ALNESS, Scotland -- If the Scotch whisky industry were a man, I would be in love. He would be the sensitive type: unashamed to show his emotions, honest, loyal, respectful, and kind. Public displays of affection would be acceptable, and I would always feel protected.
My first rendezvous with the industry occurred not long ago on a trip to Scotland, when I had planned to pilfer a taste not only of the countryside, but also the native drink. The date took place at historic Dalmore, a distillery snuggled in this Highlands town. When we were introduced by Richard Paterson, award-winning master Scotch blender for Whyte and Mackay Distillers, I was smitten instantly, and not just by his pink tie and matching kerchief.
Paterson was giving a master class on ''the proper way to drink Scotch," a process, I soon learned, that begins with a gracious salutation to the Scotch itself.
''Helloooo. How aaarrre yoooou?" Paterson had called out to his dram. The hope was that the Scotch would respond with the lilting aroma of Scotland itself: warmth, passion, sweetness, and spice, scents that not only describe the nuances of the liquor, but also the people who make the whisky industry function like a well-oiled pot still.
Paterson had spent the first half-hour of class getting our attention. This included slinging drams of Scotch over his shoulder and relaying the precise details of Scotland's square mileage, its annual rainfall, and the nautical length of each coast.
''Did you get all that?" he quipped.
When we got to the tasting portion of the class, Paterson poured himself a dram of ''new-make spirit" (un-aged whisky), then grandly swirled the Scotch around his glass, to ''arouse its scent."
''The only way to make sure your Scotch is up to standard, is to smell it," he said, dipping his nose into the pear-shaped body of the dram glass. ''When I say hello to this whisky, it replies, 'Hello, I'm 68 percent alcohol.' So I disregard that." Paterson double-dipped for another whiff. ''Then I ask, 'How are you?' The whisky replies, 'Well, I'm in a bad mood. I'm hot. I'm grumpy. I'm really rather angry.' " (I began to wonder how much whisky a master blender must sample each day.)
''What the whisky is telling you," Paterson said, ''is that it needs to go to sleep. It needs to sleep for 10, 15, 20 years. We're looking for PERFECTION." He exchanged the Scotch for a sample of the Dalmore's 12-year-old single Highland malt, took a swig, then invited the whisky to ''simply relax" in his mouth, ''allowing the warmth of my tongue to release the Scotch's flavor."
''Mmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mmm. Mmmm," he thrummed, one finger twirling in front of his closed mouth like a plane's propeller. We waited for the diagnosis. ''Ahhh! Beautiful citrus. A lot of orange peel, spice, and a bit of marzipan lingering at the back. This is what you're looking for, for the true passion of the Scotch to come through."
If Paterson's exuberance for Scotch leaves you skeptical, it's probably because Scotch either:
a. Reminds you of how much you drank in college.
b. Is ''a manly man's drink" (to quote my mother).
c. Tastes bad.
For those who chose (c.), perhaps it's time to contemplate changing your answer to (d.) for ''None of the above." Before setting out on my Scotch whisky crusade, I wasn't convinced I liked Scotch, either. But once I discovered that thousands of Scots had fought to their deaths for the stuff, I decided to give it a shot . . . er, a dram.
''One of the biggest mistakes that people make when trying Scotch for the first time, is to drink it neat," laments Jonathan Driver,
''It's important to remember that what we provide in the bottle is a concentrate," says Bill Bergius, brand heritage director for
For those who loathe Scotch's nose, Driver suggests serving it either on the rocks or ice-cold to muffle its scent. One of his favorite vices: a dram of frozen Dalwhinnie with a slice of deeply chocolate cake. I will attest: It's delicious.
The roots of Scotch whisky have run firm and deep throughout Scotland for more than a millennium. Concocted probably around AD 500 (by ''a group of alcoholics known as Irish monks," according to Paterson,) whisky was an instant hit.
To the Scots, the spirit's power seemed almost supernatural. Thought to possess medicinal qualities, it was used to treat everything from smallpox to sword wounds. It could appease a colicky baby. Scotch pacified kings. Scotch solidified business deals. Scotch strengthened friendships and banished the notorious Scottish chill.
Elizabeth Grant may have said it best in her 1898 ''Memoirs of a Highland Lady," which documented her time spent at Glenlivet Distillery:
''That dram was the Highland prayer; it began, accompanied, and ended all things."
The secluded town of Glenlivet in the Scottish Highlands was the center of the whisky smuggling trade in the early 19th century. The newly united Parliament had just imposed its first tax on Scotch, and the distillers saw no reason to pay it. Of the 14,000 illicit distilleries that cropped up across Scotland, more than 200 settled in the small glen. Ironically, the very man who had imposed the tax, King George IV (of ''Georgie Porgie" nursery rhyme fame), chose Glenlivet's illicit whisky as his favorite. According to Grant, ''The king drank nothing else."
Unfortunately, many Glenlivet distillers fought to their deaths before new legislation in 1823 made Scotch a source of revenue for both the government and the distillers. The Glenlivet Distillery was the first to ''go legal" and is currently the best-selling single-malt whisky in the United States.
''Scotch whisky has always been the blood of Scotland," says Jim McEwan, a 40-year veteran of the industry. On the petite Isle of Islay (pronounced eye-la), where McEwan is Bruichladdich Distillery's production director, Scotch production is an integral part of the economy.
''If a distillery closes, the heart of the community stops beating," he says.
''For many, Scotch whisky IS Scotland," agrees David Williamson, public affairs manager at the Scotch Whisky Association. ''It's inextricably linked to our environment, culture, and people. It's a great source of pride that a spirit made from simple raw materials, in a country of less than 5 million people, has become such a global icon."
Scotch whisky's staying power would not be possible without the association's ceaseless devotion to its native spirit. At age 27, Ewan Gunn, brand ambassador for Dewar's Scotch Whisky, already has spent six years in the industry.
''Once a person starts working in the Scotch whisky industry, they rarely leave," says Gunn. ''It's like a large family. Different distilleries trade whisky on an almost daily basis, they share bottling facilities, and even help each other out if there's a crisis. In how many other industries would that take place?"
According to Williamson, ''Scotch whisky is one of the UK's top five export earners, with annual profits well over $3 billion."
Says McEwan, ''When you look into a glass of Scotch, look for the heart and soul of the people who made the whisky. You'll see our integrity, honesty, and history. You'll see our passion."
Sarah Doyle Lacamoire is a freelance writer in Scotland.