A wee drop o' the good stuff
Malt whisky can be enjoyed before, after and even during a good meal, writes DAVID BULLARD
Your life expectancy in a Glasgow pub on a Saturday night, even as an impartial observer, is dependant on your support for one of two rival teams. You will almost certainly be asked, probably by somebody called Jimmy, which team you support. A wrong guess and you may well spend the rest of the evening having small fragments of glass removed from your face in the casualty department of Glasgow hospital. If, on the other hand, you guess correctly then you will be invited to buy everybody in the pub a drink. Sociable place, Glasgow.
The country that gave us Robbie Burns, Billy Connolly and the bagpipes has also made meaningful contributions to the culinary world. Scotland is justifiably famous for its haggis, a dish that bears testimony to the national characteristic of frugality. Thus far nobody has really run with the idea of haggis as a fast food franchise opportunity, which is a great pity because a chain of Haggis-R-Us outlets throughout Scotland would send the dreadful McDonalds (they're not even Scottish you know) burger chain packing. I was once served haggis by my Scots host at a Chicago Mercantile Exchange lunch in London. It was surprisingly delicious and, being my first, it has become a sort of haggis yardstick by which I judge all others.
I am not sure that I could cope with some of the other traditional recipes I found in a Scots cookery book. "Potted head", which involves boiling an ox's head and one of its feet for a few days, sounds as though it's straight out of the first act of Macbeth. "Jellied sheep's head", although a firm favourite for centuries with Scottish noblemen, would probably oblige me to excuse myself to make a peanut butter sandwich instead, and I would sooner spend 30 days in a cage with poisonous snakes than face something called "Glasgow tripe". Fortunately, the "highland beef balls" are not what you think.
Due to the cold howling winds, the inhospitable terrain and the absence of a hot, ripening sun, Scotland never became a major wine growing area. So, instead, somebody had the brilliant idea of distilling beer and calling it uisgebeatha, which is Celtic for "water of life". For sound marketing reasons this eventually became known as whisky. Scotch whisky falls into three categories. Malt whisky is produced from 100% malted barley. Grain whisky is produced from a variety of cereals such as wheat and barley and blended whisky is a combination of the two. However, it is what is known as the "single malts" that excite the real whisky aficionados.
A single malt is the product of a particular distillery, although it may come from casks of different aged whiskies. The age of a malt whisky refers to the number of complete years it has spent in the cask, and in the case of a blend of different years, to that of the youngest whisky in the blend. Generally speaking a whisky that has spent longer in the cask will have more complexity than a younger malt whisky. It will also be considerably more expensive and not as readily available.
According to Allan Jack and Charles Hardie of Vaughan Johnson's in Illovo Square, demand for malt whiskies has increased enormously, particularly among black consumers. Jack stocks an impressive selection of around 30 different malts. At between R150 and R180 a bottle it is not a cheap tipple, although a bottle of Glengoyne 10-year-old will set you back only R110. At the other end of the price scale, the flavoured Glenmorangies, matured in port or sherry casks, cost about R230. Having tried both I would rather drink the straight Glenmorangie 10-year-old at R60 less.
Malt whisky's growing popularity is partially due to the fact that it can be enjoyed either before or after dinner, or even during, with equal success. Although it is sometimes drunk neat as a post-prandial substitute for a good cognac, Charles Hardie suggests that the best way to enjoy malt whisky is in a good cut glass with a small amount of still mineral water and no ice. This releases the esters and aldehydes, making the aroma more prominent.
One of the pleasures of discovering malts as opposed to blended whiskies is the wide range of different tastes available. Styles vary enormously from the sweetness of the Speyside malts (a good starter malt) to the pungency of the heavily peated Islay malts like Laphroaig. A little-known, added benefit of malt whisky is that a few bottles purchased now will provide a superb hedge against a falling rand.