Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Search for Robert Louis Stevenson's Single Malt

Perhaps 10 years ago, I attended Love Is Murder, a mystery writers conference in Chicago. One of the bonus events they offered was a Single Malt Scotch tasting. A dashing Scotsman wearing a kilt led us into a small room with perhaps a half-dozen tables. On each table  was a paper placemat. In the center of the placemat was a map of Scotland with squares around the margins. In each square was the name, description, and the distillery or area of Scotland where that particular single malt was produced.  As the evening progressed, we tasted each of the eight single malts, following each taste with a swig of distilled, room-temperature water to cleanse our palates.

The evening was delightful. I enjoyed the history and the malts, some more than others, of course, but the highlight of the evening was hearing the Scotsman call out, “Is there a woman here named. . .” and he paused and looked again and said, “Prudence?” I wish I could tell you that we immediately knew we were soulmates and that he whisked me off to his castle in Scotland in his private jet. However, although he was a genuine Scot and a great guy, he worked for the whisky distributor so had no castles. What he did have was a bottle of 18-year-old Talisker which, he informed me, I had won—even though I didn’t realize I’d even entered a contest.

At home, I sipped the Talisker as I had learned at the tasting. I used a tulip glass, which is shaped like a tulip to force the bouquet into your nostrils; I swished it around to prepare the glass before adding just a drop or two of room-temperature water to release the flavor; and sipped. Connoisseurs have described the flavor as peaty with a slight fishy overtone. I just know it had a splendid taste and immediately became my beverage of choice.

Research revealed that Talisker was writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s favorite whisky. In his poem. "The Scotsman's Return From Abroad," Stevenson mentioned "The king o' drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Islay, or Glenlivet." (I have since tried Glenlivet and Islay, but Talisker remains my favorite.) In the movie Charlie Wilson's War, the CIA agent gives U.S. Rep. Wilson a bottle of Talisker, which is bugged and allows him to listen to the Congressman's conversations. In "Assegai" by Wilbur Smith, General Penrod Ballantyne's favorite whisky is Talisker. My expertise as a Scotch taster was further validated when 18-year-old Talisker won "Best Single Malt In The World 2007" at the World Whiskies Awards.

As the years passed, I continued my research and learned that Talisker is produced on the shores of the Isle of Skye by the Talisker Distillery in Carbost, Scotland. Then, in a juxtaposition of fortuitous circumstances, I discovered that my friend Juli Townsend was moving to Scotland because her husband had taken a post at Edinburgh University. A few months later, friend Maria and I were on our way to Europe with a visit to the Talisker Distillery on the agenda.

I was the only Talisker aficionado, but my friends Juli and Maria indulged my whimsy and journeyed with me. The tour was informative and fun. The distillery was founded in 1830 by Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill and built in 1831 on the Isle of Skye at Carbost when they acquired the lease of Talisker House from the MacLeod of MacLeod. The distillery was rebuilt between 1880 and 1887 and enlarged in 1900. When a new lease for the distillery was negotiated with the chief of Clan MacLeod in 1892, the annual payment was a ten-gallon cask of best-quality Talisker and £23.12s ($36.62. Today you can’t buy even a fifth of 18-year-old Talisker for that.). It was rebuilt in 1960 after a stillhouse fire destroyed the distillery. Five exact replicas of the original stills were constructed to preserve the original Talisker flavor. This was the facility we toured.

We learned the distillery operates five stills and that its distinctive flavor derives from a combination of unique factors. The stills use worm tubs (condensing coils), which are believed to give the whisky a fuller flavor; the malted barley used comes from Muir of Ord, a village in the Highlands; and the lye pipes taking the vapor from the still to the worm tubes are swan necked. A loop in the pipes causes some of the alcohol to condense before it reaches the cooler where it goes through stages in which the level of alcohol increases as it cools. It then runs back in to the stills and is distilled again.
After the tour, we were treated to generous samples in the gift shop where the staff wished us well and sent us on happily our way to Loch Ness. That’s another story for another day.

Copyright 2012 by Prudy Taylor Board