Wednesday, October 19, 2011

FoodTrek: If It's Not Scottish...Well, You Know the Rest...

Maybe I'm showing my age (I never thought I'd be saying that about Mike Myers when he still used to be on Saturday Night Live), but I totally had his "If it's not Scottish, it's CRAP" SNL sketch in my head when I was at the Eastside Bartenders Association Scotch tasting event a wee while back.

Low lighting, slightly blurry image to reenact Whisky Goggles - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Honest Wasabi Confessional: I have a soft spot for Scotland. And not just because the men like to run around in wool skirts and no underpants. That's just a bonus. I had just turned 21, my parents and I had come to the mutual agreement that I'm not a kid anymore and they were going to retire and move away soon, so we came to the solution that a final family trip to England and Scotland sounded dandy. Who was I to complain? So we spent almost a month dashing around from pub to museum, to more pubs again, and I remember getting a chance to spend some quality time with my dad. Not that we never spent any time together before -- I've known him my whole life, after all -- but it was one of the first times when I really felt like he was ready to treat me like a kinda-sort-of adult. Which means lots of drinking, as the man has the liver of a Herkemer battle jitney. He especially enjoyed Scotland for the chance to try a bunch of different whiskys that would be hard to find in the States, and I remember a few nights where he'd let me try a few sips, I'd make my "holy hell, I'm gonna die" squinchy-face, and I'd settle in with a pint for the rest of the night. This doesn't sound like the most elegant of father-daughter bonding, but for me, it meant the world. And ever since then, I think I've been trying to really make an effort to develop my palate so that when I sit with the Old Man, I can drink like one, too.

Martin Daraz, Brand Ambassador and spinner of tales that go nicely with a wee dram - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Fast forward several years, and I found myself with the opportunity to attend a Scotch whisky tasting at LOT No. 3, with the very marvelous Martin Daraz, Brand Ambassador to Highland Park Single Malt Whisky. What does a Brand Ambassador do, exactly? Well, aside from knowing all the in's and out's of making the spirit they're ambassadoring, in Martin's case, he's there to tell it like it is, from the true heart and soul of a Scotsman. Hailing from Glasgow, the place he described gleefully as a rough, but friendly town with a notable murder rate, where if you get killed, it'll be done with a smile. His stories are as priceless as they are entertaining, his character is true, and he's just a really extraordinary personality, if you're ever fortunate to see him speak. EBA was lucky to have him for a small, intimate Scotch tasting, with a range of Highland Park whiskys, as well as MacCallan and Black Grouse.

I don't know that much about whisky. What seems basic to some will sound like cold fusion to me. So when Martin describes how the MacCallan 12 and 15 year whiskys were aged in sherry casks to give them a sweeter, lighter flavor, and less of the peaty-smokiness of Black Grouse or the Highland Park 12 and 18 year numbers, my palate goes, "Wowza, that makes sense." So, what the heck is whisky and what's with the whisky vs whiskey spelling? I'm not the expert Martin Daraz is, but this is the skinny on Scotch in just a few words: it's a bit like beer, in that it uses malted or water-soaked/germinated barley, that's then dried and cooked in a mash to further extract the plant sugars that the malting process kick-starts. This plant sugar is what will feed the yeast that in turn creates the alcohol, that if this were beer-making, you'd be halfway there, but for whisky, the alcohol from this mixture is extracted through distillation and eventually gets stowed in oak casks, to be aged for no less than three years. For a whisky to be considered "single malt," that just refers to the use of a singular type of grain; kind of like making wine, when there's a single varietal versus blends of different grapes. The whiskey vs whisky spelling is a regional spelling preference, but generally, if you're talking about traditional whisky made in Scotland, you remove the "e," and it's just a faster way of saying "Scotch whiskey," as you just have to say "whisky" to infer that it's whisky made in the land of Zero Crap. This is a super dumbed-down way of explaining an age-old method of tradition, blood, sweat and tears, but it's mostly to prove that the numbers and single-malt whisky/whiskey terms aren't just nonsense made up to fill the space on a label. It's telling the story of where the spirit came from, and the Scottish are known for good yarn or two.

The how-to's of whisky tasting, and the art of taking one's time - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Scotch is not an easy drink. It's complex, moody and churning with the undertones of a history rife with angst, human struggle and a restless literary spirit. It's totally not the first sip of slushy-Slurpee strawberry daquiri that tasted like candy and has you guzzling them like a high-schooler with Four-Loko. There's a reason they say Scotch is the stuff that puts hair on your chest, as the alcohol content can be quite hefty, and a more traditional Scottish whisky has that distinctive smoky heft of charred peat that pretty much knocks you in the face if you're not expecting it. But this doesn't mean it's a bad thing. It's an adult drink, that's really all it comes down to, and you have to learn to nurture what's in the glass to really appreciate the qualities that bloom over time. Which means, don't chug it in a single swig, you popped-collar fratboy. Martin couldn't emphasize enough the importance of really smelling the whisky before drinking. Let the nose truly take in what's in the glass; really inhale it for a good 10-20 seconds or more. You have to be patient, let that initial umbrage haze of alcohol evaporate, to eventually reveal a whole symphony of rich, oaky fragrance, tippled with golden notes of honey sweetness, depending on the whisky. Or perhaps a hearty waft of fire-scorched oak, which takes your imagination to a distant land of endless rolling hills, surrounded with misty fog, and the only way to cut such a landscape of melancholy was a drink that captured the blaze of an open flame.

All that in just a whiff? Fine -- now you can take a sip. But let the whisky sit in your mouth for a bit. Martin described it as "chewing the whisky," where you're literally moving it around with your teeth. For some of the stronger flavored tastes, like the incredible Highland Park 18, you wanted to savor every sip/bite, and it absolutely had a lingering sensation, which blessed the tastebuds after the whisky was imbibed. To truly enjoy liquor is to let it be experienced by all the senses, even its ability to leave a haunting impression of an aftertaste. Maybe that's why they're called spirits -- even after it's gone, a part of it remains.

Hearty drinks with hearty food - two great combinations in one spot - Photos by Wasabi Prime

And like everything, I always have an ulterior motive -- aside from an excuse to eat hearty food after strong drinks (bacon peanut butter sliders or sloppy joe, anyone??), I was glad to have experienced a memorable whisky tasting, so that I can work my way up to eventually appreciating Mr. Wasabi's latest prized purchase, a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle's Bourbon Whiskey, aged 23 years. I know Bourbon is a different animal from Scotch, but the ability to appreciate them is similar, in that your palate should be schooled a bit before taking a sip. And I needed to do my own homework, as Mr. Wasabi has yet to claim last year's Christmas present, which was a whisky tasting of several different bottles that have been hidden away for months. I know, what's the holdup, right? Well, now that the weather is much more whisk(e)y-friendly, I think that will happen soon enough, so stay tuned for a post, as it should be a memorable one!

Much Wasabi Thanks Again to Eastside Bartenders Association for putting together yet another fantastic event, LOT No. 3 for hosting in their whisky-perfect location, and of course Highland Park and Martin Daraz for presenting some incredible whiskys.


  1. Love Mike Myers! Great article and lovely pictures. We honeymooned in a little cottage at the foot of Ben Nevis In the winter and developed a serious taste for Oban 14-year single malt. In fact, why aren't I sipping some right now? Gotta go... ;-)

  2. For the past few years I've started the tradition of making pecan tassies for work colleagues (helps if you have a small staff) and close friends that I just don't have the budget to buy gifts for. It's a family recipe from my Grandma who raised my dad and his brothers and sisters in Texas. Can you say butter butter butter and sugar sugar sugar! They are delicious. In fact, I'm craving them right now.

  3. I fell in love with Scotland, single malt and men in skirts when my son was a student at St. Andrews. One of his friends from St. Andrews wore a kilt at my son's wedding in Sicily. Even the dapper Italian dressers were impressed. Oban and Ila are two or our favorites.

    Thanks for sparking good memories.


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