There’s something child like in the excitement one feels before boarding the Caledonian Sleeper. It’s one of the greatest train journeys in Europe and getting on at Euston, well after sunset, with all the clamour and bustle of a London railway station closing down for the night, one can’t quite believe that the following morning the train will arrive in the middle of the Highlands. Clattering through the night, after a hearty meal of haggis, neeps and tatties washed down by a few single malts, the carriages are pulled through the middle of Scotland, past some of the country’s most romantic sounding stations such as Dalwhinnie and Blair Atholl before climbing just west of the mountains of the Cairgorms and Speyside, ending up in Inverness.
The Scottish Highlands are one of Europe’s last great wildernesses and for many they are a haven, a place to indulge in a bit of sport whether its walking, mountaineering, fishing or deer stalking. But for the oenophile willing to stretch their taste buds this is whisky country.
A glorious land peppered with distilleries, some as spectacular as any wine region, others less so.
This summer Her Majesty the Queen will turn 90 and across Britain there will be a swathe of celebrations to mark her birthday. No doubt a great deal will be made by the English wine producers about how many bottles of their sparkling wine will be opened at street parties up and down the country. England now makes very good sparkling wine and a few estates such as Bolney, Camel Valley, Chapel Down, Coates & Seely, Gusbourne, Nyetimber, Ridgeview and Wiston are beginning to compete on the international market. Are they as good as Champagne? They are different, more delicate, possessing white fruit characteristics and zippy, bracing acidity. I don’t like the comparison but give them a few more years and they will without doubt be able to compete with some of the best wines in Champagne.
It’s good that England can take pride in its wine, but what I always feel is missed amidst the tub thumping is that Britain already produces one of the world’s most sumptuous, complex and luxurious beverages, Scotch whisky. Board any aeroplane from New York’s Newark to Hong Kong and you will have walked past rows of Scotch whisky bottles in the airport’s Duty Free, many at prices which can rival the best Bordeaux or Burgundy has to offer. And why not? When it comes to taste and flavour whisky can be as complex as wine. What it lacks in vintage variation it makes up for with age and layers of flavour, nuance and regional differences.
The most famous perhaps is Islay, the small Hebridean island which lies around 25 miles north of the Irish coast. Today it has eight working distilleries. Here the amber coloured spirit takes on a pungent peaty flavour with notes of iodine, woodsmoke, sea salt and brine. Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig and the now closed Port Ellen sit on the southern shore. Dotted around the island Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila and the island’s newest distillery Kilchoman make up the rest. These whiskies taste powerful, their flavor is derived from the plentiful source of peat which is found on the island. Peat is made up of dried heather, moss, grass and other vegetation which has been left to rot. The distillers burn it to dry out the barley before it is made into whisky. It is this smoke which infuses the barley and then the whisky with its distinctive flavor that is the key to understanding Islay whisky. Think of the ingredients in peat and then see if you can identify those notes in the spirit. Perhaps more than any other these drinks need to be nursed over several hours and are not to everyone’s palate.
The Highlands produce a whisky which is much more forgiving. Although the area is so large it is unwise to generalise on any sort of prevailing style. It is generally thought that the further north you travel the sweeter the whisky becomes.
To the south east of Inverness lies Speyside which has more than 40 distilleries found amongst its valleys. This is the Scotch whisky’s equivalent of driving up Bordeaux’s D2 road past grand Châteaux such Margaux, Latour and Lafite. Speyside can boast some of the biggest selling and well known names in the industry like the Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, and one of my favourite Scotch Whisky’s The Macallan, which is rich, honeyed and sumptupus.
It is believed the Prince of Wales favours Laphroig and certainly on occasion he has been known to enjoy a dram of whisky. In 2018 he will turn 70, perhaps we can mark the day with a dram or two of Scotch whisky, here are three to enjoy.
Three to Enjoy
Laphroaig 10-Year-Old 40% – This is a classic and a good introduction into the character of Islay malts. Deep gold it comes at you with a sweet, peaty nose and if you sniff foe long enough you can just make out a touch of seaweed too. Medium bodied with an oily mouth feel it finishes rich, with a smoky after taste.
Highland Park 18-Year-Old 43% – Highland Park is a whisky I keep returning to time and time again. I love its gently smoky smell and rich, honeyed mouthfeel. This is a soft, one could say creamy whisky but has body enough to be fulfilling too.
Glenfarclas 10-Year-Old – Anyone who prefers a slightly sweeter style of whisky should look at Glenfarclas. Creamy and soft with a toffee character I find this easy going whisky never disappoints.