In the latter weeks of October, Edinburgh is, among other things, magnificently bleak. I live on its saddest street in what I am now convinced is a haunted apartment. Scraping noises leak from its high ceilings and American Gothic wallpaper and I am afraid to turn out the lights. It has rained nearly every day and night since I arrived, each day darkening earlier than the one before. And though I could hardly bear the sickly sweet smell of gas and uncleanliness emanating from my dismal kitchen, it was the dead mice I found on my blood-coloured carpet that finally drove me out into the torrential rains to kill the hours—walking the narrow closes and streets lined with crumbling churches, dark steeples, stone houses; past shop windows filled with stuffed Loch Ness monsters and dummies in kilts.
A temporary reprieve from the elements of my personal hell (the apartment to which I did not want to return, the unrelenting rain, the inevitability of the long walk home) proved to be in the Scottish air itself which—however unyielding in its shivering, wet darkness—is composed of 2 percent whisky.
Finding myself on the Royal Mile, I took shelter in the nearby Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre and decided to do the tour-and-taste.
The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre
Tel: 0131 220 0441
Entrance w/ tasting: £15.00
Veronica's Verdict: A bar worth the barrel-ride.
“Water of Life” is what “whisky” means in Gaelic; it is the cup o’ kindness which the Scotch bard Robert Burns refers to in “Auld Lang Syne;” and the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre tour, thank heaven, begins with a shot of the stuff—though you also have to sit through a tasting lesson.
If we are to believe the Scottish—and I do—tasting whisky is much like tasting wine; a lot of swirling, smelling, and tilting towards the light goes on. Whisky also has “legs” to be sized up, and can be light or full-bodied. But unlike wine—which continues a secret life in its bottle—whisky, once bottled, is a dead thing; an ironic fate for a drink that runs so burningly alive down the throat.
The tour, while educational, is thus enjoyed in a whisky haze. I didn’t mind the string of dated films—images of people with dated hairstyles ecstatically sniffing into glasses, superimposed over slow-motion clips of the highlands—wherein I learned not only about the whisky-making process but how Scotland’s landscape shapes their national drink in “subtle and mysterious ways.” And I agree—nothing chases away ghosts and goldens up the dark like scotch. This is no doubt why, after the Auld Reekie—an hour-long walk through Edinburgh’s most haunted vaults, and the scariest tour in Edinburgh—they offer you a shot and some shortbread in the torture museum before bidding you sweet dreams.
The “Scotchness” of Scotch is apparent even in the whisky-making process itself, essentially the manufacturing of a spirit—something the Scottish treat with poetry and reverence, if a little superstition. It derives its etymology in part from the distillation process wherein the drink is heated to just below the boiling point, allowing the alcohol and other compounds to rise as a vapour—a spirit. This spirit is then “driven off” to travel through the neck of the pot toward the spirit receiver, where it is condensed back to liquid form. Afterward, the product is placed in a spirit safe, where it endures a final distillation before being poured into oak casks for maturation. But the best example of the spiritual emphasis is the idea of the “angel’s share”—the 2 percent of alcohol that escapes the cask during maturation like a mysterious invigorating mist.
If the Scottish are guilty of one thing, it’s that they have a tendency to whore out their ghosts. Indeed, no Scottish tour is complete without mention of at least one. I was thus unsurprised to learn about blending whisky from a film narrated by a man who appeared and disappeared from the screen in a green mist. From the ghost of this late “master blender” we learn all about nosing, essential in the blending process, when different single malt and grain whiskies are combined to bring out the best qualities of each. As the majority of whiskies produced in Scotland are blends rather than single malts, blending—the man in the white wig and fake moustache assures us—is a profoundly serious business.
By then the initial effects of the alcohol had worn off and I was eager to get to the bar. Before I did so however, I was forced to ride a barrel “through the swirling mists of time” to learn the history of whisky trade. After being jerkily tugged through three centuries, flanked by tartan’d dummies, and barely being able to discern the audio guide over synthetic wolf cries and thunder, I ran to the bar for a drink or four.
My tasting featured four different whiskeys representing the different regions of Scotland—the Lowlands, the Highlands, Speyside and the Islands—which would leave me quite drunk, and in a perfect position to brave the slick streets of uneven stone once it was time to go home.
Each Scottish region is known for certain characteristics which the sampler whiskies were said to display. Lowland whisky, mellow and light of flavour, was represented by the Auchentoshan, a mahagony-coloured animal that tasted like toffee on the tongue and warmed me to my feet. My insides now lit up like Christmas, I followed with the Highland whisky sample, the Glenmorangie, one of Scotland’s bestselling single malts. Highland whiskies are more difficult to generalize, ranging from dry and heathery to sweet, or even smoky. This one gave off a heady vanilla scent, incredibly spicy.
I didn’t care for the Glenlivet, which represented the fruitier Speyside whiskies, but I drank it down all the same, as is my custom in these matters. Of the Island whiskies, famed for producing peaty smokier creatures, they offered a Ledaig. To me it tasted too peppery, with an finish that evoked the essence of a hospital. But I did end up sampling an Island whisky I’ll never forget: I slurringly asked the bartender for a real kicker, and she poured a shot of sixteen-year-old Lagavulin, a single-malt whisky from Isla. She described it as sweet on the tip of the tongue, salty down either side of the tongue, and intensely smoky through the throat. Just like being beside a bonfire—and the moment she opened the bottle, the bonfire hit me. That ounce of whisky was like Proust’s tea, from which a whole and tangible world tumbled out. It was the most remarkable experience of my drinking life, kicking the living hell out of my usual wine-soaked nights.
Since arriving in Scotland I have, in the words of the ghost of the master blender, “lowered my nose over the great and the good.” From the syrupy, dirt-cheap Famous Grouse, the bestselling whisky in Scotland (which I drink at my nearby pub when I do not wish to go home) to the Lagavulin. And each whisky never fails to go straight to the guts of my soul in a golden rush of fire and forgetting—qualities, I think, that are essential to my long walk home and the even longer hours of darkness ahead.
Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) is Maisonneuve’s connoisseur of all things culinary and libidinous. Her column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Veronica Tartley.