To me, ‘Scotch whisky’ means malt whisky first and foremost. The other type, blended whisky, I drink chiefly when no malt is available. I could, I promise you, be endlessly learned about the different methods of manufacture, go into the history of the thing, etc., but I leave that to others. I address my brief remarks here to malt drinkers, actual or potential.
I prefer malt Scotch not only to blended Scotch, but with rare exceptions to all other spirits. Gin is good for a change, in a Dry Martini cocktail, on a hot day with ginger beer, at other times with ice, lemon and a little water but, please, never with tonic, that vile additive. Rum you need in a Planter’s Punch. Vodka will make you drunk if you can swallow enough of it. Brandy doesn’t agree with some people, including me. I sometimes tolerate other whiskies, or whiskeys, but only in their place. My whisky trail leads straight to Scotland, preferably the Highlands.
It would be a pity if any inquiring drinker were to be put off Scotch malt whisky by its supposedly high price. True, the stuff costs a little more than a standard blend like Bell’s or Teacher’s, but the difference in cost at an off-licence between an excellent malt like The Glenlivet and a classy blend like Chivas Regal is a matter of pence only. To put it another way, drinking the world’s finest wines at all times would soon bankrupt the ordinary customer. No doubt many of the world's finest beers never leave their country of origin. But to have the world’s finest spirit in my glass whenever I fancy is cheap in comparison, and easy.
Brandy, more especially cognac, is malt’s only serious competitor. Most of those who can drink it without physical harm will soon encounter financial damage if they venture beyond the everyday price-range. At my off-licence again, a common or garden 3-star brandy just undercuts a good malt, but serious cognacs start with Rémy Martin VSOP at £25 or more, and those who go much further will be asked to fork out 80-something pounds for a bottle of Hennessy XO – a splendid drink, as I remember, but four times as good as The Glenlivet? Hardly.
From a spectrum of styles and flavours much wider than cognac offers, I with many others nominate The Macallan as my favourite malt. It’s also my daily malt – I keep a stock in the house and it seems to have found its way to both my club and my local. When I step outside that circuit I sometimes have to drink other malts, Highland Park or Talisker for preference, but for me nothing really compares with Macallan 10-year-old at 40% alcohol. I stress the last phrases. Older, stronger and pricier versions exist, but to my taste they’re less good, and perhaps classy malts in general are to be treated with reserve.
I try to hold to the belief that everybody is the arbiter of his or her own taste. That means in theory that you could put claret or cider vinegar into your malt without bothering me, but I must admit I turned a hair or two when my daughter-in-law, normally a well-behaved person, asked me (unsuccessfully) for ice in her Macallan. Only water should be put into a malt whisky, for it objects to being mixed with anything else, except more of itself. But some water must go in if the full aroma and flavour are to be liberated. Tastes legitimately differ here somewhat, but my vote is for a little less than the amount of whisky, say forty-sixty.
And what water should it be? In the mind of God, that Scottish water with which that particular whisky has been made, but as things are try Evian or Volvic, even London tapwater after it has flowed for a minute or two; Glasgow tapwater is excellent. Tread carefully, because we are talking about possible accompaniments to the best drink in the world.
Sir Kingsley Amis, 1993