A wealth of surprises

Just returned from the wild and rugged Hebridean Isle of Mull -  a glorious place off the west coast of Scotland. This year the holiday was jammed back with amazing sights, sounds, tastes and a wealth of surprises. None more so than the discovery of a little something called the single malt whisky.

Scotland and the west coast in particular is a haven for foodies. There's an abundance of fresh seafood, quality local produce and some great restaurants. Tobermory, Mull's main town,  is home to an established whisky distillery which produces the matured Ledaig single malts. Once the chamber  music festival had finished I had some time on my hands and went on a whisky  tour, with a tasting session at the end!

Let me explain that, apart from the odd hot toddy when I've had a winter cold, whisky has never been a taste that I've particularly enjoyed. Also, my alcohol tolerance is pretty low. However, despite this, being a lover of the romantic side of Scotland and  in the spirit of adventure, I set out on a journey to discover more about this most iconic symbol of all things Scottish.

Although Scotland is now a major whisky producer, providing masses of jobs and contributing some 4.25 billion to the UK economy in exports,  it turns out that whisky production didn't appear in the Gaelic world until the 15th century. Prior to that there's evidence of alcohol distillation as far back as Babylonian and Mesopotamian times. There's also evidence that women were involved in the distillation of whisky since Sumerian times. Over the centuries women have continued to be involved in the process; many apparently risking death, as it was once associated with witchcraft.

Alcohol production then seems to have been taken up by the medieval Arabs and the monastic orders and was largely intended for medicinal purpose. After the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry V111, whisky production then went out to the wider world and was taken up by the Guild of Barber Surgeons. The rest, as they say, is history. There are now distilleries  in the USA, Canada, India and Japan. Whisky is big business worldwide. However, Scotch whisky remains  much sought after and exports some £655 million to the US alone.

The word whisky  is derived from the Gaelic uisce/uisge. The modern day English spelling of the word is a mute point. However, from what I can see, the common spelling -  certainly in the UK - is Whisky. Whilst Whiskey is more commonly used in the US and  Ireland. Another interesting fact about the name lies in the historical roots of distilled alcohol; known in Latin as aquae vitae which, in Scottish Gaelic,  is translated to uisge beatha - lively water or water of life. Curious, as the quality of water used in whisky production seems to be a key factor and is certainly the case in the Ledaig malt.

Whisky is a grain derived alcohol which is created by fermenting wheat, rye or barley. At Tobermory malted barley is used. Connoisseurs say that each whisky has it's own unique flavour and, rather like fine wines, seems to be a reflection of the local landscape. Which is why the Scottish malts are so highly priced. 

On Mull the entire whisky distillation process is still largely done in the way it would have been done hundreds of  years ago. No bells, whistles or computerised gadgetry here. For real quality the process is totally reliant upon the skills, experience and knowledge of the blenders. Then it's down to oak casks and time....lots of it. Years, in fact are required for the alcohol to mature and age. In this corporatised world how refreshing and reassuring is that.

So to the malt itself. On tasting, as memories of childhood and chocolate liquors at Christmas came flooding in, I found the initial hit of the neat spirit rather over-powering. There was also a faint anti-septic edge to the flavour, which felt medicinal but not entirely pleasant. However, adding a little water, provided the mellowness that  allowed me to experience the flavours in a more measure way. For me though, more than anything, the surprise was in the after effects. Later, whilst sitting on Tobermory harbour, I noticed  a sense of peace, serenity and contentment; with a feeling of being happy with my lot. That's a lot from a single shot.

Although whisky production seems to go back  hundreds of years and it's medicinal value was once priced, it seems that the health benefits of mature  single  malts were not fully acknowledged by the established medical community until the 1990s. Apparently, it's all down to the high levels of anti-oxidants found in the ellagic acid, phenols and acetovanillone which are present in the matured alcohol. The health benefits are particularly noted in older people and some studies have shown that older women especially can benefit from moderate amounts of alcohol consumption

I'm not advocating turning to alcohol to create a better life. However, it seem that -  as is the case with red wine -  there may be some health benefits from taking a wee dram several times a week. I mentioned hot toddies and colds earlier. Well, there may be something in this as well. Once again it's down to the phenols in the alcohol which stimulates  the immune system, giving it a temporary boost. This  may be enhanced by combining whisky with lemon and honey. In any event it would be a soothing drink if nothing else.

So there you have it.


1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating article. Lots of background information and interesting to note that whisky as a cold remedy may well be more than an old wives' tale.