I’m 56 years old. And for the sake of my reputation with my grandchildren, let’s just say that I never touched a drop of alcohol til I was 21 and it was legal to do so here in Illinois. Having accepted that, I think you’d agree that it’s odd for me to be writing about all the wonderful “spirits” I’ve discovered when for the first twenty years of my eligibility, I seldom drank anything but domestic beer…and most of that was “lite” beer at that. Two things make this feasible. The first is a wine renaissance that started in 1998…but that’s another column. The second is the chance Carol and I had to live in the United Kingdom for two and half years.
In May 2001, we moved from Peoria to Langtoft, Lincolnshire, a village of 1,400 located in the fens of the East Midlands. Langtoft’s rich history is well chronicled in Carol’s “Life in England” series so I won’t expand on it here. I will say that while I didn’t realize it at the time, when we moved into our new home just across the road from the Waggon and Horses, our local pub, my drinking knowledge and experience was about to start up a very steep learning curve.
My first experience in the Waggon was a memorable one. I was on my own as Carol was still back in Peoria packing and trying to sell our house. I had my first real beer (ale or bitter as it’s called) that night but again, that’s another story. It was some months later that one of our new “mates” introduced me to single malt whiskies. Single malts are just that, a whisky made from a single malt, as opposed to blends of malts or grains as our domestic selections tend to be.
Much has been written about Scotland’s single malts. So much that I won’t go into great detail here about how these wonderful whiskies get their unique flavors. And while I don’t know the exact number of available brands, if you’d like to get started, you could try one of the classic six. These six single malts have been marketed (very successfully) together since the late 1980’s and are widely available here in the states. In fact, if a bar offers a single malt, it will likely be Glenfiddich, a popular lower priced option, or one or more of the classic six. They are: Talisker (Islands); Cragganmore (Speyside); Oban (West Highlands); Lagavulin (Islay); Dalwhinnie (Highlands); and Glenkinchie (Lowlands).
As I said, this isn’t intended to be a whisky producing primer, but the local water source and peat smoke give these spirits their unique and sometimes shocking tastes. In most recipes, a level of peat smoke is introduced to the kiln at some point in the process. This adds phenols, imparting a smoky aroma and flavor to the whisky which in my personal view is absolutely beautiful.
Which brings us then to Lagavulin. I first tasted this smoky number at the Seacliffe Hotel in Whitby on the shores of the North Sea in eastern England. I had, as I said, been exposed to a couple different single malts (Talisker and Oban) by that time but nothing had prepared me for the flavor of Lagavulin. It remains by favorite and if you haven’t tried single malt whiskies, I encourage you to do so. Drink them straight up of course, no ice, a single shot at a pour. And do try Lagavulin, for peat’s sake!