In March, the 15th annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition unfurled at the Hotel Nikko, in which 41 spirits industry professionals blind sipped and evaluated more than 1,500 entries — the largest number to date — from 41 states and 66 countries. I’ve never been, and I’d like to go next year. It’s considered the most esteemed spirits competition in the world.
Flash forward one month and I was in a room that looked like a laboratory (if Pottery Barn designed it) at the petit and picturesque Glengoyne Distillery, 45 minutes from Glasgow, Scotland, where single malt Scotch whisky has been produced for 200 years. I felt a bit like a mad scientist, too, at a table with droppers, a glass beaker and five carafes of varying shades of Glengoyne before me.
It was all part of the distillery’s “Malt Master Tour” ($83 per person), a one-of-a-kind experience in Scotland that includes a guided browse of the facilities followed by a blending session, which results in the ultimate Scottish souvenir: a 200-milliliter bottle of your own creation. When in Scotland.
Before I continue, let’s answer that pesky “e” question. Some write it “whisky,” others “whiskey,” and both are correct depending on where you are. In Canada, Scotland and Japan, it’s whisky. The Irish like their whiskey, and whether it’s bourbon, rye or Tennessee, whiskey also comes with an “e” in America.
But who wants to spell it? Let’s drink it!
David was my guide at Glengoyne, and I liked him instantly for two reasons: He wore tartan (plaid) pants and he greeted me with a wee dram (Scottish word for nip, sip, splash, taste) of their 12-year-old single malt.
He advised me never to add ice to a single malt whisky, and suggested, reluctantly, that if I had to add anything it should be just a drop or two of water (but this is really a taste preference).
“Do you know what my favorite thing to add to single malt whisky is?” he asked.
“More single malt whisky,” he laughed.
Whiskey is produced all over the world, but a lot of people agree, especially the Scots, that the Scots do it best. It is their national drink, after all. When it comes to Scotch whisky, the words “single malt” and “blended” get tossed around a lot. The difference is pretty simple. A single malt Scotch whisky is made entirely at a single distillery (Glengoyne for example) using exclusively malted barley. A blended whisky might use, in part, grains such as corn, wheat or rye, and mix whiskies from multiple distilleries. Johnny Walker is an example of a blended whisky. A common misconception is that single malt Scotch whisky is made from a single barrel or batch, but that’s not the case. Single malt whiskies are most often a well-crafted blend of various ages of whiskies from the same distillery.
At the end of the tour and blending session, David aimed me toward the distillery’s shop. Bottles of Glengoyne lined the back wall: 10-year-old, then 12, 15, 18 and so on, like obedient schoolchildren. But one stood apart from the rest: a backlit mature beauty of 25-year-old amber elixir with a gold medal seal displayed nearby. Curious, I moved in for a closer look.
Turns out Glengoyne’s 25-year-old single malt had just won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition weeks earlier. It was one of those “Casablanca” moments: Of all the whisky joints (distilleries) in all the towns in all the world, she had to walk into this one. Yes, a lot of other Scotch whiskies won medals too, but I hadn’t wandered into their joints.
That evening, back at the dreamy Cameron House hotel on the famous Loch Lomond where I was staying (unfortunately not in the Glengoyne Suite), I sidled up to a stool at the impressive Great Scots Bar and drooled over the 270-plus whisky menu, though I already knew what I was going to order.
“A Glengoyne 12-year-old, please.”
“Where you from,” the bartender asked, pouring it in front of me.
“Do you know that Glengoyne just won a gold medal at a competition there?”
I smiled. The Scots sure love to brag about their Scotch. And rightfully so. I like to brag about my city, and was happy for the connection so far from home.
I raised my glass and said, “You’re dram right I do!”
Kimberley Lovato has been writing about travel, food and drink for the last 20 years and has never met a happy hour she didn’t like. She writes at www.kimberleylovato.com.
IF YOU GO
Glengoyne Suite, Cameron House