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Scotch's history, distilled

Wine & Spirits

A new book traces the spirit's rise from medieval elixir to the most popular whisky in the world.

September 14, 2005|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

YOU can read about the history of Scotch whisky in lots of places, from sketchy little sidebars that pad out tasting guides to serious, detailed studies such as F. Paul Pacult's recent "A Double Scotch" (the narrowly focused tale of one single malt and one blended Scotch).

Charles MacLean's "Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History" (Cassell Illustrated, $24.95) falls in the serious, detailed category, complete with eight dense pages of footnotes, but on a large scale. It covers the vast world of Scotch, including its poorly documented medieval origins, the single malt revival and the recent trend of distilleries to open to the public, in the manner of Napa wineries. Fortunately, it's not only knowledgeable -- drenched in knowledge, almost -- but very readable.

It's primarily a history, but it finds room in its majestic narrative for a good amount of information about the technical side of Scotch. Not enough for you to make your own whisky, but certainly enough to understand the sorts of thing that Scotch geeks are likely to go on about, such as floor maltings (rooms where barley is raked over floors heated by peat fires to stop its sprouting).

More mechanized ways of malting barley have been invented in the last 200 years and many distilleries now buy their malt from malting companies, but Scotch geeks often romanticize producers that claim to adhere to the 18th century way. MacLean is more down to earth.

"By 1980," he characteristically points out, "only a handful of distilleries were malting their own barley, and most of these producing only about 20% of their requirement." Still, he names the floor-malting holdouts, so you can hold your own in conversation with Scotch geeks.

The later chapters tell how Scottish merchants invented blended Scotch in the 1870s, taming their rugged national drink so that it could become the most popular whisky in the world. This part gets to be something of a business story, full of the ins and outs of mergers and acquisitions and the ups and downs of Scotch on the world market. Of course, it's a story with its own drama, as suggested by two of MacLean's chapter titles: "A Scotsman on the Make" and "Great Pushfulness and Ability."

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A whisky-sodden world

BUT it's in the first five chapters that MacLean's 20 years of writing on the subject show most forcefully.

He navigates the thorny quarrels of the 17th and 18th century whisky world, mostly brought on by an ever-changing parade of restrictive laws. He evokes the whisky-sodden world of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment; you wonder that Edinburgh, a city where everybody downed half a cup of whisky promptly at noon (a bell was rung), produced so many important writers and inventors.

The 18th century attitude, MacLean writes, "is summed up by a story about a group of gentlemen who had been drinking together in a club in Glasgow. They had been at it for several hours when it was noticed that one of the number had been keeping quiet for some time. '\o7Whit gars Garskadden luk sae gash?' \f7(What makes the laird of Garskadden look so ghastly?), asked the laird of Kilmardinny. To which Garskadden's neighbour replied, 'Garskadden's been wi' his Maker these twa hours; I saw him step awa', but I dinna like to disturb gude company.' "

Above all, MacLean makes it clear, quoting from manuscripts located in nooks and crannies throughout Scotland, that Scotch whisky was not always what we know as Scotch whisky. (He also points out that the Scots didn't start insisting on the spelling "whisky" until about 100 years ago, as a move to distinguish Scotch from other grain spirits. Until that time, they'd used the familiar Irish and American spelling, whiskey.)

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Medicinal purposes

FROM the Middle Ages through the 17th century, the Scots, like everybody else in Europe, thought of distilled liquor as a medicine. Of course, frivolous people had already started drinking it for convivial purposes as well, and the idea of tying one on to show your manhood had made its appearance in Scotland. Traces of the medical association remain to this day -- the Scots call a drink of whisky a "dram," originally a measure of medicine (and originally amounting to a quarter of a tablespoon, though a "dram" of whisky has meant as much as half a cup).

Because whisky was long considered a medicine, the Scots often added spices and other supposed medicinal ingredients to it, along the line of tonic liqueurs like Chartreuse. MacLean mentions an 18th century recipe that added mace, cloves, cinnamon, nuts, coriander, cubeb peppers, raisins, dates, licorice, saffron and sugar to what was probably perfectly good Scotch to start with.

On top of that, nobody aged Scotch until around 1820 (the same period, by the way, that Americans started aging bourbon and rye). British law did not require Scotch to be aged at all until 1915 (on the dubious theory that un-aged whisky led to fighting among factory workers, thus reducing the production of military supplies during World War I). So for most of its history, Scotch has been either a medicinal tonic or raw white lightning. This probably explains why it was often made into grog or toddy as late as the 1870s -- to mask its raw taste with other ingredients.

Scotch as we know it turns out to be a younger beverage than many of us may have assumed, but that makes the emergence of the noble spirit we know today all the more remarkable. For telling this story in full detail, replete with entertaining anecdotes, "Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History" deserves to be on the shelf of anybody with more than a passing interest in Scotch.

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