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Wine and Spirits : A Scotch in Time

Blended Scotch has its purposes. It helped make Al Capone’s fortune, for one thing. If the litter of Chivas empties after a decent-size Cantonese banquet is any clue, many Chinese seem to worry a lot less than wine wonks about whether the proper accompaniment to lobster in black bean sauce might be Riesling or Gewurtztraminer. And if it weren’t for blended Scotch, the guys in John Cheever stories might be zonked out on rum instead.

I think it is fair to say that I have consumed a fair amount of whiskey in my time, including Old Crow guzzled in parking lots, mellow 14-year Berghoff’s hand-carried from Chicago, Prohibition-era medicinal stuff nicked from a stash in a friend’s doctor dad’s garage. I know what Four Roses tastes like when you stir in an envelope of grape Kool Ade (don’t ask). I once spent half a week’s salary on a fine bottle of Van Winkle bourbon, and considered it money well spent.

But until I had my first hit of single-malt several years ago--most other Scotch resemble a perfectly good bottle of bourbon in which somebody has, for some reason, marinated cigarette butts--bourbon was pretty much the extent of it. Single-malts were good and were for the most part about the same price as the heavily marketed blends. As with the Italian wines of the period, or the phenomenal Alsatian Tokays and Rieslings you could buy then for less than mediocre California Chardonnay, you could drink fairly well for not so much money.

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Like everybody else, I’d started with the heavily advertised beginner’s single-malts, the bland, sweetish Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, the Macallan trilogy you can usually find at the kind of bars that accept credit cards, and later to stuff like Bunnahabhain and Lagavulin that were even more difficult to pronounce than Puligny-Montrachet.

The single-malt I liked best cost a couple of bucks less a bottle than Chivas. In the old days, the whiskey was packaged in a perky, if tatty, green cardboard box and came in a generic sort of bottle dominated by a silhouette of the Johnnie Walker guy. (Almost all the production, I think, ended up as part of Johnnie Walker Black.)

Neat, thank you--watered Scotch tastes like flat Coca-Cola--it also tasted like barbecued whiskey, smoked all night on the hickory pit, mellow as a good-night kiss and spicy as a rib-tip sandwich . . . the kind of whiskey you’d like to think Scottish oilfield workers have after a dinner of neeps and tatties or something. Cheap single-malt was probably too good to last.

It started, I think, with the zillion-page advertising supplements in lifestyle magazines, the endless tasting notes in wine publications, the malt-soaked travelogue expeditions up the Spey. The lesser-known single-malts began to be marketed less as expatriate cravings like Marmite or Oxo Cubes and more as upscale luxury products. And just as a lot of the Mourvedre and Zinfandel that used to be dumped into generic California Burgundy is now vinified and sold on its own, blended Scotch began to be deconstructed into fancier single-malt components.

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My old favorite, Talisker, from the Isle of Skye, disappeared for a while, and when it showed up again, it was 10 years old instead of 12, had nowhere near the intensity, and cost exactly three times as much. In recompense, you got a fancy bottle, a handsome gift box and a legend on the label informing you that the taste includes “more than a hint of local seaweed.”

Mark Carter’s excellent Duplex restaurant was known for the most interesting whiskey selection in Los Angeles before he moved to Healdsburg and began to work on what will be the first handcrafted pot-still bourbon out of California. Carter is fairly sanguine about single-malts.

“When the Scottish feel like bastardizing the hell out of something,” he says, “they always have their blended whiskies to wail on. As far as I know, most single-malts are still made the same way they always were.”

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As for me, I’ve been drinking a lot of bourbon lately.


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