilt clad pipers and heavenly harpers and singers with the voice God gave them and the lochs and the valleys and the dew on the daisies perfected. And games. And motor cycles. And beautiful Celtic artwork on wool, glass, and silver. And not too few blistering red heads like the morning dew on fire or the sea at the end of the day ablaze.

Did I say I wasn't going to pretend to be Robert Burns or something? Sorry.

Kristin reserved us a whisky tasting session that day. For those of you who don't know, whisky means scotch. It just does. It's a particular brand of fire water made with real fire. And smoke. And something you dig out of a swamp, but we'll get to that later. Whisky=Scotch. That is all.

Our master of ceremony was a man with a snow white beard and hair that looked phenomenally like John Hammond from Jurassic Park. You know, the guy blending million year old genes with frog DNA like that was a good idea? Well, this guy just blended whisky. And it was a good idea. He was a retired surgeon who liked, no, loved, whisky. "Nothing better than a dollop of a single malt first thing in the morning," he said. "When the pallet is pure!" Glad he didn't operate on me. Or maybe not. He owns a restaurant in Portland that has a specialty of, of course, whisky.

So, we had our IDs checked and our tickets validated by the Highland Police. And we were ushered into the pavilion by friendly Scots in Kilts. We grabbed a few seats by the front. On the table were five glasses of whisky plus a couple of beer. There was a little pot of something in the middle that might have been crackers. It turned out to be barley, the bringer of our bounty.

So, Dr. Jurassic talked about whisky. From the fundamentals. Whisky is made from beer. That's right! Beer. And beer is made from barley. And barley is a grain that the good Lord gave to us and said, "There! Let's see what you can make of that!" Some people made bread. How boring.

Barley, like all seeds, is a time capsule. It contains information like those gold records placed on the Voyager capsules they sent out into space in the seventies. Remember those? They contained voices and sounds from earth and were supposed to show aliens with 1950's sound technology what we sounded like? Very outwardly thinking. But seeds contain more than that. They contain the machinery to take that information, act on some raw material, and make another living organism like the one that first created it. Thankfully, nature produces many more seeds then necessary each year so we can use some of them and still have plenty to make next year's crop. How clever.

So what do we do with the surplus? Well, we soak the seeds in water so they think spring is here and start to sprout. This is called malt. Malted barley is barley that has begun to grow. Why do we do this? Because the seed is a compressed living packet, almost like the freeze dried foods sent aboard the space flights to the moon. But in this case, the compression involves turning sugar into starch. Starch is an extremely dense source of energy but must be unpacked into sugars to be of any use as a fuel. When the seed germinates, enzymes start hacking the starch up into sugar.

And who loves sugar? Yeast!

But we don't want the sugars to keep being metabolized into a new plant, so as soon as the barley seeds sprout, we want them to stop. We do that with muck from the bottom of a bog. It's called peat and it is half way between kindling and coal. It's just plants, bog plants, that have lived and produced their own seeds and died and sunk to the bottom of the bog where it was too acidic for other living things to eat them so they just compressed together, like another seed full of energy. Thousands of years packed into each foot.

And now somebody came around with an incense pot and some cake of something burning! It was peat. Well, that's OK, I guess. When are we going to drink our whisky?

Mr. Jurassic Park was really getting into this. I was eyeing my five shots and two chasers and wondering when the history and chemistry lessons would end. In a nutshell, the rest of the process is this. They burn peat and filter the smoke through the malted barley. It dries out and absorbs all the peaty goodness from the fire and smoke. It is then ground up, added to water, and brewed into beer. The beer is then distilled into a liquid with alcohol and leftover stuff from the mash. Sometimes it's distilled twice. Sometimes even three times. The end.

There. Can we drink the whisky now?

FINALLY he got around to tasting. But not before getting around to technique. "Take the glass with the wee gram of whisky..." Yes, yes? "Hold it to your nose..." OK. "Sniff the bouquet..." Got it. Bouquet sniffed. "Sniff with each nostril..." Huh? What the Kilt? Either nostril's as good as the other, Pal. "Go back and forth, sensing the different aromas..." Oh, for... Now you're just making things up. "And now go ahead and take a sip..." Finally! "And hold it on your tongue and mouth for as many seconds as the whisky is old..." What? I want to drink it, not grow old with it!

So that was a good whisky. I must admit sensing it like that gave a pleasant experience. And the first sip was actually different from the next. Complete with the, how old is this? Ten years? OK, so I'll swish it around in my mouth for ten seconds. Time well spent.

Dr. Dinosaur talked about aging. And casks. It seems that the Scottish distillers really like American Bourbon. Bourbon is made from corn, I think. Yah. Corn squeezins stored in white oak barrels for ever so the booze can go back and forth into the wood and suck out the life force or whatever. I think it's sugar, actually. Oh, and they toast the inside of the barrels, too. I wonder if they use peat like with the malt? That would be cool. Jack Daniels, take note!

Can we taste the next pour?

OK. How old is this? Twelve years! I can't wait that long. Looks about four to me.

And have a sip of beer because this whisky was made from this style of beer. Only eight years ago. Hmm. Sweet. You know, this whisky tastes like this beer if this beer had been turned into this whisky! I'm getting the hang of this.

So. A barrel that has one hundred year old whisky in it soaking in the mash of the distillate that is called a, what, now? What do they call the stuff that comes out of the still? It can't be whisky yet because it's not whisky until it's sat on your tongue for twelve years. OK. It's the bog water. And the Pictsies push peat ashes back and forth between the starches until they are no longer Tang on the moon. Got it. Can I swallow this hootch now?

Taste another dram. Don't forget to let the gold record play on an alien turntable for the rest of your life.

What was Dr. Demento saying? And these hors d'oeuvre are crunchy. Should have served shortbread and thistles.

This scotch is nice. It's made somewhere in America where they stole our oak and burned it into sugar at the bottom of a bog. You've got to taste it since 1776 to really get drunk. Otherwise it turns into malted milk.

And if the barrels are full of bourbon juice it only takes four years to make a twelve year old scotch but only if you blend it with triple distilled Tang.

And it's whisky, not scotch, ye British Guineas guzzling, Hadrian's wall building, country crashing, hooters! Or is that the Irish?

Ach. Let's get some Haggis.

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