When we headed for Scotland, whisky was pretty much the last thing on my mind. I don't drink much, and I'm more likely to drink something that's 20% alcohol, not 40%. I know it's possible to make a liquor with that high a percentage alcohol and still have it drinkable straight (good Cuban rum comes to mind), but the best whiskies I'd tried in Canada hadn't held my interest.
Early on in the trip our interest in the subject was piqued by the existence of the Whisky Heritage Center right next to Edinburgh Castle. We went back to our host's place and asked what it was all about. He said "I have some Laphroaig, you need to try that!" But sadly, he had "Famous Grouse" instead - it's an acceptable blend, but again, it didn't rock my world.
We bought our host a bottle of Laphroaig - enlightened self interest is a wonderful thing. After we gave him the bottle we got to try it ourselves. In hindsight having tried several other whiskies, Laphroaig has a very medicinal start to it. But what it also had that hooked both of us completely is an aftertaste of smoke and peat that gets in your mouth and jumps up and down and screams. It defies description. That taste will linger there for a good thirty seconds. We spent the rest of the week sampling, visiting pubs once or twice a day to try a new variety.
I was reading on the web (epinions.com, to be exact) that Laphroaig and Lagavulin "aren't good starter whiskies." They're too strong for the beginner, who is evidently inexperienced and can't handle a strong taste. I guess it depends on what you want and what you expect. I love food, but subtlety in cooking isn't my thing. If I had tried Glenmorangie first (very likely - it's good and it's the best seller in Scotland) I don't think I would have written this page. Glenmorangie is fairly good, but it simply doesn't have the character of the southern Islay whiskies. Laphroaig got in my mouth and screamed for my attention, and I thought "they can do interesting things with this stuff!" and I wanted to learn more. Indeed, a "beginner" should know that the whiskies from the south side of Islay are anything but subtle, but if you keep that in mind it's a perfectly acceptable starting point.
This map was on a brochure in one of the bottles I brought back with me. It's fairly good for identifying the important whisky-producing regions in Scotland. Usually the regions that are discussed are the Lowlands, the Highlands, Speyside, and Islay. Skye is an odd case, probably more likely to be grouped with Islay but sometimes the Highlands - or independently, as here. I mention it because Talisker is one of our favourites, and Talisker is on Skye. The brochure is from a group representing the six distilleries shown.
Whiskies I tried in Scotland:
- Famous Grouse
- Laphroaig 10 year old
- Glenmorangie 10 year old
- Glenmorangie 18 year old
- Talisker Distiller's Edition
- Lagavulin 16 year old
- Highland Park
- Bowmore sherry finish
The two bottles I chose to bring back with me were Lagavulin and Talisker Distiller's Edition. I gave some serious thought to a bottle of Glenmorangie, but I was pretty sure that would be available here. And it is, even in Milledgeville.
The Whisky Heritage Center
The next two pictures are most of the bottles behind the bar at the Whisky Heritage Center. What's amazing about these pictures isn't the number of bottles, which isn't that much more than a well stocked bar, but the fact that these are all whiskies. Their prices were reasonable: £2 for shots of most whiskies that are in the $50 a bottle range over here - this is what we would have paid at any other bar in Edinburgh, except they wouldn't have the selection. They had a binder with prices for all the whiskies, and the prices went up as you got into the more specialised stuff. They also sell food, which is fairly good and reasonably priced. I suppose that technically The Whisky Heritage Center is a "tourist trap," but if you like whisky it's a wonderful place to go.
Amazingly, Talisker (although not the Distiller's Edition), Lagavulin, Oban, Glenrothes, Highland Park, and many other single malts are readily available in Milledgeville at fairly reasonable prices (only slightly higher than the cost in Scotland). I can get a wider selection up in Atlanta, but neither the Talisker Distiller's Edition nor Lagavulin Distiller's Edition (which I'd really like to get) seem to be available in the U.S. at all.
I purchased Michael Jackson's Malt Whisky Companion (4th edition) at the Oban distillery. It appears to be an excellent book on the subject, going into detailed descriptions of just about every single malt available in Scotland (and a few from other countries). It was published in 1999 by Dorling Kindersley, and the author is Michael Jackson (not the singer).
I've continued to keep a record of single malts I've tried here.
Epinions.com seems to have a good number of reviews of single malts. Just search for the name of the whisky. http://www.scotchwhisky.com/ seems to be a good site, as does http://www.islaywhiskysociety.com/ which is run by the same people. They seem to have a bit of an agenda - selling you on a whisky tour - but their information appears to be okay. Other sites that look good include http://www.dcs.ed.ac.uk/home/jhb/whisky/ and http://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/. I searched http://www.google.com/ to find these URLs, and you can too.