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Great Scotch!

What's old is new in Scotland, where malt masters are proving their traditional spirit is still evolving with exciting new expressions that are pushing the envelope in the whisky world
Jack Bettridge
Posted: December 1, 2006

"This is the closest thing we've ever done to a breakfast whisky."

Dr. Bill Lumsden is only half joking as he displays a wine glass full of Champagne-colored Glenmorangie Scotch to the few dozen spirits writers who are eager to sample the master distiller's newest limited release—even at a 9:30 a.m. reception. The whisky was finished in barrels that formerly held Château Margaux wine and it's a gingery, spicy quaff with hints of carmelized fruit, tobacco and hard candy that well complements the traditional Scottish breakfast being eaten.

No one in New York City's Le Bernardin restaurant is complaining this morning, but certain elements of this scenario would set some Scotch whisky traditionalists atwitter. A single-malt whisky made in Bordeaux barrels proffered as a breakfast drink?

After all, tradition may not be prized much these days, but Scotch whisky is one area in which the age-old is held in high regard. A 30-year-old house may be a teardown, but we still revel in the centuries of history behind each dram, we celebrate the ancient settings from which it arises and we gladly pay extra dollars for extra years in a cask. Scotch is one of those quaint, maybe a little staid, art forms whose utter changelessness we take comfort in.

Except that that last statement is a myth.

Scotch may be the world's oldest whisky, it may improve with age and it certainly promotes itself as the model of tradition, but it is also one of the most vibrant categories in the spirits industry when it comes to innovation and even controversy.

Put away your men-in-kilts image for a moment and consider that the last decade has been among the most evolutionary for Scotch—so much so that the preeminent industry association has had to take steps to redefine and reclassify some of its most basic products. Neither a better, nor a more interesting time to drink Scotch has ever existed. The breadth of quality drams is like never before and the growing pains within the industry have exploded into newspaper headlines.

Go to a well-stocked liquor store. Single-malt Scotch whiskies, which were a blip on the spirits radar screen a few decades ago, now crowd the shelves and most brands have a range of expressions from which to choose. Some are designed for specific situations, like The Dalmore with its cigar malt. Some distinguish themselves by trusty age statements, but increasingly bottles trumpet the unfamiliar nomenclature of cask finishes and wood treatment. Take a look at the blended whiskies. You'll likely find bottles older than some prized malts.

It's right to ask how something so old can be so new. The oldest written reference to whisky making in Scotland—an entry in an exchequer's account book—dates to 1494, but current thinking has distillation entering the country a thousand years before that with the arrival of Christianity. You can quibble all you want over a millennium of heritage one way or the other, but Scotch has been around long enough that it would seem to be beyond innovation. To understand why it still evolves, it helps to see that its long history has been a tale of shifting political fortunes, and never have its makers failed to take advantage of serendipity in the marketplace.

Consider, for instance, that the country's most emblematic export—single-malt Scotch—was next to unknown a few decades ago. That is truest in the United States, where virtually the entire market was blended Scotch before Glenfiddich first imported singles here in the early 1960s. Even now, despite its lofty reputation, most of what is distilled as a single-malt whisky makes its way into blends. Nevertheless, single malts have exploded into the marketplace in recent decades as the industry tries to slake the whisky drinking public's thirst for new experiences.


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