Dec. 03, 2008 - Issue #685: The Art of Rock
Whisky, not in a jar
Gordon makes an unlikely evangelist—he is mild, bespectacled and reserved. When he offers a tight-lipped smile in response to my opening pleasantries, I start to worry this interview will go badly. I am, after all, not exactly Scotch’s audience (being young, female, penniless). However, when I confess my whisky ignorance, Gordon opens up.
He starts with an explanation of the flavour development of Scotch. When it is first distilled and placed in oak casks for aging, the young spirit is “brash,” with “no depth.” In time, this “character is softened.” The wood changes the whisky, and the longer it sits, the more flavour the wood imparts. This character extends to colour, the clear spirit darkening to mellow caramels and then darker browns as it ages. Different casks impart different flavours—Glenfiddich uses new ones (which impart a vanilla flavour) as well as used bourbon, wine and sherry barrels, which each give different qualities to the spirit. Gordon explains that a cask “breathes,” and as the spirit mellows over the years, a certain amount of alcohol evaporates. This evaporated spirit is what is called “the angels’ share.”
Gordon pulls out small fluted and stemmed glasses, and opens a 12-year-old Scotch to start. He informs me that in tasting whisky, “we’re not interested in strength,” demonstrating how to dilute it with water (misconceptions busted—don’t drink from a big tumbler, and really, it’s OK if you don’t drink it neat). I smell the Scotch before he dilutes it (it burns my nose a little), and then after. The dilution opens up the scent of the spirit and allows me to take much bigger breaths. Gordon informs me that Glenfiddich is known for its “slight smell of a pear.” The Scotch tastes fruity, peppery and edgy on my tongue. Next, we taste a 15-year-old bottle. The process of pouring, diluting, swirling, sniffing and sipping strikes me as ritualistic and solemn, like a tea ceremony. This Scotch smells more like honey than fruit, and feels fuller and smoother in my mouth.
Finally, Gordon reaches across the table to open a small wooden box. Ensconced inside is a bottle of a 1977 single-cask vintage, available for $660 exclusively at Willow Park Wines & Spirits in Calgary. Before we taste, he explains that most Scotch is blended from multiple casks, which creates a product that is consistent from bottle to bottle and year to year. This bottle (and all its compatriots—225 in total) is distinct because it comes from a single cask and year. We dilute, we swirl, we sniff, we sip. Gordon tells me this whisky has “no edge—nothing to stop your access to the flavour,” and that the balance of the “character of the spirit with the character of the wood” is remarkable. I taste sweet butterscotch, a bit of spice, and Gordon tells me this Scotch reminds him of “high-class confectionary.”
I lose my train of thought. I sniff, I sip. I taste the 12-year-old. I smell the 15-year-old. I sip. I try the 31-year-old. I ignore Gordon, forget my notes, and lose track of my questions. The whisky isn’t harsh at all. Instead, it’s mellow and complex. Is this an epiphany? Also, how do people taste stuff like this and talk at the same time? I am out of my depth, simultaneously fascinated and cowed.
Gordon is patient with my distraction. Perhaps he understands. When he was young, he didn’t intend to join the family business. His family “didn’t talk business” at home, so it wasn’t part of his life until he started to work at the distillery to make money during a school break. Despite the menial tasks he started on—cleaning chimneys, painting gutters, scraping coal off stills—Gordon says the place “felt like home.” So maybe, though he’s spent most of his working life with Scotch, he knows what it’s like to be surprised by it.
As our interview winds down, I start hurriedly taking more sips, but I’m embarrassed. Am I being too brash? I’ve just started to get the hang of this, pleased this knowledgeable man with my enthusiasm, learned a couple things to tell my Scotch-drinking father, and now I can’t figure out how to finish my drink. After I leave, I realize that I left behind my own angels’ share—a centimetre or so of the 1977 vintage, a Scotch more expensive than I am likely ever to taste again. I feel like a total failure. I might be a new convert, but clearly I’ve got years of penance to pay. I’ll start with 12 years, Glenfiddich’s youngest. V
Peter Gordon, chairman
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