I have been a wine enthusiast for twenty-five years or so and have developed a fair appreciation for the grape and its nuances. Of course, I enjoy other beverages, though my experience and knowledge of them pales compared to my experience with wine. I enjoy a well-made cocktail be it creative or classic and have an appreciation for spirits even if my knowledge is minimal compared to others. When it comes to food and beverage, I am always happy to expand my knowledge and experience when opportunities present themselves.
I had just such an opportunity this past Friday night when friends, David and Connie Bannon, invited my wife and I along with a number of other friends of theirs to their home for a tasting of Scotch and Irish whiskeys as well as a dinner prepared by a recent graduate of the CIA, David Lashinsky.
The tasting was prepared and delivered by Nigel Manley, an English ex-pat living in New Hampshire. Manley manages The Rocks Estate, a conservation and education center, when he is not indulging in conveying his passion and knowledge of fine whiskeys. Having procured a variety of Scotch and Irish whiskeys available at the N.H. State Liquor Store, Manley's selection covered the regions of Scotland as well as styles from Single Malt to blends and so on, affording the taster an extensive tour of the genres, highlighting characteristics, similarities and differences.
Manley started with Scotch and explained the distinctions between single malt and pure malt whiskeys and what makes Scotch scotch. Single malt Scotch is, of course, made in Scotland using malted barley from one distillery and aged at least three years. Pure malts do not come from a single distillery. They use a vatted malt, which is a combination of several single malts. The age designation is based on the youngest malt used. Blends go even further aiming for a style consistent from bottle to bottle and year to year. Blends generally consist of 40-60% malt whiskey often containing as many as 30-40 different malts. Usquaebach and The Original Oldbury Sheep Dip were mentioned as examples of this, while Teacher's Highland Cream was available to taste.
Manley went on to discuss some of the important distinguishing components of Scotch and focused the rest of his Scotch discussion on Single Malts. He stated that "It all begins with the water," which happens be an unappetizing brown color having percolated through many feet of peat moss, giving it a unique flavor. Another critical component of the character of a particular Scotch include its geographic origin, such as the Highlands, the lowlands, the islands and the areas of Islay and Campbeltown. The type of wood used for the barrels as well as the previous life of the aging barrels also provide an important influence on the taste of the final product with oak and sherry casks being particularly popular for various distilleries.
Before actually offering tastes of the different selections, Manley suggested a technique for tasting, which included smelling the Scotch, first in the glass (preferably a wine glass) then after having covered the glass for a few moments; tasting the Scotch for "first flavors"; tasting it again for "finish" and then adding a little water before smelling and tasting again.
Representing the Lowland Region, Manley poured Auchentoshan 10yo Single Malt. With a pale gold color, the Scotch was not overtly smoky. It was somewhat gentle on the palate with citrusy notes and a crisp finish. A 15yo Glenlivet single malt from the Highland/Speyside region was a bit darker with an amber color. Aged in french oak, vanilla notes shone through. It had a slightly bitter finish. Caol Ila from Islay proved to be my favorite of the evening. Aged for 12 years in casks previously used to age sherry, this pale amber colored whiskey was smoky, salty and slightly sweet with layers of flavor.
All this alcohol begged for something to soak it up and our hosts obliged, offering a lovely dinner prepared by a local recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., David Lashinsky. Lashinsky prepared a delicious dinner of crab-stuffed beef tenderloin, creamy, cheesy polenta, asparagus, hot potato leek soup and portobello mushroom salad. Dessert was birthday cake to celebrate the birthday of our lovely hostess.