Getting the inside scoop on single-malt scotch


Distilled drink from Scotland is to be savored

March 26, 2003|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If you like Scotch whisky, you'll probably love savoring single-malt Scotch whisky.

And savoring is the word. This is grown-up stuff. Anyone can sip it or - heaven forbid - gulp it. But it takes someone with an educated, or educable, palate to truly savor it.

Single-malt scotch is un- blended whisky distilled in Scotland. But if you know nothing about single malts, or even scotch, don't despair. Baltimore has some great resources for you.

I found one at Pinehurst Wine Shop on Bellona Avenue in North Baltimore. Alfred Schudel is co-owner of the shop, a member of the St. Andrews Society for men of Scottish descent, proud owner of a kilt in the MacThomas clan tartan (his maternal ancestors) and a long-time fan of single-malt scotch.

Schudel can tell you not only about the distilleries and their products, but also advise you on the best way to sample and savor their various products.

He steered me toward a gift-box collection of samplers of six classic single malts and a video of Michael Jackson (the scotch guru, not the singer) guiding viewers through a tour of the six distilleries that made the single malts.

It's a combination tailor-made for your own amateur single-malt tasting - offering just enough whisky to warm your insides and enough explanation and context to help you tease out the range of distinctive tastes.

The collection leads you by the palate through a geographical tour of Scotland, from Glenkinchie distillery in the Lowlands to the Highlands where Dalwhinnie perches atop the mountains as the country's highest-altitude distillery.

Both are relatively delicate drinks. The Glenkinchie is a scotch even nonscotch drinkers would like, while the Dalwhinnie seems as delicate "as the driven snow," as Jackson puts it, or perhaps as thin as the high-altitude Highland air, as a less-enthusiastic fan might say.

From there, the tasting proceeds to a valley distillery, Cragganmore, which produces a smooth drink that accommodates such adjectives as "flowery," "herbal" and "fragrant." This is a subtle scotch, "a real sipper," as Jackson says.

From Cragganmore, the tour moves westward to the coast, where the seaside town of Oban owes its existence to the esteemed distillery of the same name. Aged in oak casks exposed to the elements, the whisky breathes in the salt air, taking on a whiff of the ocean and a distinctive and assertive taste.

Next come two examples of the great island distilleries. First, there is a taste of Talisker from the Isle of Skye, with a smoky, peaty sweetness and a fiery finish that will make you know why John Louis O'Sullivan, the 19th-century journalist and diplomat, described a sip of whisky as "a torchlight procession marching down your throat."

This tasting tour ends with an even peatier, more pungent scotch, the single malt of Lagavulin from Islay, the island home of half a dozen distilleries.

Should you prefer your tasting served by a knowledgeable publican, pay a visit to another great local single-malt resource, Birds of a Feather, a cozy, tin-ceilinged Scotch bar on Aliceanna Street, just east of Broadway in Fells Point.

For more than two decades, owners John and Alicia Horn have been stocking a hundred or more single malts, an impressive number of them proudly displayed on a magnificent oak bar.

But single-malt scotch has never been a mass-consumption drink. It is, rather, one to be savored by discriminating palates. Press a single-malt fan to name a favorite and you're likely to get a demurral. Each one is different and, as Jackson says, "There is one for every mood and every moment."

John Horn is the exception. He enjoys them all, but he's not afraid to divulge his all-time personal favorite: "Talisker, 10 years old."

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