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December 17, 1989

OK, so there's no disputing taste. So I can't express my own, carefully researched opinions on Robert Lawrence Balzer's opinions (Spirits, "Single-Malt Scotches," Nov. 12). How about disputing fact, though?

Like, for example, Talisker. It's from Skye. That's island , not highland . So is its "style": peaty, not sweety (which is what you'd get from sherry casks). Indeed, the Cairngorm Whisky Centre and Museum (Aviemore, Inverness-shire) categorizes it in the Islay and Skye group, even though it's the only one from Skye, in recognition of the stylistic similarity.

Or, for example, numbers. "Only about 50 (distilleries) still produce single-malt whisky," according to Balzer. Wrong twice. First, all distilleries produce single malts, by definition; the only question is whether they sell them as singles. Second, my research covers at least 90 (the count isn't precise because a few "vatteds" and a few assumed names have snuck in) distilleries that do sell their product as singles, only two of which are known to be unavailable here.

Then there's dilution. Half-and-half with water? Come on. The usual recommendation by those reputable authorities who admit of any dilution is "a few drops of water to liberate the 'nose.' "

Even the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh, which does "cask strength" malt whiskies only, at around 120 American proof, doesn't suggest 50% dilution. I don't remember whether they suggested 1:2 or 1:3 (water to whisky)--since the one dram I let them talk me into diluting the day I joined was so altered that I immediately returned to "neat"-ness--but 1:1 for an off-the-shelf is tasteless. And that's a fact, as well as a pun.


Los Angeles

Robert Lawrence Balzer responds: Further research indicates that there are about 75 single-malt Scotches available in this area. I have not been able to corroborate Padlipsky's "own research" showing "at least 90" single malts for sale here. I regret that I erred slightly in saying Talisker was "from the Highlands." Its source, the Isle of Skye, is actually three degrees due west of Inverness and the Highlands, a rather minor distinction.

Mr. Padlipsky is dead wrong in his reading of the Talisker taste description. I did not use any variation of the term sweet. The reference was to "sherry-cask scents," and, as the column explained, Scotch is sometimes aged in casks that once held Fino or Oloroso sherry. Both of those sherries are bone dry!

Finally, in formal tasting, Scotch is diluted by half with distilled water, which magnifies various taste components. The column did not suggest that such a water-to-liquor ratio was appropriate for Scotch drinking.

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