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Tasting Scotland

Scotch samples bring flavor of old country to Christmas Walk kickoff

Food was plentiful at Taste of Scotland. But drink was the important element.

The drink, of course, was Scotch – the water of life. Scotch whisky has been made in the Scottish Highlands for centuries, and has been a part of celebrations large and small, and Taste of Scotland did its part to carry on that tradition. Single malts and blended Scotches were flowing freely at the Campagna Center on Dec. 6.

Scotch connoisseur Albert Kerstetter was one of many making the rounds at Taste of Scotland, sampling the scores of Scotches available on Friday. The tasting just provided further evidence for him: single-malt Scotch is the best. “I love the single malts because you can tell from the peatyness, the color and the odor, what part of Scotland they come from,” he said.

Kerstetter began by drinking blended Scotch and worked his way into single malts. “I just found that you didn’t really get a good flavor with the blends,” he said. “You didn’t get the peatyness or the smokiness.”

His favorite was Dalwhinnie. “It has a nice smoky, peaty taste,” he said. The 15-year-old Dalwhinnie that Kerstetter recommended costs about $70.

SCOTCH MALT WHISKY, like other whiskeys, is made from malted barley, water, yeast and age.

The whisky is made with barley grains, malted, mashed, fermented and distilled. Malted barley is ground to a pulp, mixed with hot water, then fermented with yeast, becoming a mixture called the “wash,” a brew that smells like a sour beer.

Single-malt Scotch is distilled twice, once in the wash still and again in a spirit still. The wash is heated once, until the alcohol vaporizes. Alcohol vapors are collected and cooled until they return to liquid form, then distilled again.

Finally, the whisky aged in a cask. Some distillers, like Glenmorangie, make their own casks. Glenmorangie makes its casks exclusively from 100-year-old Ozark Mountain oak. Once the casks are made, they are seasoned with bourbon for up to four years. Only after this seasoning do the distillers fill the cask with a newly brewed batch of Glenmorangie

Only after a whisky has aged for three years in the cask can it be defined as Scotch whisky. A single-malt consists entirely of malt whiskies of various ages from the same distillery. Blended Scotch is a blend of whiskies made in different distilleries. There are two types of blended whiskeys: one contains only malt Scotch whiskeys while the other contains both malt whacks and whiskeys made from wheat or maize or grain whisky.

ALL SCOTCH IS made with the same ingredients, but not all Scotches taste the same.

“The difference in all of the Scotches is primarily the water,” said Joseph Brandolo, a representative from liquor importer Pernod Ricard at the Taste of Scotland. “We all use the same yeast and the same barley; it’s the water that is different.”

The water used in Scotch bubbles to the surface through peat bogs, swampy meadows filled with decaying moss and plants. Scotch picks up nuances of taste based on what bog the water comes from.

“For example, if you are closer to the Atlantic side with the Isle or Campbelltown Scotches, you pick up some of the brininess from the salt air,” Brandolo said.

His favorite single-malt Scotch is Abunach, cask-strength single malt produced in the mid- to late-1970s and aged in sherry barrels. “Bourbon barrels weren’t used until fairly recently,” Brandolo said. “It’s closer to the way Scotch was originally made than any other.”

ACROSS THE TENT, Glenfiddich offered a mix of the old and the new. “The 18-year-old Glenfiddich is a combination of whisky that is aged in a bourbon cask and whisky that is aged in a sherry cask,” said Ken Danser. “That adds a little of the sweetness of the sherry and takes away some of the harshness of the bourbon flavor.”

That is what Scotch drinkers are looking for – the blend of tastes. “It really is all about what you like,” said Danser, a sales rep from Associated Spirits, a liquor distribution company that represents, among others, Glenfiddich, the best selling single malt Scotch whisky in the world.

He represented the company at the Taste of Scotland, offering samples of Scotch. But in truth, the Scotch at Taste of Scotland wasn’t his taste.

“I’m not really a Scotch drinker but I like the peaty flavor of some of the Scotch whiskies,” he said. “You’re not going to find that in the Balvenie or the Glenfiddich, which are milder than some of the others.”

He also offered a sample of Glenmorangie, the best-selling brand of Scotch in Scotland. “They are one of the few distilleries that won’t sell off any of their product to the blends,” Danser said.

NOT THAT THERE’S anything wrong with that. In the northeast corner of the Taste of Scotland site, Bill Luton, with Hannah & Dunn, offered samples of The House of Walker’s Red, Black, Gold and Blue label blended Scotches.

“A blend is a very exciting way to drink Scotch because you get to taste many different types of Scotch,” he said.

The Blue Label Scotch was the cream of the crop, Luton said. “Not only is the Blue Label the most expensive, but it is the whisky that, when you go to visit the House of Walker, they choose to give their guests,” he said.

Guests at Taste of Scotland also opted for a taste of the Blue Label, along with sips of the whole panoply of Scotches on display that night. Charlie Collum, president of Burke and Herbert Bank and a member of the Board of Directors of the Campagna Center, came to the Taste of Scotland because he wanted to show support for the center. “This is a great organization,” he said.

He wore his kilt, to get in the Scottish mood, and promised to taste the Scotches, but didn’t come into the evening with a favorite.

“Every time you read an obituary for a male over 50, we have lost a Scotch drinker,” Kerstetter said. “We have to educate younger drinkers to the joys of the drink.”