Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What I learned about Scotch

My travels are always about food and drink, that’s why my blog is called FoodWineGuy. Last week, my self directed education continued as I found my way to the lowland distillery Glenkinchie, about a 30 minute drive from Edinburgh, Scotland. Glenkinchie has had a distillery on this site since 1830, though not in continuous operation due to pesky things such as World Wars. The distillery has always made whisky for blending until 1987 when it was purchased by a conglomerate company named United as part of a portfolio of distilleries representing all of the areas of Scotland. At that time, Glenkinchie started producing single malts.

The visitor center is a modern, nicely put together facility with the history of Scotch laid out on museum-type panels. There is a scale model of a distillery that was lost in piles of rubble at the Glenkinichie distillery for decades. It was rediscovered and reassembled and is currently on display. Our guide Cameron was a young man who did not know much more than the script he was given. My questions challenged him and he tried his best, but I finally got to speak with an older gentleman who was much more knowledgeable. My question was as follows:

Q. How much of the stylistic differences in Scotch are attributable to what the French would call terrior, and how much is simply a stylistic choice? Put another way, can we pick up this distillery and place it in the highlands and still produce a whisky that is representative of a lowlands whisky?

A. While terrior had an effect on the stylistic differences in the past, it was much less than for wines. For example the lowlands don’t have a lot of peat and therefore the whiskies are not as peaty. The sea air was thought to impart saltiness to the finished product as they are stored in barrels which breathe the sea air as the whisky ages. Recent studies indicate that the saltiness is likely imparted from the peat itself, which, being from coastal regions, has more salinity. The water was thought to impart significant differences in regional whiskies. It is now known to contribute only 10% of the quality of the finished product. The largest two factors in the difference in a whisky’s qualities come from the still itself and the maturing of the whisky. Minor changes in the shape of the still can have a dramatic effect on the whisky. The shape dictates exactly which compounds make it into the finished product and in what quantities. The barrels have a major influence on the finished product. Are they sherry casks, bourbon casks, port, etc? How many times have they been used? The gentleman cited an example of a distillery in the highlands making whisky in the style of Islay for a period of time when Islay distilleries where having a hard time keeping up with demand. Islay malts can have 50ppm phenols or more versus only 2ppm phenols for the 10 year old Scotch from Glenkinichie. The measure of the phenol is the measurement of how smoky the product is. The distillery no longer produces that type of whisky and the existing bottles of their 30 year old stock sell from £180.

And that is what I learned about Scotch.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

My Plan in Ireland

It was a good plan, I would walk into a pub in the Yellowbatter section of Drogheda, Ireland and tell them I am looking for some Norris'es. I know it seems kind of simple, but I know that my cousin Tom Norris lives here, at least he used to.

So that is what I did, I went into a pub called Hanbratty's. I sat down with my son, ordered a pint and some food and asked the waitress if she knew Tom Norris. She did not because she is not from this part of Drogheda, she explained, but some of the other people there might. Our drinks arrived, then our food. As we started to eat a gentlemen came out and asked "so, your lookin' for some Norris'es?" Well, turns out he is knows Anthony, son of Tom, but wasn't sure where they lived, although he said they do live in Yellowbatter. He had it narrowed down to a couple of blocks. I asked him if he could direct me to those blocks. He went into the back and came out about five minutes later and said some calls had been made and we might expect a call at the pub shortly. About ten minutes later he came back out with a paper in his hand. "Success!" he declared as he sat down. "Well, actually I have some good news and some bad news" he said as he handed me the paper. "Tom is not in Drogheda at the moment, but here is his cell number, and he doesn't live in Yellowbatter anymore." Tom was called away for work on a gas line in County Mayo, on the other side of the island.

So I called Tom. His Mother Tessie still lives in Yellowbatter. He gave me the address and I will be visiting her tomorrow. He is going to call her and said she will probably get some more family there for our visit.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

I Did the Mash, Part II

This time it was the Monster Mash. If you go to Naples, Italy you must have pizza, if you go to Scotland, you must have haggis. And that is just what I did. The Monster Mash was recommended to me by the nice young gentleman at the reception desk of our hotel at the First at Edinburgh University. He said it was a diner, the food was good, and the prices were reasonable. He also highly recommended the haggis. For those of you who do not know, haggis is the national dish of Scotland. It contains sheep organ meats mixed with oats, seasonings, and some blood. It is then sewn up in the sheep’s stomach and baked. Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking: eeeewwhhhh, that sounds gross!! Well, my friends, that is what some of the best foods on the planet are; leftovers and scraps. For example, sausages, salami, pâtés, terrines, and more are all just ways to use up the leftovers so nothing is wasted.

I must confess, organ meats can have a strong flavor, not all of which I enjoy. I am not particularly fond of liver or blood sausages. My aversion to both is for the same reason; the high mineral content (particularly iron) can cause a metallic taste. Foie Gras is better because the manner in which the liver is enlarged reduces the effect of the minerals on the palate. Haggis is not Foie Gras and I was curious about the flavor. Truth be told, it was quite good. The Monster Mash was actually the second time I tried haggis, the first was the day before at a pub on the Royal Mile. The menu item was called “A wee bit of haggis” and it stated that it was served with nips and tatties, meaning mashed turnips and potatoes. The first thing that struck me about the haggis was its flavor. It was both rich, yet mild in the absence of minerality and earthiness. It reminded me of meatloaf. While I was speaking with a local at a Scotch distillery the next day about haggis, she asked me if I had it with turnips and potatoes. This is apparently the holy trinity of haggis.

Which brings me to the mash, The Monster Mash. We entered, were sat, and ordered the Haggis for me and a Shepard’s Pie for my son. The haggis was a large mound of haggis, layered on turnips and potatoes and surrounded by rich dark gravy. The flavor was similar to my haggis of the previous day, but it was drier and a bit more crumbly. The gravy helped moisten the dish. The Shepard’s Pie was tasty as well; nicely browned potatoes atop ground meat in gravy. I like mine better, but it was good. The vegetables were al dente, a direct contradiction to all things expected in the United Kingdom.

Our shared dessert was an apple cobbler served with Byrd’s custard. My inquiry as to the nature of Byrd’s custard was answered with “it’s custard, a sauce”. “Like crème anglaise?” “Aye kind of, it’s very British” “OK, we’ll have that.”

The dessert came and it was indeed very much like crème anglais, only very hot and served in a small pitcher. We poured it over our soft, caramelized, appley mess of a dessert and dug in. This and strong black coffee was a good finish to the meal.

Why don't we eat seagulls?

This question has been bugging me for some time. Consider that people eat blowfish in Japan and that will kill you if it is not prepared correctly. In Iceland they eat a shark that will make you vomit if you eat the fresh meat. To combat this, they first ferment it, then salt it and hang it to cure like ham. An viola', the uric acid is gone. America is the exception rather than the rule in our refusal to eat bugs. In South America, guinea pigs are routinely eaten. Chitterlings...need I say more?

The point is, man eats what is available even if he has to overcome challenges of inedibility or risk to ones health. Seagulls are everywhere in coastal areas so why are they not eaten. I invite anyone reading this to leave a comment sharing your thoughts. Perhaps we can take a trip to the coast, catch some seagulls and have dinner.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Kitsch is International

Dublin, Ireland

A sign demonstrates that people across the globe are interested in vapid, kitschy things.

The Walt Disney Scotch Experience

Well, not really. But if Disney World had a Scotch Whisky ride, it would be like the Scotch Experience, located on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland. Not that this is a bad thing. It was informative, fun, and believe it or not, family friendly. Of course the kids can’t taste the Scotch.

There are different levels of tours, the basic of which includes the tour, a free glass and a sample of whisky. I purchased one of these for myself and a student tour for my son. The prices were discounted because it was morning, and much to my confusion, people don’t want to drink whisky in the morning. The gold level includes the above plus a sampling of four different scotches highlighting the four production areas and a one year membership in the Scotch Appreciation Society. I inquired about it and was a £7.00 up-charge over the £6.25 I already paid. No, the basic tour will be fine was my initial response. That notion lasted about 4 minutes and I purchased the upgrade.

The tour started with a young attractive Scottish girl giving everyone a sample of Dewer’s White Label Blended Scotch whisky and a brief spiel about tasting. First we look at the colour, then we swirl it around the glass and look at the “legs” that form. We could tell that this was a lighter bodied whisky because there were many legs and they came down the side of the glass rapidly. If there were fewer legs and they came down slower, this would be a heavier bodied whisky. Then we put our nose in the glass, leaving the mouth slightly ajar to allow the nose to work at its fullest capacity, and smell. the bouquet of this particular drink was vanilla, toffee and dried fruits. Lastly, of course, we taste it. We discern the various flavours and determine the finish, which was medium in this case.
er I chuckled a bit at the folks who shuddered and gasped at drinking straight alcohol we all went into the next room. There were benches and a movie screen in this room. We all sat down and a ten minute film rather cheesily done talked about whisky production from the malting and roasting of the barley to the fermentation, distillation, and aging of the whisky and also spoke briefly of the whisky heritage in Scotland. The conversation between the poorly acted customer asked the more convincing bartender how so much variety in flavour could be achieved and we were directed into the next room full of more benches. This time, though, instead of a movie screen there was a large model of a distillery. Our attractive young tour guide talked us through the production. The front wall of the distillery slid down and the interior was exposed. She pointed out where the malting took place, kilning, etc. A map on the wall highlighted the different areas of Scotch Production; the lowlands and the milder product they produce; the highlands and the varied, robust products they produce, the Speyside area and the products of refined intensity; and lastly the island malts and their robust, briny, peaty products. Up until now, everything discussed was malt whisky. The subject of grain whisky came up. Grain whisky is basically what we make in America. It contains mostly corn, with lesser amounts of other grains including barley. It produces a less intense, mellower brew. Grain whisky is used only for blending in Scotland. Blended Scotch Whiskies account for the vast majority of the whisky made in Scotland. This answered a long standing question that my fellow whisky aficionado friend and I have had for some time. What is the difference between a vatted whisky and a blended whisky? A blended whisky contains a blend of malt and grain whiskies, while a vatted whisky is a blend of various single malt whiskies.

Next we went to another room with more benches where a “ghostly” bartender resembling something you might see on the Haunted Mansion at Disney gave us information on the art of blending. For instance, when a blend states an age, this is the youngest whisky in the bottle. When a single malt has a statement of age, this of course is the age of every drop in the bottle. Our ghostly tour guide also cleared up the misconception that some people have by stating that whisky receives no further benefit from age once it placed in a bottle.

The tour further increased it resemblance to Disney when we boarded the barrel ride; a ride through the history of whisky in Scotland as brought to life with scenes and figures a la the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, without the animatronics. It touched on all of the highlights from the flight of the distiller to the highlands because of heavy British taxation to the rapid increase of whisky’s popularity after the phyloxera louse decimated the vineyards of Europe and with them, the ability to make cognacs and other brandies.

The tour ended in, aptly enough, the bar. Those who went with the basic tour were done, but not me. I still had my regional tasting.

The whiskies included the golden Glenkinchie 12 year old from the lowlands, a milder whisky with tasting notes of a creamy mouthfeel and developing citrus notes in the finish. The Highland malt whisky was from Old Pulteney, an amber drink with a nose described as fresh, aromatic with a hint of sea air and full bodied, lightly salty and gently malty flavour. The Speyside malt was from Tamdhu. Also amber in colour, this whiskey was much sweeter on the nose and palate with notes of toffee and some peat. Lastly was Laphroig 10 year. I have Laphroig at home so I was a little disappointed that I did not get to try something different. This interesting whisky’s official tasting notes state that the nose is “medicinal and phenolic”, while it is “salty, oily, very smoky” on the palate. I always thought that Laphroig smells like smoked bacon soaked in seawater.

I will be visiting an actual lowland distillery tomorrow. Unfortunately, I do not have time to go to the Highlands, let alone Speyside or the islands. The Whisky Experience as a great way to spend an hour and a half, learn something about whisky, taste some great whiskies and grab a bite at their café. The “Disnification” seems a bit strange, but it was informative and fun.