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British Life

Glass of whisky before fire in hearth

Scotland's Whiskies

The last whisky I drink is always our favourite. We met Jura at dinner at the Governor Hotel, and it remained a favorite for a long time because we were transported to the sea as we slowly drank the bracing glass.

Jura is described by John Lamond, Master of Malt, in The Malt Whisky File published by Canongate, as “Colour Pale straw with very slight green tinges. Nose Full, pleasantly dry Flavour Very delicate, lightly smoky with a pleasant oily nuttiness Finish Very smooth and lingers well," which just goes to show that everyone experiences a whisky differently. In our memory there is not a trace of oil, but a distinct feeling we inhaled ions, that the scents of the Atlantic, which breaks on the other side of Jura, had infiltrated the casks slumbering in the warehouse.

We know only enough about whisky to be an admirer of it in small doses. The making and judging of whisky is an ancient, intricate, and demanding craft. The File remarks that an “educated” nose “can detect more than 150 separate flavours or characters.”

One year on Burns' Night, we drank Glenmorangie. Made by one of the smallest of all Highland distilleries, Glenorangie was founded in the 19th century. Many whiskies trace their origins to the reign of Queen Victoria, but records of a distillery on Jura go back to 1502. The earliest legal distillery is Bushmills Malt, which is located near the Giant's Causeway in Ireland and received its license in 1608.

Mention is always made of the water used in distilling a whisky. Glenmorangie’s water comes from springs in the Tarlogie Hills; the water of Bushmills springs from Saint Columb's Rill; and the water of Jura flows from Loch a'Bhaile Mhargaidh.

The Glenmorangie we drank was a mere ten years old. Consequently the Angel’s Share, the whisky that evaporates from the cask during aging, was small. The colour was light gold. The taste had softness, like soft, fine rain. The finish was sweet with good length. Perhaps this is because Glenmorangie has gone to the trouble of buying an oak forest in the Ozark mountains of Missouri to ensure the quality of the casks in which its whiskies age.

A whisky distillery in the Speyside

A whisky distillery in Scotland's Speyside

Almost as soon as they began making whisky the Brits began writing about it. Alfred Barnard published his Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom in 1887. At that moment, remarks the Malt Whisky File, William Grant was building the house of Glenfiddich in the Valley of the Deer.

The son of a soldier who had served under Wellington, Grant had nine children and just £120 to his name when he started his distillery business. He borrowed second-hand equipment from the whisky smuggler who founded Cardhu. (After being purchased in 1893, Cardhu went on to play a swash-buckling role in the success of Johnnie Walker's Red and Black Labels.) In the meantime, Glenfiddich has become the world's best-selling single malt.

Whisky evokes British adventurers, explorers and Army men drinking 'the water of life', and was surely a secret to their success, since in avoiding untreated local water some of them undoubtedly saved their lives. (The same claim and others have been made for medicinal gin.) Whisky remains at home in a tent in Africa or a house in the shires, in a bungalow in India or a Scottish farm, in modern London or the far side of the Anglosphere. Crates of Shackleton's hundred-year-old whisky from the Nimrod expedition were recently discovered buried under ice in the Antarctic. He was drinking MacKinlay's.

We drank The Macallan at a memorable meeting in the Veritable Quandary in Portland. The whisky was deeply amber. Beside it sat a bottle of still spring water.

Until that remarkable engineer Thomas Telford built the bridge at Craigellachie in 1814, the whisky from the nearby farm distillery was a popular feature of crossing the river. The bridge changed all that, but did not diminish the desire for a glass, and in 1824 Alexander Reid founded the licensed distillery that is the ancestor of The Macallan.

The makers of The Macallan are famous for championing the use of sherry and bourbon oak casks to mature their single malt. It's this that lends The Macallan its rich and reminiscent nose and flavour.

One of us can still recall the gold highlights flashing and the surprisingly strong, full-bodied taste. One of us can still see in the mind's eye the dear, reserved face.




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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass