Poetry and passion in the quest for single malts
'There, men are engaged not in providing refreshment for the millions, but a taste of heaven for the few'
SO YOU now know that a sweetbread is not a sticky bun. That caviar must be eaten with a spoon because the whole point of the sensation of eating it is that the eggs must arrive in your mouth unbroken. That the two famous towns of Champagne in France, where the genuine bubbly article is produced, are Reims and Epernay.
But do you also always make sure that your liquor cabinet is stocked with a bottle of Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Knockando or Laphroaig? Indeed, it is suggested by Peter Mayle, in his book about the spending patterns of the rich, Expensive Habits, that you will never qualify as a true epicure unless you have cultivated a taste for single malt whisky.
His premise is that although the palate has become "a second-class citizen", that even booze hasn't escaped the terrible beating individual tastes and local flavours have taken at the hands of mass producers, all is not lost up in Scotland.
There, men are engaged not in "providing refreshment for the millions, but a taste of heaven for the few. Slowly, carefully and in small quantities, they are distilling single malt whiskies."
Basic scotch whisky is a blend of as many as 30 different malts and less distinctive grain whiskies. The next step up in the scotch hierarchy is also a blend, but one in which only malts are used. These "vatted malts" offer the student of whisky a chance to acquire a taste for malt before moving onward and upward into the connoisseur's territory of the single, unblended dram.
Mayle's recommendation to novices - that they try the three very different malts Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie and Laphroaig to get an idea of the enormous range of flavours - is echoed by upmarket liquor retailer Vaughan Johnson in his observations about the local malt market.
"Beginners tend to prefer the lighter malts like Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie, but aficionados prefer the more rugged style of the island malts such as Lagavulin and Laphroaig." After all, there are more than 100 confusing but delightful options, and there is, as Mayle puts it, "a limit to the amount of research you can drink".
David Lambkin is a newish, award-winning SA writer who betrays a distinctly epicurean streak with constant references to single malt whiskies. In his second novel, The Hanging Tree, a feverish story set in the Kenyan wilderness, his heroine, palaeontologist Kathryn Widd, is never without a tucked-away bottle of the individualistic Lagavulin.
Lambkin, whose third novel, The Night Jasmine Man, is due out in October next year, reflects that his "first sip of Laphroiag, 20 years ago, was a revelation: the smokiness, the depth and complexity of flavours I'd never tasted in a whisky. It was the beginning of a quest. I began to seek out and taste all the single malts I could find and fell in love, not only with the spirits, but their names as well. The poetry of Scotland is in each syllable."
It is "the sheer effrontery that enchants me: the unashamed bold- ness and passion for functionless individuality in a world obsessed with conformism and correctness; the respect for the spirit of place that invests each single malt."
Unlike drinking wine, there is nothing complicated about drinking single malts. But Mayle points out that in Scotland adding ice to a tot "is regarded as a more serious offence than wife-beating". Rather, it should be drunk as you drink cognac, at room temperature, though diluting it with a little water is permitted.
Johnson, who traded in Illovo, Sandton, for many years before moving to the Cape Town Waterfront, says that 80% of single malt whisky purchases in SA are gifts.
"But though they are expensive, at about R110 for a bottle of Glenfiddich to R160-odd for Laphroaig - especially in the light of our puny rand - they are beginning to attract not only well-off, older gents, but also a younger generation of connoisseurs."
Lambkin, clearly one of those rare men for whom it is easy to select a Christmas gift, says it is "probably the whiff of seaweed and salt air, of seawind-scented peat smoke that makes me love the greats from Islay - Laphroiag, Ardberg, Bowmore and Lagavulin - more than any other single malts. These, as well as Dalwhinnie, are honey-textured delicacies that melt on your palate after a hard day on the river trying to persuade recalcitrant trout to sacrifice themselves on your fly."