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It has long been known that the best spirit was, and still is, distilled in the Highlands.

No one can tell us the precise moment Scotch Whisky was first distilled but what we do know is when it was first recorded. An entry in the exchequer rolls of 1494 listed eight bolls of malt supplied to Friar John Cor to make aqua vitae - water of life - thus it is clear that distilling was by then well established.

What is certain is that the Ancient Celts (picts) practiced this art and had an expressive name for the fiery liquid they produced - uisge-beatha - water of life. Celts were very mysterious people, brave warriors who lived off the land, farmers and early distillers it seems, a life we know very little of full of mystery and superstition.

The art of distilling in Scotland could well date back 2000 years and more. The Scottish picts date as far back as 8500 bc, what raw materials or types of stills they were using is unknown to us.

Celtic spirits is a specialist spirit merchant within MacKenzies' Coffee Shop in the Victorian spa village of Strathpeffer, Ross-Shire. We are 18 miles north of Inverness and not far from the the vitrified Pictish fort at Knockfarrel, which is thought to be part of King Brude's (Bridei) land. Along with our strong Celtic connections in the Highlands we intend to include all the other known Celtic regions including those in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, France, Spain and Italy. If we don't have what you are looking for, we will do our best to source it for you.

Although made from only a few key ingredients, whisky is one of the most deliciously complex spirits in the world. It's the where and the how of the whisky making process that has the biggest influence on taste and aroma.

Five whisky basics, according to whisky experts

  • It's okay, in fact it's best, to drink whisky with water. Sip it neat first to compare tastes with and without water. Note how the flavours and aromas open up with just a few drops of water. Mixers are no longer taboo if you want a longer drink.
  • Hold your mouth slightly open when you sniff your whisky to explore the aromas.
  • Whisky is a great accompaniment to food - and sensational with chocolate. Pair different styles of whisky with smoked fish, cheeses, cold cuts and desserts.
  • Whisky is best enjoyed with friends. Hold an informal whisky tasting and compare notes between malts from different regions or a variety of blends.
  • Flavour is more important than age. Ignore whisky snobs. Enjoying whisky is an entirely personal thing and you are the best judge of what you like.

 

To 'e' or not to 'e': the big whisky question

As with the 'color' and 'flavor' of their whisky, the Americans like to spell things differently. That's why you'll see whiskey with an 'e' on whiskeys (note the plural) made in the US. The same goes for whiskey from Ireland. Pretty much everywhere else – Scotland, Canada, Japan, India– you'll come across whisky spelt without an 'e' and whiskies in plural. To keep things simple, Celtic Spirits uses whisky when talking about the spirit in general terms, with no offence meant to the fantastic American and Irish distillers.

When selecting a whisky, age is not shorthand for quality. It can be from region or from one of the following.

Single malt – Single malt whisky is distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley without the addition of any other cereals. Single malts are never blended with a product from another distillery. Unique production and regimes create a wide variation in aromas and flavours among single malt whiskies. While typically associated with Scotland, single malt whiskies are also produced in other country's

Single grain – Single grain whisky is distilled at a single distillery using water and malted or un-malted whole grains. The majority of single grain whisky is produced for blending, however There are a few different single grain scotch whiskies for sale.

Blended – This is a blend of one or more single malts, with one or more grain whiskies. Blends can contain anywhere from two or three malts to 20 or 30. Blended whiskies are among the world's highest quality and most popular premium spirits,

Blended malts – Blended malt whisky is a blend of single malt whiskies which have been distilled at more than one distillery.

Scotland's long and colourful whisky producing history has made scotch and whisky almost synonymous for many spirits lovers. In case you've ever wondered when to refer to your favourite malt or blend Celtic Spirits have a few pointers on the subject.

Scotch or not?

Scotch whisky, or just "scotch," is whisky that has been wholly matured in oak casks in Scotland for at least 3 years by licensed distillers. Scotch whisky can be blended or a single malt and in recent years single malt whisky has attracted faithful followers. There are more than 100 single malt whisky distilleries operating in Scotland alone, and like French wine, single malts are typically characterised by region.

From the smoky malts of Islay to the Highlands' smooth and floral, single malt scotch varies greatly across the regions. Typically, malts of the same region share similar aromas and flavours. Single malt scotch is classified by the following regions:

Island malts: peaty maritime.
Islay, Jura, Mull and Skye. Single malts such as Talisker, with its slight smokiness and spice, come from Skye. Islay malts offer much more smoke. Delicious examples of the Islay smokiness include Caol Ila, Laphroig, Bowmore and Killhomen.

Speyside: fruity and delicate.
Some of the most complex, smooth and balanced malts. Macallum, Cardhu, Glenfiddich all hail from the Speyside region.

Highland: smooth and floral.
Ideal for newcomers to Scotch whisky. Light and delicate malts are produced in this wild region. Some people may say I'm bias, as I'm a highlander, but the best whisky has alway been Highland...and always will be.

Lowlands: light and fresh.
Few distilleries remain in the lowlands,

Each distiller influences the flavour of their spirit at every stage of the process, resulting in unique single malt whiskies with shared qualities.

More scotch facts to whet your palate -

  • Scotch whisky typically has a stronger taste the further west it is made in Scotland. West coast malts tend to have a smoky, peaty flavour.
  • Scotch tends to be smokier in flavour than other whiskies, due to the malt often being dried in peat-fired kilns.
  • Also playing a big part in the flavours of whisky are the barrels and warehousing that it's matured in. I maintain that a nice cold with a bit of damp is good start and finish, as with the Bourbon barrels, wine barrels or sherry casks.

There's an intellectual aspect to single malt whisky, which appeals to young newcomers. You need to dig deep to really explore the different aromas and flavours and what makes them the way they are and to to find the whiskies which appeal to the individual. We are all deferent and there is a spirit for each one of us.

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Product of the month

oldmaltcaskOld Malt Cask

Caol Ila Distillery Aged 17 years 700 ml. 50% acl./vol. Distlled 1996 September, Bottled 2013 October.

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