Oh Yes I Do

Longtime (and generous) Reader DaleH sends me this call for help:

“I did some genealogy research and discovered my Scottish roots — for better or worse.  That sparked my interest and I discovered the world of Scotch whisky.  I was wondering about your thoughts on the subject.  [quit that laughing — Ed]   Single malt Scotch is very interesting and I don’t have to go blind to enjoy it.  I suspect you might have an opinion or two?”

Like the title says, I do happen to have the odd opinion or so on the topic.

I first wrote about this topic back in May 2006, so if everyone will indulge me, I’m going to reprint it below as I think it may answer most of Dale’s questions:

I drink Scotch in three ways:

1. Single malts (sipping).  Neat, no ice, with a glass of water consumed on alternate sips.  This has less to do with style than it does with my frigging gout. I refuse to dilute the lovely stuff in my mouth, but I don’t mind diluting it in the stomach.  My favorite single malts are typically from the Speyside region, and I’ll drink pretty much any single malt from those distilleries, but my absolute favorite is The Macallan 25-year-old, with Glenmorangie 10-yr-old as my “everyday” choice.  For a “change”, I’ll drink The Dalmore 15-yr-old, which like Glenmorangie is a Highland malt.

Also in the cabinet right now are all the aforementioned (except the Macallan which I finished off a couple months ago [sob] ), plus Glenfiddich 18-yr-old and Talisker 10-yr-old, for those with different tastes to mine.  When Mr. FM comes to visit, I usually lay in a few bottles of Laphroiag, his favorite.  (Of late, he’s taken to drinking Irish  whiskey, but we’re still friends.)

2. Blended (thirst quenching, or at parties).  J&B, ice and water — and only J&B.  Forget even offering me anything else.  No J&B, and Kim drinks something else altogether, like gin.  I actually dilute my J&B quite substantially — that gout thing again — and this also allows me to drink for longer periods of time before intoxication sets in.

3. As an after-dinner liqueur.  Here I prefer the smoky, peatier singles like Laphroiag or Talisker, because I’m only going to drink one, and I can take my time in the drinking of it.

I’m not a Scotch snob, by the way, even though the above may make me sound like one.  My tastes and favorites have come after some fairly extensive errrr trial and experimentation, and like in many areas of my life, I see no reason to change something with which I’m comfortable, and which has come about after considerable experience.  I’ve tried most of the major single malts available internationally, and a couple available only in Scotland, but I’ve come to settle on the above because, well, I love their taste.

The wonderful thing about Scotch in general, and single malts in particular, is that it doesn’t matter how you drink it:  that distinctive taste will always shine through.  (However, I pretty much draw the line at drinking single malt with, say, Diet Coke, because that’s just barbaric — and once you mix any Scotch with Coke, the subtle differences between brands and types pretty much disappear, making the choice of a single malt under those circumstances just pretentious.  But hey, if that’s how you want to drink that 40-yr-old Talisker…)

Just be aware that adding water to a single malt doesn’t just dilute the taste, it may change it completely.  I find that this is especially true of some Highland malts.  Some people happen upon such a taste, and thereafter prefer to drink their favorite single that way.  Your call.

Still on the subject of taste, some say that coastal distilleries’ malts are different from those made by inland distilleries because of the salty sea air.  I can’t taste it, myself, but I’m not a seasoned Scotch drinker, really.

Finally, it’s a common mistake to assume that the older the malt, the better the whisky.  Some malts taste better in their “rawer” state — the malt becomes more bland as it ages — whereas others need the time to “mature” into smoothness.  It’s all about your taste and preferences.

Afterthought:  It occurred to me that not everyone might be familiar with the Scotch thing, incredible as that may seem.  So, for the benefit of anyone who might be interested in pursuing the drinking of Scotch as a career (as so many have), here are a few pointers.

Single malts are the exclusive product of one distillery, made from barley.  They will be bottled and sold as such, or else sold to other distillers to be blended with other malt- and grain whiskies (in closely-guarded secret and “proprietary” recipes) to produce “blended” Scotches such as J&B, Haig, White Horse, Bell’s, Cutty Sark and so on.

Blended malts are malts from different distilleries, sometimes called “vatted” malt.  (The wonderfully-named “Sheep Dip” is a blended malt.  Also, if the brand contains the words “Pride of”, or “Poit”, chances are it’s a blended malt.)

Proprietary (blended) Scotches are also broken into blended grain (grains from other distilleries) and blended Scotch (malts and grains from different distilleries).  The actual number of distilleries used can be large, and the actual mix a secret — hence the term “proprietary”.  J&B, for example, uses the product from forty distilleries (and almost none from Islay, which is why it’s one of the smoothest Scotches on the market).  Johnny Walker Red contains malts from 35 distilleries, and grains from 5 others.

As a rule of thumb, the higher the malt proportion (30%+) in the blend, the more expensive the Scotch.  The most expensive (sometimes called premium) blends are at least 40% malt (e.g. Johnny Walker Black, Chivas Regal).  The “premium” can also be a factor not of the malt/grain mix, but of the number of malts used — the lower the number of malts in a brand, the more expensive it will be.

Single-grain Scotch whisky is rare (Black Barrel and Loch Lomond being the most famous).

(For all the info on Scotch whisky brands you’re ever likely to need, go here.)

The age of a single malt is denoted by the time it spent maturing in its cask:  once bottled, it ceases to age altogether.  If you see “single cask” on a single malt’s label, it means it came from one cask exclusively and was not mixed with whisky from other casks within the same distillery.  Usually, this variant is hideously expensive, for not much more flavor — we’re well up the curve of diminishing returns, here.

Now for some pointers on the distilleries and their brands.  The list is by no means complete (there are dozens of distilleries in Scotland — here’s a map), but I have actually tried all the ones I’ve listed.

The malts differ by region (sometimes by even smaller geographic differences) because of the different waters used, and in the distilling processes.  I’ve made a few generalizations, however, just to give people an idea.

One last note:  when you see a “The” before a single malt’s name, it’s not generally an affectation. Sometimes, the name is an area, not just an actual distillery (eg. Glenlivet), and “The” is usually added to denote either that it’s a single malt, or that it comes from the distillery of that name.

Speyside whiskies have a smoother taste, lighter flavor and softer aroma than most other Scotches. They are distilled, as the name suggests, in distilleries which are found along the River Spey on the northeast side of Scotland.  Some of those distilleries (there are at least twenty major ones) are: Knockando, Glenlivet, Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfarclas and Macallan.

Island/Islay whiskies come from the islands on the west- and north coasts of Scotland.  Typically, they are much heavier, more aromatic, peatier-flavored whiskies, and some of the distilleries are very well-known:  Laphroiag (la-froy-yag, from Islay), Talisker (Skye), Ardbeg (Islay), Highland Park (Orkney) and Bowmore (Islay).

Highland whiskies come from the north of Scotland (sometimes split into northern and southern Highlands).  They tend to be darker than the Speyside malts, but not as peaty as the Island ones.  Brands include such names as Dalwhinnie, Glen Ord, Dalmore, and Glenmorangie.

Lowland whiskies come from points around the Edinburgh – Glasgow axis, and there are really only two major ones:  Rosebank and Glenkinchie (which is the main ingredient of Dimple Haig).  I’ve tried Rosebank and didn’t really like it that much, but others (not put off by the “Lowland” appellation) swear by it.

Some factoids:

    • Glenmorangie is the #1-selling single malt in Scotland.
    • Glenlivet is the #1-selling single malt in the world.
    • Glenfarclas is the strongest “production” single malt sold.
    • The Famous Grouse is the most popular Scotch in Scotland (it’s blended, not a single).
    • Johnny Walker Red (also a blend) is the most popular Scotch in the world (and I find it completely undrinkable).
    • Johnny Walker Black (also a blend) is the most popular “premium” Scotch in the world.
    • Chivas Regal (also a premium blend) is the most overrated Scotch in the world (okay, that’s just my opinion — OMD).

What amazes me after 15 years is how little my opinions have changed on the topic.  But that’s pretty much true about everything, really.  A few examples:

Still my favorites, after all these years…


Longtime Reader Sean F. sent me this, and wondered if I’d ever tried it:

My reply was unprintable, even for this website.  Gin-flavored tea — i.e. adding a sniff of gin to a cup of Yorkshire Gold — might be acceptable in cases of dire emergency (although rum is far better).  But a tea-flavored gin?

The fact that they chose the floral Earl Gray — tea of people who don’t know much about tea but are seduced by the ersatz  class of the name — says it all.  Revolting.

Wrong Strategy

…or strategery, if you prefer.  Here’s the question:

To my mind, that’s a silly worry.  Unless you’re blessed with 20/20 forecasting powers, my bet is that the cost of your favorite booze will climb way beyond your poor (and probably belated) efforts to be able to invest your money to buy it at some point in the future.  (As far as I know, there’s no such thing as a Booze Index to which you can tie your savings, more’s the pity.)

The answer, of course, is to buy booze now in sufficient quantities to support your intake in your retirement years.  This is sound advice, provided that you aren’t one of those people who, if they have more booze, simply drink more of it.

Mr. Free Market, of course, has a wine cellar which would even satisfy a hundred Richard Burtons;  but being the crafty sod that he is, he stores it not at Freemarket Towers, but in a climate-controlled room at a remote location a hundred miles away.

However, we are not all like him, not having access to his bloated plutocratic fortune;  and if I read the situation correctly, even if any of my Loyal Readers do have a climate-controlled room, it’s most likely filled with guns, ammo and SHTF supplies.

Nevertheless, I recommend stockpiling booze now, rather than hoping that your retirement savings will be able to sustain your alcohol needs in the future.  And for those interested in such things, I rather think that putting away a case of (e.g.) J&B or Maker’s Mark (~$240) each month will be a guarantee of future Booze Self-Sufficiency.

And if you happen to snuff it prematurely, the remainder would be an excellent (and tax-free) inheritance for your Wretched & Ungrateful Heirs as they climb over your still-warm corpse and begin pillaging your house.

Just a thought.

Moderation, Sort Of

Glenn’s article in the NY Post  got me thinking about booze and work, as it has always pertained to me and the companies I’ve worked for.  Here’s an historical perspective:

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that civilization came from alcohol. Before agriculture was invented, hunter-gatherers brewed beer from wild grains. It’s more likely that agriculture came from a desire to have a steady supply of beer than from efforts to produce more bread.
Given the downsides, alcohol consumption must also offer some advantages, Slingerland reasons, else it would have died out. But it hasn’t. In fact it’s hard to find successful civilizations that don’t use alcohol — and those few that qualify tend to replace it with other intoxicants that have similar effects.

And later on:

Drinking doesn’t just make us feel good, it also makes us get along better, cooperate more effectively and think more expansively. Silicon Valley companies have whiskey bars to which engineers repair when they’re stuck on a problem, companies (and even my law faculty) have happy hours, and pubs and taverns have played a vital role in bringing strangers together convivially for millennia. (When I used to hang out with Southern politicians, they didn’t trust people who wouldn’t drink with them.)

I remember once interviewing a secretary at the Great Big Research Company in Johannesburg, and towards the end of the interview, I told her that the job was hers.  Then, as I was walking her out of the office, I asked, “By the way, do you drink?”  “No,” she replied.  “You may find it a little difficult to fit in here, then,” I said.  I thought she was joking, and she thought I was joking, but as it turns out, neither of us was.  (She fit in quite fine, as it happened, because she always ended up being our designated driver, which she took in good humor mostly because not once in three years did she ever have to pay for a meal, such was our gratitude.)

I don’t trust people who don’t drink, either, unless there’s a compelling reason for that strange behavior.  (At the Great Big Advertising Agency in Chicago, one of the women was a recovering alcoholic, and I never once pressed her to drink, even though she came over to several of my booze-sodden parties at the house and enjoyed herself as much as any of us.)

Here’s my viewpoint on the matter.  I like booze.  I like the taste of it, I like how it makes me feel, and as long as I can restrain myself — something which has become a lot easier of late because hangovers absolutely flatten me — I can drink and have a great deal of fun in so doing.  (Of course, when I’m sitting at Mr. Free Market’s country palace drinking Whisky Macs, or at the King’s Arms with The Englishman pouring Wadworth’s 6X down my throat, all bets are off.)  But other than that, I’m mostly quite restrained.  I’m by nature a very gregarious man, so I don’t need booze to make me any more sociable, so it really comes down to enjoyment.  I like the little buzz, in other words.

On the other hand, booze for me is entirely a social beverage.  I absolutely cannot drink by myself.  Many’s the time I’ve come home exhausted from a day at the pit face, and opened a beer with a flourish — only to find, two hours later, half a bottle of flat beer.  But put me in a room with friends…

There’s a reason why booze is called an “adult” beverage, and it’s because one has to be an adult in its consumption.  Of course there are going to be people who abuse it;  show me any pleasurable adult activity and I’ll show you people who take it too far, and as a result we all become targets of the Puritans and scolds who bedevil our modern society.

Glenn suggests mockery for the anti-booze scolds among us, while my response would be, quelle surprise, a lot harsher.  But overall, I agree with Glenn’s point:  while booze has its downsides, let’s not forget its many upsides.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my breakfast gin.


Strange Brew

Let me say upfront that during my lifetime I have introduced my family members to addictive substances of one kind or another.  Son&Heir is addicted to Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, Daughter cannot resist Fry’s Turkish Delight, and so on.

But probably no other addictive substance has been so fully embraced by the entire family as the beer shandy.  It’s never been an American thing, but all over the British Empire it is consumed by the gallon, especially in hot countries like in Africa, India or Australia — and in summertime Britishland, it’s a staple.

Okay, Kim, my Murkin Readers ask, what is this strangely-named beverage?

Literally, it’s quite sample:  lager mixed half and half with “lemonade” (actually, Sprite or 7-Up).

Now before everyone heads to the john for some upchuck, let me give you a little case history.

I was walking though Covent Garden with Connie lo those many years ago, and it was quite a warm day.  So we stopped at a corner store (7-11 equivalent) and were browsing through the drinks fridge when I saw this:

“You have to try this,” I said.
“What is it?” asked my American wife.
“Beer and… 7-Up.”
“Tell you what.  I’m getting one for myself.  Have a sip, and if you like it, I’ll get you one for yourself.”
[tentative sip], then “Oh my God!  Why have you never made one of these for me before?
And we ended up having two with our sausage rolls, and getting a six-pack for the hotel room.

When we introduced our kids to the shandy back home, there was much joy and praise-singing of how wonderful we parents were, and it became a staple drink whenever we went over to Britishland, as well as at home.  (Every time I went to out Brit food store, I had to bring back a six-pack or two — until that got too expensive and I started mixing our own.)

If 7-Up/Sprite is too sweet for your taste, then use ginger beer or even ginger ale instead.

The beauty of the shandy is a many-splendored thing, so to speak.  It has low alcohol content, and if you mix it yourself, you can alter its strength simply by changing the formula to suit your taste.  (I myself prefer a 30-40% beer mix, simply so I can drink more of it.)  And it is an excellent thirst-quencher on a hot day.

Anyway, I told you all that so I can tell you this.

Of course, in this age of recipe tinkering, to the extent where we now get strawberry-flavored beer and chocolate-flavored vodka (okay, now you can go and throw up), it would only be a matter of time before some assholes decided to screw with the venerable beer shandy.  And indeed they have:

Shandy is currently undergoing an unlikely revival: part of a boom in ‘nolo’ (ie no or low-alcohol) beers, wines and spirits that has seen sales rise 50 per cent on this time last year.
It didn’t take long for canny manufacturers to realise they had a lucrative market on their hands.

And you can read the results for yourself.  (My favorite:  “It reminds me of the inside of a grandmother’s handbag — a distillation of scented tissues, Parma violet sweets and talcum powder.”)

You’re better off sticking with the classic mix:  ordinary lager (or a darker beer like a red ale, if your taste runs that way), and 7-Up (Sprite is too sweet, even for me) or Canada Dry ginger ale.  And stay away from the so-called “light” beers, because they don’t need to be watered down any more.  Ditto any craft beers, because as with any premium drink, diluting it takes away most of its character.

Amazingly, the beer I’ve found that mixes best with 7-Up is an old favorite of many people, Pabst Blue Ribbon.  (I wouldn’t drink PBR by itself for a bet, but it makes a better-than-average shandy, and it’s cheap too.)  So go ahead:  have some fun.

And don’t come running to me if, like my family, you end up semi-addicted.

Breakfast Gin

From Longtime Friend & Reader Colly Wobble (his real name) comes a letter:

A friend is partial to gin & tonic drinks (my attempts at indoctrinating him into the benefits of Macallan, Glenmorangie et al. have failed miserably) and I’d like to offer:

  1. A good gin; I know enough “gin” to begin at Bombay Sapphire and work up from there, but I don’t know the increments, nor do I want to go broke appeasing this guy’s palate – he’s a friend, not a boss, neighbor or benefactor.
  2. A proper addition to the drink; “gin & tonic” implies a decent tonic water (Canada Dry is readily available and seems acceptable, but I’m open to suggestions) but seems bland and uninteresting to me (which may be the Macallan talking….). Plus, a bit more effort at “adding a bit of spice” to the drink is something a reasonable host should strive for.

Edumakate me, please.

With pleasure, Colly.

I’m going to say at the outset that I’m not as knowledgeable about gin as I am about Scotch, but I know enough, I think, to turn what is quite an ordinary spirit into something fairly unusual.

And as always, please feel free to add your favorite gin drink in Comments.  If you hate gin, feel free not to express your alternatives.  This discussion is about gin.

First off, let’s look at the simple things about gin.  In the main, the minute you add a strong mixer like tonic or similar, there’s no point in spending a lot of money on some premium brand of the lovely stuff (vodka is the same, by the way).  Gin is and always has been a working man’s drink, so don’t let the trendies start with their silliness:  keep to the program, which is “the simpler, the better”.

That said:  you have to be careful about gin, especially in countries outside the Anglosphere, because in those places there often aren’t controls on its manufacture.  Gin, in fact, can be made simply by taking any tasteless clear spirit — distilled from grain, sugar cane, potatoes, whatever — and adding a tiny amount of diesel fuel (!!) to the vat.  (I was told this by a very knowledgeable man from Gilbeys, and it was confirmed by a totally separate source.)  So don’t get super-cheap (budget) gin because there is always that risk:  stick to the known brands.  (That’s true of almost every kind of booze, by the way:  vodka, for example, can be made simply by taking the cheap distilled liquor as above and filtering it through activated charcoal a few times until a vodka flavor emerges.)

Basically, if you’re trying to save pennies I think you’re safe with the usual suspects (Gordon’s, Gilbey’s, Beefeater and so on) but I have to warn you that as you become accustomed to the taste of gin, as with Scotch, you’ll start moving up the food chain, so to speak, and that’s when you’ll start to prefer brands like Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire.  (I should also point out that a couple years ago I failed a blind taste test, preferring Gordon’s to Tanq, so there you go.)

I’m not going to go into serious detail about how gin is made, because other people have done it already, and much better than I ever could, so go there for background.

What I am going to go into is my favorites among this wonderful type of booze.  As with all my preferences, they have come after an inordinate amount of testing (oy) and over time I’ve come to settle on the following:

Sipping (i.e. drunk neat, mostly without ice, but preferably chilled in the fridge for a few hours beforehand):  Sipsmiths, Hendricks.  The latter is sometimes called “cucumber gin” for its strong cucumber flavor, and I find it quite refreshing, in very small doses.  I’ve ranted about Sipsmiths before, and it’s seriously wonderful stuff.

Many people find Plymouth Gin a better sipping gin, but I think it’s a little flat-tasting (but still good — just watch out, though;  the “Navy Strength” variety will kick you on your ass).

Mixed:  I’ll drink any of the following brands with Angostura bitters and 7-Up/Sprite (my thirst-quencher of choice) or with tonic, but in this order of preference:  Tanqueray (green bottle), Bombay Sapphire, Gordon’s and Beefeater — mostly, whichever’s on sale at the time.

Before I go onto other mixer choices, let me make a quick detour.

I want to talk about tonic water for a moment, because while the right stuff can turn your G&T into a sublime experience, the wrong stuff will make your head ache and your taste buds disintegrate.

I have found that I prefer Schweppes over just about all other brands, with the exception of Fentiman’s, which will turn your G&T into something of a sublime experience as referenced above.  The only problem with Fentiman’s is that it’s super-expensive and not easily found.  Most other brands e.g. Canada Dry are somewhat watery for my taste and should be avoided.  There are quite a few exotic tonic waters out there — Fever-Tree Indian comes to mind, and it’s lovely but overpriced — so be my guest.

What few people understand is that tonic water, even when stored in the fridge, has a very short shelf life — something like three to four months refrigerated, less on the shelf — so when you buy it, check the sell-by date carefully because nothing will screw up a G&T quicker and put you in a worse mood than stale tonic.  Ugh.  Just the thought of it as I write makes my mouth screw up like I’ve been offered a quickie with Madonna.

Other mixers you can consider with gin — as per Mr. Wobble’s request above — are ginger beer* (which I love) and ginger ale (here, Canada Dry actually is the best;  walk away from all others, even  Schweppes).   Just stay away from all “light” or “sugar-free” mixers, and we can still be friends.

There are any number of gin cocktails (other than martinis, of course — stirred, not shaken because Ian Fleming didn’t know shit about martinis, or guns for that matter).

I’m particularly fond of gin & blood-orange soda, and gin & lemon (with just a dash of water or on the rocks, with just the tiniest dash of sugar because pure lemon makes my mouth screw up, as above).


*Ginger beer, inexplicably, is not a popular drink in these United States but it should be.  It’s a fantastic drink by itself — unlike tonic water, ugh — but there are only about three that I’ve found which make me want to drink lots:  Fentiman’s (UK), Bundaberg (Australia) and Reed’s (Jamaica).

I don’t have any ginger beer on hand at the moment, but just writing about it has caused a powerful thirst for the lovely stuff, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Total Wine.

Might as well get some gin too, while I’m there.  It’s gonna be a long four years…