How to Drink Whiskey

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What is it that makes a drinking experience pleasurable?

When I asked fellow drinkers this question, their typical replies were something like “savoring a whisky that I like,” “having a beer with character,” or “drinking a wine that is not boring or bland.” Their responses largely focus on the quality or the specific flavors of the drink.

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For this reason, it is not surprising that you can find countless drinks magazines (including Malt Advocate) and books by “experts” in the field telling you which whiskies taste great, which beers are boring and bland, and so on. I must confess that I generally stock my fridge with what I consider to be well-produced, characterful beers. The bar in my house is blessed with an array of complex single malt Scotch whiskies and single barrel bourbons.

So why then, at a friend’s party the other night, did I thoroughly enjoy a very ordinary and unexciting blended scotch—one I would never think of buying for my bar? Why did I find my favorite strong, full-flavored Trappist ale a burden to drink at a social gathering a couple weeks ago? It became obvious to me that increasing the quality of what one drinks does not guarantee that the experience will be more pleasurable. In fact, it can be counter productive, as I learned at these two parties I attended.

Know Thy Flow When You Drink Whiskey

It would seem that the drinker’s state of mind plays a much larger role in a pleasurable drinking experience than the actual drink itself. But in what way? If how we think when drinking is more important that what we are drinking for a pleasurable experience to occur, how then should we think? What can we as drinkers do to make drinking more fun? Does the same remedy work for every drinker in every circumstance?

In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the key to optimizing the pleasure of a human experience lies in the balance between the skills of an individual and the challenge of a given activity. When this balance is achieved, he describes the experience as being in the flow, which is shown graphically in Figure 1. When the challenge of an activity does not meet the skill of the individual, boredom results. Conversely, an activity that is beyond an individual’s skills produces anxiety.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi’s findings were based on a study he conducted that consisted of spending hundreds of hours observing artists while they were working and interviewing them afterwards. When the challenge of their activity was balanced with their artistic skills—when they were in the flow—the artists became completely engrossed in what they were doing. When in this state, the results of the activity were insignificant. The artists didn’t care what became of the painting once it was done. Rather, the activity of painting itself provided its own rewards. The activity was autotelic—worth doing for its own sake.

“joy, deep concentration, a heightened sense of mastery…”

In an article in the Shambhala Sun (September 1998 issue), titled “The Man Who Found the Flow,” author Andrew Cooper describes Mr. Csikszentmihalyi and his research. Here, flow is described as a mental state which produces feelings of “joy, deep concentration, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self consciousness, and self transcendence.” Mr. Csikszentmihalyi explains that “moments of flow occur when our physical or mental capacities are stretched to their limits in pursuit of worthwhile goals.”

One might argue that enjoying a drink isn’t exactly a worthwhile goal. But I would argue that a pleasurable drink, like a pleasurable meal, is a worthwhile goal. Mr. Csikszentmihalyi believes that just about any activity can be made autotelic: “Flow is not something that happens to us, it is something we make happen… it is the result of our ability to focus, and thus give order, to consciousness.”

Drinks Will Flow

Referring back to Figure 1, I think it is fair to say that readers of Malt Advocate have developed greater drinking skills than the average person. By drinking skills, I don’t mean having the ability to drink a six-pack of beer or pint of whisky in one sitting. Rather, I am referring to having the ability to identify aromas and flavors and having a palate that appreciates the different flavors and subtle nuances of a particular drink.

Under a controlled environment, our increased skills require a more challenging drink to stay in the flow—a drink with multi-dimensional flavors and complexities that evolve on the palate. A bland, straightforward drink under normal circumstances falls below our flow channel and therefore bores us.

This concept of flow explains why the largest selling drinks in each beverage category will never be overly challenging to the palate—that is, until the drinking populace becomes better educated. The drinking skills of the average person remain low enough that for them to remain in the flow channel, their choice of drink can’t be too challenging, or anxiety will ensue. Sadly, many of the people who drink in our society drink for the buzz the alcohol affords them. Not only do they not have developed drinking skills, they don’t even want them.

Conversely, even the most skillful drinkers can be challenged to levels extreme enough to produce anxiety. When was the last time any whisky “expert” volunteered to identify, in a blind tasting, randomly chosen single malts in front of an audience? The pressure would be enormous! So, every individual has the potential to be on either side of the flow channel.

Finding The Flow

So, let’s revisit what actually happened to me at the two parties I attended. I typically drink alone (when I am reviewing products professionally), with my wife, or with a friend. Under these circumstances, I usually have plenty of time to focus my attention on what I am drinking. My skills are at their peak, and a challenging drink is necessary to keep me in the flow. But when I was at the parties, my attention was drawn away from what I was drinking because of all the distractions. In effect, my drinking skills were lowered and, to remain in the flow, a less challenging drink was appropriate. This explains why I was overly challenged by the Trappist ale and quite content with the ho-hum blended scotch.

So, how do we apply this theory to our every day drinking experiences?

First, we must realize that we don’t drink in a vacuum. Our mindset and its contributing factors—mood, the time of day, the weather, whom we are with, how much sleep we got last night, what we are eating, how thirsty we are, what we are watching, etc.—all play a role in our drinking skills level. I would add that we must accept the fact that no two individual’s skill levels are identical. For this reason, we must be accepting of the fact that just because you are particularly enamored with a given drink doesn’t mean that your drinking partner should be—even if they liked it the last time the two of you were together.

Second, we should select a drink based on our skill level to remain in the flow of a pleasurable drinking experience—understanding that the best drink for a given situation may not be the most flavorful or complex one. If you’re sitting alone in a quiet environment with a fairly receptive mindset, perhaps a big, complex single malt scotch is in order. If you’re sitting in a crowded noisy bar with a group of friends eating spicy chicken wings and watching beach volleyball, you might want to save yourself the expense and challenge and opt for a fairly straightforward lager, or something comparable.

Third, realize that each drink varies considerably in the level of skill required by the drinker, based on how challenging it is to drink (see Figure 2). For example, a cask-strength, peat-smoke infused single malt scotch from the island of Islay would rank very high on the challenge scale, while a typical supermarket brand blended scotch would rank fairly low. With beer, surely one of the most challenging styles would be the small group of spontaneously fermented lambic beers produced outside Brussels in Belgium, while the mass produced lagers so common throughout the world would dominate the lower range of the scale.

“…the range of challenge for a particular drink also varies.”

One thing that may not be so obvious is that the range of challenge for a particular drink also varies. A drink with a larger challenge range will appeal to a broader range of individual drinking skill levels. Put simply, these drinks are more versatile than others, because they appeal to a wider audience and will accommodate a wider range of mindsets of a given individual. From a practicality standpoint, they are also nice to have on hand, since regardless of the who the person is or what mood they are in, chances are that the intersection of the beer’s challenge level and the individual’s skill level for that moment will fall within the flow channel.

Some drinks that seem to express wide challenge ranges (and therefore greater versatility) include Highland Park 12 year old single malt scotch and Duvel, a golden strong ale from Belgium. If I were forced to live the rest of my life with only a handful of drinks to choose from, these two would surely be on that list.

In conclusion, there’s more to a drinking experience than the quality of the drink itself. We need to match the drink with what’s going on in our minds at the given moment for the experience to be truly pleasurable. Only then will we find ourselves drinking in the flow. And this is how to drink whiskey

Black Velvet Whiskey

What colors excite, or revolt, the appetite? It is a popular wisdom that we are not keen, for example, on blue items of food and drink. In America, the “blue” corn of New Mexico is ripely fashionable, but really more purple-tinged. Despite the blue bottle, Bombay Sapphire Gin is colorless. Blue Cura’ao is just for jokey cocktails.

Black, perhaps surprisingly, is a different matter. It has been the pure genius of Guinness advertising to make that smooth, mysterious, profound brew as chic as its black-clad young drinkers. In Brussels, I once enjoyed a pint of Guinness while forking into the black shells of mussels served in a black-enameled kettle. The black clad trendies might prefer it with inkfish risotto.

The Parisian writer J.K. Huysmans, of the ‘decadent’ school, imagined in his 1884 novel Against Nature a ‘virile,’ all-black meal embracing caviar, game ‘in sauces the colour of boot-polish,’ plum puddings, porter, and stout. I may prepare something black for Burns’ Night, January 25. Caviar and smoked salmon? A little black pudding, perhaps, as a second starter? If the haggis is not sufficiently sable, merely a mottled grey, I shall darken it with a splash of black whisky.

Lovers of esoteric whiskies will know the very rare Black Bowmore. This is a single malt made by the distillery at Bowmore, in the western whisky island of Islay. The Bowmore distillery traces its history back to 1779, though it has for some years been controlled by Suntory, of Japan. All Bowmore whiskies have the dark tastes of the iron-tinged rock whence the water rises, the earthy peat over which it flows, and the same material used in the malting kiln. Black Bowmore is a special vintage, laid down in 1964 in sherry casks. The sherry must have been as rich as tar. The whisky emerged almost as dark as black olives, with a firm body and a complex of flavors ranging from flowers and leaves to rooty licorice. A mighty whisky, with a price to match.

At a tenth of that price, there is now an even blacker whisky, and indirectly it comes from Guinness. It is unlikely to receive advertising of “Pure Genius” proportions, but it is aimed at the same audience. Guinness owns United Distillers, which in turn operates more than two dozen malt whisky distilleries and has access to the stocks of another ten that are mothballed, closed, or even demolished. This represents about a third of Scotland’s distilleries.

The new black whisky comes from the Highlands. The distillery is at Mannochmore, on the river Lossie, south of Elgin, one of the main towns of Speyside. Mannochmore is a relatively young distillery, built in the early 1970s to provide malt whisky for the Haig blended Scotches. Its whisky was first released as a single malt in the early 1990s. That version, at 12 years old, was as pale as white wine, very flowery, lightly perfumy, clean and dry. It was intended for marketing only in the area of the distillery.

Now, Mannochmore has introduced a single malt at ten years that is as black as ebony, with the aroma of mint toffee; a light but smooth body, with some texture; and warming, spicy, banana-like flavors. Its lightness of body, and the gentleness of those toffeeish flavors, are in contrast to the assertively black color. I suppose you could say the same of Guinness, and certainly of other popular medium-dry stouts like Murphy’s and Beamish.

This new version of Mannochmore is called Loch Dhu (“Black Lake”). There are plenty of dark-looking waters in the area of the distillery, but the brand-name was really inspired by the color of the whisky. How is this color achieved?

Instead of enjoying the traditional maturation in sherry casks, this Scotch whisky has been aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. In itself, that is not unusual. Sherry wood is today less widely used than Bourbon barrels in the Scotch whisky industry as a whole. All Bourbon barrels are charred on the inside, so that the Kentucky whiskey (spelled with an ‘e’) can permeate the wood. This helps give Bourbon its darkish color and rich, oaky, vanilla-like flavor. However, once the wood has imparted its color and flavor to a batch of Bourbon, it has less to give to any Scotch with which it might be filled. This has generally been thought to be a welcome restraint, as excessive oakiness could overwhelm a whisky as delicate and complex as most Scotches.

Used Bourbon barrels are imported to mature Loch Dhu, but they are treated in some way that United Distilleries declines to discuss: ‘That is a secret we intend to keep,’ I was told. As far as I can establish, it involves a coating, and possibly a caramelisation. After this ‘secret treatment,’ the wood is said to receive a second charring. This would certainly yield more vanilla flavors, but I believe the banana and mint notes come from natural chemical reactions promoted in the whisky by the treatment of the wood. Is it worth the trouble? Yes, if the product is a commercial success. There is a further motivation. Whisky distillers are still learning about the sources of aromas and flavors in their products, and especially about the influence of wood. ‘We have 25 years of wood chemistry behind us,’ a spokesman commented to me. ‘It’s time we applied some of this research.’

Black seems to the color of the new year. In France recently, I spotted a Scotch whisky called Black Barrel. This turned out to be a single grain whisky, made at the William Grant distillery at Girvan, in the Lowlands. William Grant is better known for single malts such as Glenfiddich and Balvenie, distilled on Speyside. Grain whiskies may be made from unmalted barley, wheat, or maize. They are usually sweeter, lighter, and less complex than malt whiskies. Black Barrel indicates a well-charred oak, but not a very dark whisky. The product emerges with a full golden color, a smoky aroma, a surprisingly big, smooth body, and an assertively sweet, almost syrupy, palate. Plenty of juicy wood-extract there. This whisky is not yet available in the U.S.

The pioneer of unusual woods, Glenmorangie, has recently introduced two more. After its winey-tasting vintage aged in port pipes comes Glenmorangie Madeira Finish. This golden malt is predictably buttery, with a huge development of flavors towards its big cakey finish. It was introduced in the U.S. in the fall of 1996. More adventurous yet is Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage finish, sadly never released in the U.S. This pinkish-amber malt had 12 years in Bourbon wood and five in Rhone wine barrels from the region around the town of Tain L’Hermitage. A neat conjunction there: Glenmorangie is made near the little town of Tain, in the northern Highlands. The whisky of the two Tains is oily yet firm, with a remarkably dry fruitiness (some tasters have found rhubarb, others Victoria plums), and great length. That’s the one after dinner on the 25th.

Rye Whiskey

The year was 1794. John Neville was one of the most hated men in western Pennsylvania: a federal tax collector for the excise tax on whiskey. A few days earlier he had been out serving writs. Then on the morning of July 16 a band of fifty buckskin-clad mountain men attacked his home. Neville with help from his slaves and the women of the house managed to repel the attackers. That afternoon a contingent of soldiers under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick was dispatched to protect his home.

The following morning the attackers returned, about 800 strong and accompanied by a fife and drum band. Neville heard them coming, bolted out the back door, and hid in a thicket. Meanwhile the mountaineers attacked the home and after a brief skirmish Major Kirkpatrick surrendered the federal troops to the rebels. The home and all outbuildings were burned to the ground.

Across western Pennsylvania and the Maryland panhandle, western Virginia and Kentucky, the militias turned out in support of the rebels. The banner of the divided snake was raised on liberty poles for the first time since the revolution. The western American frontier was up in arms and the Whiskey Rebellion was underway.

Before it was over an army of 7,000 rebels would threaten to take Pittsburgh, and the President of the United States, George Washington, would actually command an army in the field, in this case an army larger than the one he commanded at Valley Forge.

History books tell us that the rebellion was about whiskey and an excise tax. But it was far more than that. It was two cultures, two lifestyles, two radically different sets of attitudes that were on a collision course. Rye whiskey was simply the single most divisive and symbolic issue.

Western Pennsylvania had been settled by Scots, Irish, and Pennsylvania Dutch. Early on, German immigrants in Pennsylvania developed a long standing feud with the Quaker authorities in Philadelphia. That is why they settled the back country of southeastern Pennsylvania, where they became known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Soon they were joined by Scots and Irish immigrants who were chased out of Philadelphia by the Quakers, who complained that one of them was more trouble than fifty Englishmen.

It was here in 18th century southeastern Pennsylvania that rye whiskey became a major farm industry. But if you had given one of these farmers a glass of today’s rye or bourbon they would not have known what it was. They might even have thought you were trying to poison them. The technique of aging American whiskey in charred oak barrels, the conditioning that gives American whiskies their reddish color and distinct vanilla charred oak flavor, was not developed until much later.

“Now, that’s rye.”

On the other hand, if you gave one of these 18th Century farmers a glass of Russian vodka he would say “Now, that’s rye.” In fact, rye distillation was developed in Russia. From there it spread to Eastern Europe and was eventually brought to Pennsylvania by Germans from eastern Europe. There were plenty of other grains around: wheat, barley, and native American corn. But the Pennsylvania Germans stuck with rye, and even the Scots and Irish abandoned the barley distillation of their home lands in favor of rye for the same reason the Russians settled on rye three hundred years earlier. The consensus was that rye made the best whiskey, a position not unlike that of a growing number of contemporary whiskey experts.

After the Revolutionary war, many veterans, Scots, Irish, and German moved west into the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania. They brought with them their taste for the clear, unconditioned, white whiskey distilled from rye mash. Here in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, rye whiskey would take on an entirely new cultural significance.

Western Pennsylvania was a harsh, raw, and mountainous country. The settlers lived in log cabins and slept on mud floors covered with bugs and animal skins. Travelers from back East reported that the conditions were horrendous even by 18th century standards. There was plenty of game and fish to provide sustenance, but no coffee, beer, tea, or sugar, not even much in the way of fruit or vegetables except for wild berries.

Whiskey was the only luxury in life. It soon assumed the role that wine and beer play in European cultures. Housewives put jugs of it on the table where it was consumed with meals. Shop keepers gave it away to customers. Whiskey drinking became the only social diversion.

But it was even more than that. Farming was much more difficult than it was back east, and almost a waste of time. There was very little hard currency in the area, so very few people were in a position to buy anything. Lumber, hogs, cows, and grain were too bulky and heavy to be shipped to market. Distilled whiskey and furs were the only products that could be hauled east in Conestoga wagons for any sort of profit. In western Pennsylvania a gallon of whiskey could be taken into a store and traded for twenty-five cents worth of ironware, cloth, salt, or gunpowder. In some cases even Presbyterian ministers received part of their pay in “Old Man Rye.”

So by 1791 there was smoke rising from the home stills of hundreds of cabins along the Monongahela River, flowing up from West Virginia, and through southwestern Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh.

Then the new Federal Government passed “Mr. Hamilton’s excise tax.” Excise taxes on distilled spirits were nothing new in Pennsylvania; between 1684 and 1791 Pennsylvania was never without an excise tax. But most of these were rum taxes that did not apply to spirits distilled from domestic products. Distilled products for home consumption were also exempt. Furthermore, the astute Quaker authorities in Philadelphia used these excise taxes to build forts to protect the frontier against Indian attacks, the one state expenditure that backwoodsmen heartily endorsed.

This tax was different. It was aimed at raising money to pay for state debts from the Revolutionary War inherited by the federal government, and it affected all distilling, including farmhouse distilling. Andrew Hamilton wanted to test the mettle of the new federal government’s law enforcement powers. In fact, he was looking for a reckoning between the Federalist and Antifederalist factions. The excise tax law was designed to provide it.

At the time few Americans feared that the new nation would divide between North and South. But almost everyone believed that the new nation would soon split into two nations, east and west, separated by the Appalachian Mountains. There was a strong separatist movement in the western mountainous regions of Pennsylvania, Virginia (which included present day West Virginia) and Kentucky. Some of the agitators had already chosen names for the new nation: Westylvania and Transylvania. There was even talk of union with Spain, which controlled the Mississippi, or reunion with Great Britain, simply because many westerners now realized that the new federal government had the potential to become more obnoxious than the old European colonial governments.

At the time there was virtually no commercial distilling industry in western Pennsylvania. Spain had closed the Mississippi to American trade. The presence of Indians and British troops in the Northwest territories made rafting whiskey down the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers tantamount to suicide. The center of the American whiskey industry was not the Monongahela River Valley but the Susquehanna River valley, where the distillers of Lancaster and York were turning more grain into whiskey than the millers were turning into flour.

For the most part, the distillers of eastern Pennsylvania simply grumbled and absorbed the tax. Many of them actually supported the tax because they thought it would drive the small home distillers out of business. Thus, in southeastern Pennsylvania, the big distillers favored the tax, but the small farmers hated it. This had the effect of turning the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers into staunch Antifederalists.

While the distillers of eastern Pennsylvania could afford to live with the tax, the situation in western Pennsylvania was far different. Most western farmers did not see $20 a year. They distilled whiskey for home consumption and used it for barter. How, they asked—and quite reasonably so—could they pay an excise tax when the reason they distilled whiskey for barter was because they had no money to pay for anything in the first place?

Hot coals were poured in their boots…

Reasonable or not, their argument fell on deaf ears. The Federal government sent tax collectors into the back woods to collect the excise. But separatist politicians and agitators in western Pennsylvania now saw the opportunity they had been waiting for. They ignored, and in some cases actually encouraged, attacks on federal agents. The tax collectors were attacked, their wigs singed and hair cut. Hot coals were poured in their boots and they were tarred and feathered. In some cases they were branded with hot irons, or maimed and put on public exhibition.

The state courts turned a deaf ear on complaints. Witnesses could not be found, and charges were dismissed on the flimsiest of alibis. Many judges merely sniffed that they were on the bench to enforce state, and not federal, law. The federal government had few troops in the area, and even if they had, there would have been little chance of finding the hooligans in the back woods.

When the area burst into open rebellion in July of 1794, the federal government had no choice but to send in an army. Once the army had made its way over the daunting mountain ridges and arrived in westen Pennsylvania it moved quickly to crush the Rebellion. In the end, the supremacy of the federal government over state governments and local independence movements was firmly established.

But once having made their point, the Federalists took a conciliatory attitude. Unlike the victorious northern politicians after the Civil War, both Washington and Hamilton realized that in order to reunite the country and abort future separatist movements, living conditions in the west would have to be dramatically improved. The frontier elites, who agitated the rebellion, went unscathed. Many of the local hooligans escaped west. In the end the Government was left with 20 nobodies in jail. Only two were ever convicted of treason, and George Washington pardoned both.

In a brilliant move, Alexander Hamilton turned his tax collectors into procuring agents for the army. The hated ‘revenooers’ now posted signs that they were prepared to pay top dollar for significant quantities of legally distilled whiskey. Thus the tax collectors became customers.

General “Mad Anthony” Wayne led a military expedition into Kentucky, where he handed the Indians a crushing defeat at Fallen Timbers, and the subsequent Treaty of Greenville eliminated Kentucky’s Indian problem that had persisted for twenty years. As a result of the Jay Treaty, signed the same year, the British evacuated their Northwest forts. The following year the Pinckney Treaty with Spain provided long-coveted access to the Mississippi River and the Port of New Orleans.

Agricultural products, including whiskey, could now be rafted safely down the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers to New Orleans where they could be shipped around the world. When the Government began stationing troops in the northwest territories after the Louisiana purchase, ports along the Ohio River, such as Owensboro, Louisville, and Maysville, became major procurement centers for all military supplies, including the daily whiskey ration. By the early 18th Century two of these whiskies were beginning to acquire a reputation of distinction.

The rye whiskey from western Pennsylvania would come to be known as Old Monongahela. Meanwhile, the Kentucky distillers were enjoying a good deal of success from corn distillation, and much of this whiskey was finding its way to the busy port of Maysville, a town that was now in Mason County. But prior to 1789 it had been a part of Bourbon County. The locals continued to refer to the area as “Old Bourbon County,” and products from this area continued to bear this designation. Soon the barrels of whiskey standing on the docks of Maysville were being stamped “Old Bourbon Whiskey.” And Kentucky was on its way to becoming the whiskey capital of the world.

Single Malt Cocktails

A couple of years ago, in this very magazine, we got into a heap of trouble with craft brewers when we suggested that good beer should be used to make mixed drinks, such as a lager and lime. Sometimes we like a bit of strife, so we thought it was time to see how far we could push the master distillers of Bonny Scotland. You see, for some time now, we have been enjoying cocktails made with single malt scotches.

The theory we put forth about using only the best of beers in order to make the best mixed drinks holds true with single malts and scotch-based cocktails. Simply put, a Rob Roy made with a good blended scotch is a joy to behold; make it with a moderately priced single malt, and the cocktail becomes a masterpiece. Here’s the point: we usually drink our single malts-just like most fans of the category-at room temperature, either neat or with a splash of spring water. But we don’t always want a neat scotch. And if we are in the mood for a cocktail, we are not the type to settle for one made with just any old bottle that comes to hand. We use our single malts-with some minor adjustments to our cocktail recipes.

Minor adjustment #1:
You might need to alter the proportions of scotch to the other ingredients. Adjust carefully. For example, there’s no need to use quite as much vermouth in a malt Rob Roy as you would if you were using a blended scotch-let the scotch shine through. And if you are a fan of the Rusty Nail, we suggest you add just a touch of Drambuie rather than a whole shot.

Minor adjustment #2:
Think about exactly which bottling of single malt to use in your new, rather expensive drinks. Highland malts generally work very well indeed in a Rob Roy, but be careful here-you need to choose a huge, supple, somewhat fruity malt for the best results, and some Highland bottlings are a little too lean for use in this particular cocktail. These lighter-bodied Highland malts are a good choice for a dry Rob Roy (dry vermouth instead of sweet), and some work particularly well when mixed over ice with ginger ale. Islay malts-the bigger the better-are a good choice for Rusty Nails, and these pungent, yet sweetish, cocktails are, perhaps, one of the best examples of how malts can turn your favorite mixed drink into a dream come true.

Minor adjustment #3:
Though we love and adore bitters wholeheartedly and know, without question that they are a necessary ingredient in most of our favorite cocktails, as a rule, bitters should be omitted from drinks made with single malt scotch.
Here’s the scoop: when you make, say, a Rob Roy with a good Highland malt, the vermouth mingles with the malt and, to some degree, masks many of its intricacies-some would say that it’s the ruination of two good drinks. When bitters are added to the formula, however, we find that instead of heightening the flavor of the drink, which is the norm, they actually deaden it a little. Why? We assume that since malts tend to bear layers and layers of flavors, the complexities of bitters simply block even more of these delightful nuances and render the drink somewhat flat. The other ingredients in the drink may mask the flavors of the scotch somewhat, but without our usual dash of bitters, the complexities of single malts do actually manage to shine on through.

Minor adjustment #4:
Don’t mix a good single malt with fruit juices-except in one nigh-on heretical instance: Try adding a little tomato juice to a good, well sherried, Highland malt. And if you dare to try this drink (The Bloody “whatever malt you choose”), we guarantee-without a “money-back” offer-that you will be astounded. The idea for this particular concoction came from a wily Scot who was actually in the distillery business when he confessed his love for malts and tomato juice, but he made us swear that we would never reveal his name. If you are reading this, Mr. MacNonymous, thanks for this glorious drink. We have never met a master distiller we didn’t love, and if, by writing this article and confessing our sins, we have caused anyone in the scotch industry to despair, we apologize profusely. We suggest anyone offended by this piece should take a wee dram of their favorite malt, release the bouquet with a few drops of spring water, and retire immediately. But if you are all alone, and you are sure that no one will see, add a little ice and a splash of sweet vermouth. Your conscience may never be clear, but you will sleep well this night.

Irish Lost – The sad history of Irish distilling’s “Ambassador Brands.”

Take each of the better-known Irish whiskey brands: Jameson’s, Powers, Paddy’s, Tullamore Dew. Pour them into separate glasses, swirl them round and breathe in. You will immediately be engulfed in as much Irishness as a potato- and mutton-laden Irish stew.

All four whiskeys have markedly different characteristics as one would rightly expect from a land which, only a matter of 200 years ago, boasted some 2,000 legal and illegal distilleries. Yet these ambassador brands, Jameson’s, Powers, Paddy’s, and Tullamore Dew today come from the same stills of the same distillery in County Cork and mature in the same, massive warehouses. Of course, it was not always so.

No nation has been unluckier with its national spirit. The cruel way the forces of war and commerce ganged up on it over a 20 year period in the early part of this century is nearly unbelievable.

From a commercial perspective it was bad enough for Ireland’s legal distillers that their country’s communities had been thrown into turmoil in 1916 with the Irish War of Independence. But things worsened drastically when civil war racked Ireland between 1919 and 1921. To compound matters, the industry was brought mercilessly to its knees by the British Government’s Trade embargo with the new Irish Free State, which not only cut off their markets in England, Wales and Scotland but throughout the entire Empire as well.

Their only hope of expanding trade was with the new world, but at the very same time the U.S. Government had voted to impose the most draconian drinking legislation in the history of the first world with the Volstead Act. And just years after that was repealed, fate dealt yet another near-fatal blow, with trade slumping universally following Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

Had not this extraordinary catalogue of horrors befallen a single industry there is little doubt the bottle of Jameson you see in your liquor store would still have been Dublin distilled, hailing from the opposite banks of the Liffey to Powers, just as it did a century ago. Tullamore would have thrived as one of Ireland’s centers of distilling. And Paddy’s would remain the only whiskey from Midleton in Ireland’s deep south.

Instead, by the 1960s the number of non-grain distilleries in all Ireland had been whittled down to four, each suffering from chronic under-funding, loss of confidence, and lack of development. They had seen blended Scotch whisky take an uncompromising hold of world markets. Woefully short of the financial resources to effectively battle their own corner, they decided to merge and fight together as one.

History dictates that when mergers take place, closures and redundancies follow. Irish whiskey proved no exception. And all this came at a time when the intermittent closures of distilleries were almost the accepted norm.

The second world war took its toll on one famous Dublin distillery, Jones Road, which shared with Mortlach in Scotland’s Speyside the unusual dual distinction of being built on the very site of a battlefield which had seen the monarch-led slaughter of an invading 11th century Danish army, and were purveyors of top-notch whisk(e)y to boot. In 1954, Tullamore Distillery shut down for good. North of the border distilleries had fared little better with the demise of Dunville’s (1951), Comber (1953), and Coleraine (1964) although grain distilling was carried out there for 14 more years.

So, when did Jameson and Powers really lose their once fiercely-fought individuality? The merger between those two with Cork Distilleries, owners of the Paddy’s brand, took place in 1966. The first casualty of the merger was John Jameson, whose enormous but aged Bow Street distillery closed in 1971. Production of their whiskey was transferred, with a wonderful touch of the Irish, across the bridge named after the country’s legendary temperance zealot, Father Mathew, to Powers’ John’s Lane distillery.

Four years later, the workers at the old Cork Distilleries’ Midleton plant went home from the ancient buildings holding the fermenters and stills and, the next morning, filed through the same gates to clock in at the purpose-built distillery next door. Within twelve months production likewise ceased at Powers and all distilling in the Republic was now carried out at Midleton.

It is a sad tale. The Jameson Distillery, for sheer size alone, was one of the wonders of Dublin. Its crumbling buildings still standing today give some idea why. Much of Powers, in the shadow of the imposing Christchurch cathedral, has been lost, although the front, the elegant Counting House, is now the city’s Art College. Just behind it, high on a pedestal, is the creation of copper that once constituted the great distillery. This is not a student’s sculpture: these are the tarnished green remains of the massive pot stills which once gurgled and hissed as a truly remarkable spirit gushed into the receivers.

What perhaps makes this fall from grace all the more extraordinary was the fact that Irish whiskey was once the most popular spirit in the world outside rum. In the early 1870s brandy was in enormous demand. But when the Cognac region of France had been devastated by phylloxera in 1872, Irish distillers grabbed the chance to fill the gap. Irish whiskey was considered lighter and easier to handle on the palate than Scottish single malts. And for one brief, glorious period Irish whiskey was in demand in all four corners of the globe.

What set Irish apart was the fact that distillers did not exclusively use malted barley as was the case in Scotland. The mash was made from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley with oats, wheat and rye also added. Nor by this time was the malt peat dried. The result was a mouthwateringly flavorsome whiskey, yet lighter than Highland by something to spare.

However, when Scottish blenders started mixing malt whisky with grain whisky made from wheat or corn and continuously distilled, Irish distillers began to feel the pinch. Unlike in Scotland where bottled whiskies had been made available early on, the tradition in Ireland, especially with John Jameson, was to sell by the barrel to merchants who then filled their own bottles and containers.

The trouble was, many had unscrupulously begun to doctor their whiskey with the cheaper grain spirit but without telling the customer. Irish distillers had long resented any grain spirit being called whiskey; loathed in particular the fact that they had no means of control over what happened to their whiskey once they had sold their casks, and refused point blank to have anything to do with producing their own blended whiskey. These merchants’ and innkeepers’ practices, increasingly giving Irish whiskey a bad name, were common throughout the British Isles. And even on the other side of the Atlantic it was all too easy to find “Irish” a long way removed from the delightful golden spirit maturing in Dublin warehouses.

One New York publisher even made a roaring trade issuing books on how to produce the stuff for minimum cost and maximum profit. The first, in 1885, showed Grade 1 Irish could be made by mixing 40 gallons of spirit with 5 gallons of Irish Whiskey, costing $1.40 for the lot. Grade 3 Irish was a straight cut of 22 1/2 gallons of spirit to 22 1/2 gallons of Irish whiskey, costing $2.75. If it was Scotch you were trying to create, then just add oil of birch cut with alcohol for phony smokiness. It was only a matter of a few years before an even cheaper Irish was on the market: 30 gallons of rectified whiskey, three quarts of paradise tincture, two ounces of catechu, ten drops of creosote and five gallons of water. Water of ammonia was optional. And only if you were going for the deluxe version.

But it was Irish distillers’ desire to guarantee the purity of their pure pot still whiskey which was to lead to their downfall. The Scots got on with marketing blended whisky, leaving Irish the heavier style and something of a dinosaur. By the 1950s some Irish distillers had switched their brands from pure pot still to blended, though many didn’t. Even Powers remained the real thing until they merged with their rivals and only then did it become a blend.

Today Jameson, Powers, Tullamore Dew and Paddy’s are each a blend. But at Midleton there are massive pot stills and finely tuned continuous grain stills to create a varying number of style of spirit. When blended together the differences can be quite startling.

For the international assault it was a matter of eggs and baskets. One basket was considered enough and the name they decided to promote was Jameson. If you are very lucky you might find their Crested Ten or 1780, the first supremely delicate, the second sherry rich and exuding a mustiness similar to the old Jameson of Bow Street days. Sadly, though, they have pitched safely with the ordinary Jameson brand designed to display an Irish lightness with definite, but controlled, pot still character unique to Ireland. Lighter, still are Paddy’s and Tullamore Dew.

But Powers is a quite different matter. It radiates the cut-glass clarity but brittleness of traditional Irish pot still. This is because only 30% of it is grain whiskey and of the pot still 60% of the barley used is unmalted. Other grains like oats and rye are no longer part of the recipe. The result, however, is an Irish blend in an echelon of its own. The bad news is that it is so difficult to find outside Ireland, where it stubbornly remains the country’s most popular whiskey.

Irish Distillers do produce a 100% pure unblended pot still whiskey called Redbreast, a 12-year-old which would find its way into the top dozen of any whiskey connoisseur in the world. But again, it is one Irish Distillers prefer to keep quiet about.

You cannot totally blame them for such a policy. Once, and not that long ago, Irish pot still whiskey, whether in blend or straight, was a spirit on the verge of international extinction. Like some story line from Star Trek, a dying race jumped upon the mothership Midleton to take them to a new colony to start afresh. They knew the journey would be a long one and whether they liked it or not they had to adapt to their new world.

The plan appears to have worked. Now let us hope the truly indigenous species, like Redbreast and Powers, will be allowed to flourish as well.