Whisky is Scotland, Scotland is Whisky: The Drink That Defines A Modern Nation

It’s my first time in Glasgow, Scotland’s handsomely rejuvenated city with an enduringly gritty reputation – and I’m a little nervous about what my friend Keith has in store for me.

“I know a place, Mike. You’ll love it.”

Despite this sounding like the perfect first line in a murder-mystery novel, I follow him under a sign marked “DRAM!”, complete with the alarming exclamation point – and we’re in something between a pub and a restaurant, all wood floors and stone walls with a long, long bar-top to our left.

Glasgow, Scotland on a sunny day
Glasgow, Scotland on a sunny day

Keith points. Now I understand why he brought me here. There are bottles, and more bottles, and even more bottles – and they’re all single malt whiskies.

A word on naming conventions here. Scottish whisky – or Scotch, as it’s frequently abbreviated into – is never spelled with an “e”. It’s never, ever “whiskey”. Irish single malts and blends are derived from the Irish Gaelic language, which includes that “e”. Scotch uses Scottish Gaelic – and in that tongue, there’s nothing between the “k” and “y”.

(Elsewhere in the world, things can get confusing. American bourbons are “whiskeys”, while Japan makes “whiskies”.)

Scotland’s most famous drink is on full display in front of me – over 70 different brands behind the bar. It’s a sight to warm the heart of any whisky enthusiast, and it’s certainly warming mine.

I developed a taste as an archaeologist working up in Orkney (off the northeast coast of Scotland) two decades ago, and it remains my favorite spirit to this day.

It’s the perfect drink for someone who hardly drinks anything, meaning a bottle will last me for years. Just a sip of the average single malt unleashes a world of flavors that will last you all day. It’s a magical thing. Something to savor.

If you’re a whisky-sipper, Scotland’s sheer range of whiskies on offer can be intimidating.

There are currently around 125 distilleries licensed to produce whisky in Scotland, each offering a variety of brands and flavors depending on age, whether it’s single-malt or a blend, the type of grain used, the type of barrel used in ageing (many of which come from Portugal), or a dozen other factors.

Barrels of Scottish whisky in Islay, Scotland
Barrels of whisky in Islay, Scotland

All this adds up to hundreds of individual whiskies to choose from. There are even places where you can buy your own cask of whisky (if you have $5,000 to $10,000 conveniently laying around, of course).

Whisky production is a major part of the Scottish economy, both internally and for trade. But of course it’s not just about the money.

The Scots feel about their whisky the same way the French feel about wine, or Italians about pasta. Whisky is Scotland – not just the millions of liters evaporated into the Scottish air that forms what’s known as the Angel’s Share, but also the sheer weight of history behind this powerful drink.

Just this year, the oldest-known signs of whisky production have been uncovered in the ruins of a Scottish abbey, tallying with the legend of a whisky still operated by James IV of Scotland in the year 1494.

For at least five centuries, people have been making whisky in every region of the country – and today, whiskies are grouped according to their geographical origins (Highlands & Islands, Islay, Campbelltown, Lowland, Speyside).

The oldest recognized brand is Glenturret (1175) – but on Keith’s suggestion, I’m taking a sip of a Glenfiddich, the world’s most popular whisky.

A bottle of 12 year old Glenfiddich is inexpensive enough to add to your shopping trolley – but this type is older and pricier, and even a glass of it will put a decent-sized hole in your pocket. I hope Keith isn’t regretting offering to buy the first round.

A 12 year old bottle of Scottish whisky
A 12 year old bottle of Scottish whisky

Glenfiddich is what many people think of when they hear the word “Scotch”. It cropped up in the latest Star Trek film (a 30 year old single malt in a square bottle to make it look more futuristic) – and worldwide demand is so voracious that the company currently stores more than 125 million liters to satisfy future demand.

However, if you’re looking for the equivalent of royalty in the whisky world, look towards the country’s newest and most advanced distillery in Moray, west of Aberdeen. A vast expanse of complex machinery housed under a sweeping turf roof, this vast building was completed at a record-breaking cost of £140 million (around $180 million).

It’s the work of Edrington, the company that owns the brand Macallan – and Macallans couldn’t be hotter right now. A 60 year old bottle of Macallan just sold at Christie’s for $1.53 million – that’s for one bottle, meaning it’s thousands of dollars per sip, if anyone was ever brave enough to drink it.

Macallan has the leading position in whisky trade in many places across the world, including the United States, Taiwan and Japan, and has become by far the most sought-after whisky for collectors, even while it remains the second best-selling whisky worldwide (behind Glenfiddich, and in front of Glenlivet).

The Glenfiddich coating my tongue right now is sweet, a little fruity, deliciously smooth, and has a hint of smokiness in the aftertaste, unleashed when you smack your lips and suck some air in.

The dark amber of a delicious aged Scottish whisky...
The dark amber of a delicious aged Scottish whisky

It’s lovely, but it’s not quite my drink. I’m an Islay man – preferring the powerful peaty flavor of the whiskies produced on the island of Islay (pronounced “EYE-lah”). For me, it’s about a Laphroaig (which is like sipping sweetened bonfire smoke), an Ardbeg or a Lagavulin…

We try a few more varieties. I buy a round. Keith buys another round. The evening passes in a delicious fog of whisky fumes, interspersed with glasses of water to clean our palates. And then…

Well, then we stop. We shake hands, and head outside into the cold night air, ready to part ways towards our respective hotels for the evening.

That’s the other thing about good whisky. It’s such a rich, rewarding drink that you never feel you want to have very much of it, if you’re there to enjoy the taste (which is always, always wise – a whisky knocked back is a whisky wasted). It’s strong, yes, but it’s an easy drink to do sensible things with.

Good choice, Keith. I loved it. You were absolutely right, sir. But then, it’s so very hard to be wrong when it comes to good Scotch.

If your thirst has been whetted for some Scottish whisky, stay tuned…Wheel & Anchor has several Scotland programs in the works! Get the latest tours, events, and member news in our weekly e-newsletter

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