For those of us who learned to drink whisky in the traditional “shoot it and wait for the burn” school of liquor consumption, a whisky “tasting” session seems like an exercise in futility—whiskies all have the same heat and nose hair-singeing astringency, so what’s the point? But “The Science of Scotch” was the final installment of the New York Academy of Science’s “Science of Food” series—I had sadly missed coffee, chocolate, and champagne—and I figured I could use a little guidance for enjoying this liquid sunshine.
So yesterday evening at NYAS, I was happily educated by the master ambassador of Ardmore and Laphroaig (“la-froyg”) whiskies, Simon Brooking. Brooking, dressed in a kilt made from his clan’s tartan and accompanied by a bagpipe player, boasted his lifetime goal of “world peace thro’ whisky, one dram at a time,” and delivered an entertaining lecture on the history and craft of single malt Scotch.
Scotch starts with barley—“the soul of the whisky.” The barley is soaked for a couple days, starting the germination process. After about a week, this process is stopped with heat, which is produced by burning peat. This is a key step, and one that distinguishes Scotch from other whiskies, and even Scotch whiskies from each other. Laphroaig, for example, is made on the Isle of Islay (pronounced eye-la and meaning “island,” making it, yes, “the island of island”). The peat on Islay is unique in that it is composed of a large amount of seaweed, moss, and grass, and it imparts a pungent and salty smokiness to the barley grains. Ardmore, however, comes from the Scottish highlands, where the peat is composed of decaying trees. This peat imbues the grains with a slightly milder, though still quite smoky, flavor. (While explaining these characteristics of peat, Brooking proceeded to pull out a chunk of the black, brick-like stuff and light it on fire, waving it around in a smoking, flaming mass. Here’s to an open flame in a crowded alcohol-centered event.)
After being smoked out, the barley is milled and ground into an oatmeal-like mash, and yeast is poured in for fermentation. Finally, the whisky is double-distilled in copper stills and aged for three years in oak barrels until it becomes the golden, 80 proof goodness that graces your cocktail and shot glasses.
A few Scottish jokes and drinking songs later, we were on to the tasting. We were first primed with a long list of possible flavors we could expect to encounter: vanilla, grass, apple, banana, coconut, rubber, butter, sweat, cooked cabbage, and marzipan, to name a few. Brooking then instructed us on proper whisky-tasting etiquette—“brace yourself-and-shoot” does not count as proper, mind you—which involved sticking our noses into the glass with our mouths open (so the alcohol doesn’t dull our senses), alternating nostrils (one tends to be better than the other), and placing the glass toward the middle of the tongue (the tip pays too much attention to the “heat” of the alcohol). Brooking also recommended adding water to the whisky—a standard practice in Scotland—to open the flavors and cut the burn, and “rolling the whisky,” which involved rubbing whisky between the hands before “opening the doors” and taking in the aromas.
Using these techniques, we tasted the Ardmore Traditional Cask, the Laphroaig 10 year ( “like mother’s milk,” according to Brooking), and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask (my personal favorite). They were all very flavorful—kind of like a burning fish market—and tasty and effective enough to make me look around for seconds. Unfortunately, I don’t have the income to support a preference for Laphroaig, so in the meantime I’ll continue taking my cheap, medicinal whisky with coke, coffee, ginger ale, and, of course, Bailey’s and Guinness.