Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sláinte Mhath!

'We hae wandered far and wide, o’er Scotland’s hills, o’er firth and fell’. The lyrics of a Dougie Maclean song play in my head as I sip from a dram of Glenkinchie 12 year old, lowland single malt whisky. The sweet, light colored malt has the character of lemon, cut grass and a touch of peat. The taste lingers on my tongue and brings me back to one of the happiest times of my life, when I lived in Scotland.

When in Scotland, whether you live there or travel there on holiday, you have the distinct and memorable opportunity to tour one or more whisky (spelled without an ‘e’ in Scottish English) distilleries. Distilling whisky is something the Scots take great pride in and once you visit, you’ll understand why.

There are about 125 whisky distilleries (some active and some retired) throughout the different regions of the country, each with its own unique characteristics and beautiful landscape. Each whisky is different, too. Whisky from each region differs in aroma, color, and taste. There are four traditional Scotch whisky regions; the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, and Speyside.

Highland whiskies cover a broad spectrum of styles. They are generally aromatic, smooth and medium bodied, with palates that range from lush complexity to floral delicacy. The sub regions of the Highlands include Speyside; the North, East and West Highlands; the Orkney Isles; and the Western Islands (Arran, Jura, Mull, and Skye).

Highland whiskies are my favorite because they differ so greatly from one another. I love that the water, the climate, the shape of the still, the type of wood used for the storage barrel and number of other variables give each whisky different characteristics. I’ve had the privilege of visiting three Highland whisky distilleries; Arran, Talisker, and Glengoyne.

Arran Distillery is located on the small Isle of Arran, also known as ‘Scotland in Miniature’. If you listed the most attractive features of Scotland and then tried to squeeze them into a medium sized island, you’d end up with the Scottish Isle of Arran. The fourteen year-old single malt from Arran’s only whisky distillery tastes of toffee, apples, and hazelnuts. The finish is salty and rich. Visitors to Arran’s Distillery can enjoy a dram of the award winning single malt in the visitor centre bar. Don’t miss the Arran cheese platter that features oak smoked cheddar to accompany your whisky.

Arran Distillery
 Glengoyne is a distillery north Glasgow in the Highland village of Dumgoyne and is regularly regarded as ‘the most beautiful distillery in Scotland’. Glengoyne is unique because it produces Highland single malt whisky that is matured in the Lowlands. Located on the Highland Line, the division between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, Glengoyne’s stills are in the Highlands while the maturing casks of whisky rest across the road in the Lowlands. Unlike many malt whisky distilleries, Glengoyne does not use peat smoke to dry their barley, but instead uses warm air. Because of the lack of peat smoke, Glengoyne whisky is golden yellow, clear and bright. The characteristics are clean, clear, nutty, and the finish is sweet and warm.

Glengoyne Distillery
Talisker is one of my favorite whiskies. It is a premium whisky and the eighteen year old malt is widely regarded as the best whisky in the world. Talisker is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Skye is renown for its natural beauty. The characteristics of the fresh spring water and misty salty sea air can be tasted in Talisker’s malts.

Talisker malts are peated which means the damp malt is dried over a peat heated fire and the smoke gets into the barley. The difference in the smokiness of the whisky depends on the time the barley is exposed to the peat smoke. If you pour a few drops of the whisky on the palm of your hand and then rub your hands together you can actually smell the peat smoke! Talisker malts are some of the smokiest outwith Islay... the smokey whisky region.
Talisker Distillery
Highland whiskeys vary greatly from one another; Islay malts are generally very smokey, Speyside malts are usually full-flavored and full-bodied, and lowland malts are characteristically triple distilled, sweet and light.
Glenkinchie Distillery
My favorite lowland distillery is Glenkinchie, located in the small, rural village of Pencaitland, twenty miles from Edinburgh. This is a fairly typical lowland whisky in that it is fresh and light in character, with notes of lemon and cut grass. A sweet nose and a hint of peat smoke make this a good introduction to the world of single malts. Glenkinchie, and most other distilleries, offer a visitor tour and explanation of the whisky making process.

Making whisky begins with barley which is made wet and left to germinate, spread across a malting floor. The trick to malting is stopping the germination before it gets too far along but letting is germinate long enough to convert the starch in the barley to sugar. This step takes a lot of attention as the barley must be turned over regularly and constant moisture and temperature must be maintained. The end of the germination period is marked by the drying of the barley over a fire, often heated by peat.

When the malt is dry it is ground into coarse flour called grist. The grist is added to hot water in a giant vat called a mash tun. The grist and the hot water produce a sugary liquid called wort which is then put in a wood or stainless steel vat called a wash back. Yeast is added in order to start the fermentation process. The yeast and sugar produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. At this stage the wort becomes a strong, flat beer.
Wash Backs at Glenkinchie
The next step is distillation which changes the liquid from a beer into a spirit. Distillation separates the alcohol from the water and other substances in the wash. The alcohol is transformed into a vapor before the water begins evaporating. The distillation happens in a copper still and the shape, height, length and the quality of the copper still each has a part to play in the final taste and characteristics of the whisky.

Stills at Glenkinchie
Scotch whisky is generally distilled two times and sometimes three times. The first distillation produces alcohol vapors called ‘low wine’, which is about 21% alcohol. It is distilled again in a smaller still called a spirit still. During the second distillation, only the alcohol that is between 63% and 72% will be casked in oak barrels. The cask also gives different characteristics to the whisky. Some malts are stored in bourbon or sherry casks which impart color and flavor.

The Spirit Still at Glenkinchie
To have the legal right to be called whisky, it must be stored in a cask for a minimum of three years. Over the course of storage, often much longer than three years, between 1% and 2% of the whisky evaporates. This is called the ‘Angels Share’.

After at least three years in a wooden cask the spirit is bottled. Generally the longer the whisky sits in the cask the more flavor and characteristics it possesses. Unlike wine, whisky doesn’t mature in the bottle so a twelve year whisky stays a twelve year whisky.

Scotland makes me excited and whisky, a big part of Scotland, also makes me excited. Whisky is the subject of song and poem, the heartbeat of many Scottish traditions, the muse to many and the catalyst to friendly gatherings. It warms people during the cold, dark winter nights and refreshes into the late, bright summer evenings.

Whether you enjoy whisky with a drop of water to release the natural oils, with a cube of ice to chill it, or if you even like it at all; distillation is a time-honored and culturally rich tradition in Scotland. A distillery tour is a must-do attraction when visiting the homeland. Sláinte Mhath! (pronounced 'slanzh-va', which means 'good health' or 'cheers’ in Gaelic)

Photos: Bethany Smith, Arran Distillery Ltd.,

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Water Hole

‘Ladies and gentlemen this is your captain speaking we would like to welcome you on board this Alitalia flight to Rome. Flight duration is around five hours and eleven minutes and we are expecting a fairly smooth flight today. Once again we thank you for choosing to fly with us today and we hope you enjoy your flight.’ While the captain expected no turbulence, there was quite a bit of pre-flight commotion on this Alitalia flight from Lagos, Nigeria to Rome, Italy.

It all started when we were ordered to deplane the aircraft in Lagos, Nigeria after flying from Accra, Ghana. All passengers were ordered to find their luggage, littered along the tarmac, and stand beside it until Alitalia personnel recorded who was staying in Nigeria and who was joining the flight to Rome.

Well, Alitalia...that's one way to do it.

Italians, bless their hearts, are not well known for their efficiency or organization. The procedure of determining passengers’ final destinations by way of unloading all bags only to reload all the continuing passengers’ luggage was brouhaha to say the least. Nigerian, Ghanaian, Italian, American, French, and British passengers were ganging up and yelling at the Alitalia flight attendants. It was the United Nations of international lawlessness. Waving his arms about, a big Nigerian man shouted at the flight attendant in words I couldn’t understand. The pretty Italian crew member shied away like a demure gazelle in the face of a roaring lion.

What in most circumstances would be a quick touch-down to pick up more passengers in Nigeria before making the transcontinental flight to Italy, this Alitalia stop-over turned into a spectacle akin to animals fighting for space at the water hole.

Roar, hiss, squawk, chomp...however you say it, apparently it's everyone for himself.

Unlike the flight from Accra to Lagos, on this over-sold flight from Lagos to Rome there were no assigned seats. All passengers stood on the tarmac knowing that if they weren’t able to get to a seat fast enough they would be left behind to catch the next flight to Rome, the next day. Once the luggage was placed back on board the pretty Italian flight attendant shouted with a melodic Italian accent, ‘you may reboard-a the aeroplane-a.’ As if at the starting line of a race, people dashed down the tarmac to the airplane. Pushing and shoving, the passengers trampled each other to board the aircraft.

My husband and I were lucky enough to find seats next to each other and sat down with a sigh of relief. We wouldn’t have to go through the bureaucratic nightmare of having to rebook our flight. All of the sudden, when we thought we were home free, a Ghanaian man peered above us shouting, ‘you in my seats’. My husband calmly explained, ‘Sir, these are no longer your assigned seats. He rebutted, ‘I sat here from Accra, these my seats.’ He angrily called over a harried flight attendant and shouted at her, ‘these people are in my seats!’ Oh boy…

The flight attendant responded with an authoritative tone, ‘Sir, these people are in your former seats, and those people over there are in their former seats. There are no longer assigned seats and it is a first come, first served seating arrangement.’ She then escorted him away to another available seat.

My husband I looked at each other in disbelief. This just doesn’t happen everyday where people treat each other so disrespectfully, so barbarically. I guess it is a dog-eat-dog world but we forget in an age of expected politesse.

The last passengers found the last available seats, which happened to be behind our seats. They stowed their carry-on luggage in the overhead bins and the rest under the seats in front of them/under us. In doing so, my husband was jabbed in the leg with a sharp corner of a brown paper-covered square package that looked to be a large framed picture. ‘Ouch!’ he shouted. My husband asked the man behind him to please put the package in the overhead bin because it was too large to put under the seat. ‘No, it doesn’t fit in the bin, it will go under the seat’, the man said. My husband's tone escalated, ‘well actually it doesn’t fit under the seat because you keep stabbing my leg with it every time you move back there.’ Oh boy again…

My husband is a calm, respectful, courteous person who has never in his life been in a fight. I think this was the closest he’s ever been to duking it out. This man kept intentionally pushing the package into the back of my husband’s ankle. My husband retaliated by jarring the package back into the man’s shin. This went on for the five hour flight.

Both men, bruised and agitated, pushed their way off the godforsaken Alitalia flight onward to bother someone else, somewhere else. Why do we (people) bother each other so much? Are we territorial animals interfering in each other’s domain?

Why is it that extreme circumstances take us back to our animal instincts? Whether it’s fighting for seats on an over-sold flight or defending one’s personal space in crammed airplane, people act viciously when pushed to the limits. Humans revert to primitive behaviour when pressured by natural survival intuitions.

After millions of years of evolution is it too much to ask that we try to treat each other with respect, understanding and good will? Next time the passenger hits the recline button throwing their seat back into your face, think about it. You can revert to those primitive instincts and roar or use your human cognition and process the fact that the seat back in your face was probably not a direct attack on you- unless of course some irate Ghanaian man literally jabs your leg every five minutes. Gently recline your seat, read your SkyMall, and just relax. Kumbaya.

Even lions can make an orderly queue!

Aggression in the air is a widespread problem apparently. Check out this article about a similar situation on a flight from DC to Accra.

Photos: Getty Images,, Blue Sky Aviation