Getting to the source of whisky and other culinary delights
May 6, 1999
By Chris Rubin
(CNN) -- "Whisky waiting to be made."
That's what the Scots call rain, fog and mist, and I encounter plenty of the latent stuff, as well as the actual liquor itself, on my recent trip to Scotland.
I can find a perfectly good selection of Scotch at virtually any bar in my hometown, Los Angeles, California. So why did I undertake the lengthy, arduous trip to Scotland to sample some?
I was pursuing the notion that most food and drink tastes better closest to its home. So I flew first into London's Heathrow airport, then on to Glasgow, and later a succession of smaller flights to remote Scottish towns, the places where Scotch whisky (without the "e") as the locals call it, is made.
The flight aboard a twin-prop 38 seater to Islay, due west of Glasgow, brings me face to face with too much whisky waiting to be made. The plane flies through heavy clouds and fog straight into a storm, the bumpy kind of flight that makes me wonder why men ever thought it sane to leave the ground.
Finally, I see the island as the plane swings in low over a warehouse, "Laphroaig" painted in huge letters on its side, before descending into an airport so small that the pilot has to execute a U-turn at the end of the runway to taxi up to the terminal.
Heather, low-slung and purple, blooms along the roads, as does whin, a yellow-flowering scraggly bush, and broom, a sweet-smelling yellow flower. Sheep (many of them black faced) and cows outnumber people on this island by a margin of 10 to one, but the few locals I meet not only have charming, if thick, accents, but are unusually friendly and warm. A few animals wander carelessly across the roads, or stop to graze, their rear ends jutting dangerously into the highway.
Woolly, prehistoric-looking horned creatures, highland cattle, are the most interesting of the local livestock inhabiting the vast brown and green fields.
Islay, which draws 40,000 visitors annually, has three policemen for its 3,000 residents. The population has been declining due to lack of employment, and the island doesn't offer many opportunities -- or much excitement -- for the young. But many successful businessmen, writers and artists have recently relocated here to take advantage of the isolation, enjoying the absence of malls, billboards and general 20th century noise.
Islay is one of Scotland's four whisky-producing regions (along with Highlands, Lowlands and Campbeltown), known for the smoky quality of its liquor, owing to the burning of peat -- local soil of partially carbonized vegetable matter -- to dry the grain that combines with water and yeast to create whisky. Though only water, malted barley and yeast are used to make whisky, individual brands vary wildly in taste and complexity, even within the same region.
Single malt whiskies, made without the addition of grain whisky, much like 100 percent agave tequilas are made without the addition of other alcohols, are like a solo musician compared to a band -- quirky and individualistic. Perhaps that's why they account for only 10 percent of whisky sales, as many drinkers prefer the sometimes smoother, more consistent flavor of blends, which include the Johnnie Walker Red, Black and Blue labels, as well as Ballantine's, Famous Grouse and Chivas Regal.
A whisky primer: From the bottle to the source
Flavors and aromas in whiskies can include sweet, smoky, spicy, honey, brine, tar, cured leather and even cured meats; connoisseurs claim the best-tasting whiskies are found only among the single malts.
The word "whisky" is a corruption of the Gaelic phrase "uisgebeatha," meaning "water of life," and the way the stuff is consumed here, it might as well be water itself. A "wee dram" (a small shot) seems to accompany most things, whether a bit of shortbread, a snack, a meal or a smoke.
A "gentleman's measure" is a significantly larger dose -- and presumably saves a gentleman the embarrassment of having to ask for a second serving too quickly. Another important Gaelic word in these parts, "slainthe" (pronounced slange), is the equivalent of "cheers."
Most of the distilleries are open to visitors, and Laphroaig welcomes a group of us visitors with a free tour and tasting. The process of making whisky doesn't vary much from place to place, though it is the minor changes that account for different flavors. Barley is soaked in water and left out to germinate. The process is stopped -- before roots and leaves begin to grow -- by drying the grain. Some distilleries use coal, while Laphroaig and a few others burn peat, the fragrant local soil, which imbues the grain with smoky flavors.
Once dry, the grain is cracked, ground and then fermented in giant tanks with the addition of yeast, and the resulting "wort," with its funky smell, is more or less beer. This low-alcohol product is then twice distilled and aged in oak barrels for several years or more, at which point it acquires the characteristics that make it undeniably Scotch whisky.
Laphroaig general manager Iain Henderson explains to our group that five key elements affect the final product: the water supply, whether peat is used, the size and shape of the distillation vessel, the type of cask in which the whisky is aged, and the location of the distillery and its warehouse.
At Laphroaig, we are shown samples of peat, barley and the barrels in which the whisky ages. Prince Charles gave a Royal Warrant to this distillery, and one of the pair of casks presented to him, graced with his signature, is on display in the warehouse.
Sightseeing, sampling the local cuisine
There's more to this region than just whisky, so I detour to the Islay Woolen Mills to look at local fine fabrics. The mill dates from 1883, but buildings have occupied this land since 1500. The present owner has been called upon to make clothes for films including "Braveheart" and "Far & Away," and he just recently made tweeds for the Emperor of Japan, whose daughter came into the store. He sells everything from blankets to jackets to trousers, and I purchase a luxurious black cashmere scarf for about $20.
After a meal of oysters, seafood stew and local lamb at the nautically themed Harbour Inn, I retreat to the nearby Lochside Hotel, a small two-star property famous for its 400-plus bottles of whisky, where I sip and compare a tiny fraction of the bar's offerings while locals shoot pool and play video games and darts.
Traveling from Islay to Orkney, the northernmost part of Scotland, I fly over dozens of miniature islands, one like a perfect golf hole, lushly covered in grass, maybe a par four in length, before landing at Kirkwall, the largest town on Orkney's main island. From my bare-bones hotel, I have a stunning view of Scapa Flow, a waterway that figured prominently in World War II when a German U-boat sank the "HMS Royal Oak," taking the lives of hundreds of soldiers.
Churchill Barriers, connecting several islands, was erected from stones, each weighing five to 10 tons, to keep the Germans out of this area during the war, but they also serve as bridges allowing easy travel from one part of Orkney to another. I cross several of the barriers on the short drive to the Creel Inn, recipient of a Taste of Scotland award, as well as a rave review from British novelist Will Self.
Scotland may not be as hot as London in the culinary world, but a recent emphasis on local foods has given rise to some fine dining establishments. The Creel Inn's kitchen has stocked up on local seafood, as well as other good, natural products. It serves a half-dozen local cheeses and stocks a variety of whiskies, including Scapa, a light and smooth single malt made in the region.
Also worth a visit are the cliffs at Yesnaby, spectacular and perilously high over the Atlantic. Waves crash thunderously even on a calm day; in storms, the spray blasts out several hundred feet.
Last stop for the strong of stomach: Haggis
Aberdeen is the final stop on this quick tour of Scotland. I visit the Glendronach distillery not only for a tour, but also for the night: the Glendronach House, a classic country stone cottage, elegant with manicured gardens, has a dozen guest rooms available to the public. The estate dates back to 1696, when it was known as Boyn's Mill; the present house was built in 1775. Glendronach, which means ``valley of the blackberries,'' offers tours with tastings, and its gift shop sells private-labeled heather honey, mustard, fudge and marmalade, all flavored with the rich, slightly smoky house whisky.
There's another flavor, albeit less universally loved, in Scotland: haggis, the national dish. And it's at the Thainstone House Hotel, on my final night, that the haggis (minced sheep organs cooked inside the animal's stomach lining) finally catches up with me.
There's an elaborate presentation of the dish: a bagpipe player recites a traditional poem penned by Robert Burns, after serenading the chef as they circle the table several times. Haggis is then served with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). I reluctantly try a bite, and it's just awful, like liver-flavored meat loaf. But I quickly kill the taste with a dram -- a gentleman's measure, not a wee one -- and all is right again.
If you go....
Laphroaig Distillery, Port Ellen, Islay, Argylle, PA 42 7DU; tel. 1496 302418, fax 0496 302 496.
The Glendronach Distillery and Glen House, Forgue by Huntly, Aberdeenshire AB54 6DB; tel. 01466 730202, fax 01466 730313. Room rates unavailable at press time.
Islay Woolen Mills, Brigend, Islay; tel. 01496 81053.
Creel Inn, Front Road, St. Margaret's Hope, Orkney KW17 2SL; tel. 01856 831311
Harbour Inn, Bowmore, Islay, Aygyll PA43 7JR; tel. 01496 810330, fax 01496 810990. Double room -- 55 pounds (US $89).
Lochside Hotel, Shore Street, Bowmore, Islay, Argyll PA43 7LB; tel. 01496 810244, fax 01496 810390. The rate is 32.50 pounds (US $53) per person, including breakfast.
Thainstone House Hotel, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire; tel. 1467 621643, fax 1467 625084. A double room is 70 pounds (US $114).
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Copyright © 1999, Chris Rubin
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