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I’ve always been passionate about sensory analysis and tastings: whether it’s wine, cheese, gelati or coffee. But when it comes to spirits, it’s a whole other story: the personality of every product is closely tied to the tradition and place where it was produced, and it’s difficult to develop a expertise without understanding the natural and productive context.
This is why, when I received an invitation to Scotland, I didn’t hesitate. This alluring land whose wind carries the scent of heather, malt and peat, is famous for producine some of the most famous whisky”s in the world. The Scottish, of course, call it simply «whisky», because for them, Scotch has no equals and it’s no wonder: on the extreme tip of Great Britain between the North Sea and the Atlantic, there are a good 118 distilleris (96 of which are active) that produce a third of the whisky consumed in the world.
My voyage begins in Islay, the southernmost of the Western Isles, and the biggest among the malt whiskey regions. Here, kilometres and kilometres of peat bog provide the raw ingredients of the single malts produced in the nine local distilleries, a production that dates back to several centuries ago: already in 1742 there were ten illegal distilleries here. It was only in 1816 that a farmer, John Johnson, founded the first legal factory that would eventually become Lagavulin, the famous distillery of Islay.
Today, the Lagavulin “family” includes the 16 year-old Lagavulin, dry and velvety with the unmistakable “full” and persistent aftertaste, the so-called Distillers Edition, like the Lagavulin 1989 (D.E. 2007), sweet and “juicy” with the scents of coffee and vanilla that accompany the clear herbal and peaty top notes, and finally, the Special Releases – limited editions that come out in only selected years, like the Natural Cask Strength 2010.
I taste these products in one of the warehouses of the distillery, among mountains of barrels in front of the choppy sea and biting winds. I’m sharing the experience with the young, determined Distillery manager of Lagavulin, Georgie Crawford, and my friend Dave Broom, considered to be one of the world’s top experts of scotch whisky and who shares my passion for sensorial analysis of sprits.
And it’s here – while admiring the ruins of Dunyvaig castle, built to protect the bay of Lagavulin – that I was told the stories about the place responsible for the diffusion of whisky throughout the entire of Britain.Dunyvaig was the stronghold of the MacDonald family that governed the islands since 1493, when King James IV of England defeated the clan and destroyed the castle. And the first written mention of «whisky» dates back to the following year, 1494, when King James ordered several barrels from the friar John Cor. The appearance of the written term seems to support the thesis that, before that time, whisky wasn’t known of outside of Scotland and that the King had only heard of its existence during the battle for the castle, which also housed a monastery whose friars produced the spirit.
The next stop: the castle of Drummuir, in Speyside: a splendid example of Scottish architecture in Victorian style. After a supper of smoked salmon salad, spiced duck breast with peas, asparagus and celeriac mash and fondant chocolate with vanilla ice cream, eaten in the impressive dining room, we headed to the library stocked with an incredible selection of spirits.
I carefully choose what I will be tasting, and create a sequence of memorable single malt scotch whiskies: Glenury Royal 23 years old, Caol Ila 25 y.o., Oban 32 y.o. (which surprises me for its initial smokey, vegetal notes that quickly transform into fresh, decisive scents like a biting sea breeze), Port Ellen 24 y.o., and once again the Benrinnes 23 y.o., Talisker 25 y.o. (with an incredible balance between softness and vigour), Convalmore 28 y.o. and Brora 30 y.o. Special Releases (which, after the initial malted sweetness, it blossoms into a warm dry explosion with hints of peat).
After seal watching along the coast and a stop at the Kinloch Lodge owned by Claire and Godfrey Macdonald to taste the starred food of their Brazilian chef Marcello Tully, and another stop at The Three Chimneys, one of Scotland’s most famous restaurants, I head towards Talisker. Founded by Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill, Talisker is the only distillery in Skye, whose very existence challenged the position of the teetotaller Reverend Roderick Macleod who called its construction «one of the biggest curses that could have ever occurred.»
History, of course, proved the Reverend wrong, and the elixir of MacAskill was even cited by Robert Louis Stevenson in his 1880 poem, The Scotsman's Return from Abroad.
In Talisker, where I get welcomed by the sound of bagpipes, I get a chance to taste some of the Special Releases of the distillery, like the Talisker 34, which was produced in only 200 bottles worldwide. Here in Talisker, we are joined by Charles Mac Lean, who, along with Dave Broom, is one of the most respected experts of Scottish whisky.
And so here I am, on green lawn by the coastline of this foggy island, intent on raising a glass, along with Charles and Dave, of “uisge beatha” (the Gaelic name for whisky), to toast to friendship and life. Maybe it’s the most vivid memory that I’ll take back from this trip to ancient Caledonia.