On any August 11th, a Scottish grouse may not be legally shot. On any August 12th, except during severe world wars, it may and probably will be. But, since only a fortunate and well-heeled handful of Americans will be able to visit Scotland for the opening of the grouse season this week, some 5 million U.S. bird shooters must be content to participate in spirit, if at all. Of these, an unknown number will find it easier to throw a spiritual bridgehead across 3,000 miles of cold gray ocean after hoisting a few nips, or perhaps a noggin, of a well-aged and cunningly blended Scotch whisky.
And, although unable to grace the 12th with their physical presences they may, if possessed of only a wee drap of poetry in their bluid, yet achieve a vision of Highland moors hip-deep in windswept heather and sparkling rivers full of noble Scottish salmon. They need only to mingle a dram of pure spring water with an equal amount of Scotch whisky, drink deep of the mixture, lean back, relax and close their eyes; the vision will come, with perhaps a coyey of grouse flushing wild from the heather as extra solace.
Long ago in all lands, men discovered that fruit could be turned into wine and cereals into beer and that when either of these is boiled and the vapors condensed, collected and drunk the effect on the drinker is a miracle. In their wonder and delight they dubbed this invention aqua vitae or eau de vie or akvavit or whatever in their language meant "water of life." In old Irish Gaelic the words were uisge beatha and, when Irish settlers a thousand years ago brought the art of distilling (which they may have got from Phoenician traders) to the western isles of Scotland, the Scots quickly learned the rudiments and invented a few tricks of their own, while colloquializing the name to usquebaugh or usquabae. The first reference to malt whisky occurs in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494, but distilling had been a flourishing domestic art for several hundred years, and in 1790 a whisky-drinking Ayrshire peasant named Burns wrote: "Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil;/Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil!" (Tippenny was ale, which commonly sold for two pennies the quart.) By the end of the 18th century, usquabae had been corrupted into "whisky" and was solidly established as the national drink of Scotland.
"If a body could just find out the exac' proper proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk every day, and keep to that, I verily trow that he might leeve forever, without dying at a'," said one of Christopher North's characters; he was speaking of Glenlivet, the most famous of Scotch malt whiskies. (Today there are 28 Scotch distilleries using the Glenlivet name, but a lawsuit in 1880 enjoined all but the distillery founded by George Smith at Glenlivet in 1824 from using the word without qualification, and today the original brand is labeled "The Glenlivet"—period.)
Three types of whisky are made in Scotland: malt whisky, made entirely from malted barley in pot stills; grain whisky, made from unmalted grains (mostly corn) in mass-production patent stills; and blended whisky, a blend of malt and grain whiskies.
Until the invention of the patent still by Aeneas Coffey in 1830, all Scotch was pure malt whisky. It was a rich, robust spirit that "goes down singin' hymns," and it was ideally suited to comforting the bodies and souls of Highlanders, whose lives were toilsome and whose climate was as harsh as their theology. As such, it had a limited appeal, and the English gentry chose brandy when it craved strong drink. Today there are a few Scots, and even a few Sassenachs, who still persist in drinking malt whisky pure and unblended, but the price is high and the supply is scarce. In the United States only a few cases a year are imported, for sale to intransigent connoisseurs, unreconstructed Gaels and other troublemakers.
The continuous process still could turn out more whisky in a week than a pot still could produce in a year, but the product was lacking in malt whisky's distinctive peaty flavor and body. By the same token, it had less of the various acids, esters, aldehydes, fusel oil, furfuryl and other hangover-producing congenerics that make pure malt whisky a drink best suited to soccer players, salmon poachers, deer stalkers and other hyperactive outdoor types.
Today, virtually all the Scotch whisky sold throughout the world is a blend of malt whisky, for body and flavor, and grain whisky (which unlike grain neutral spirits is aged for at least two years), for lightness and mildness. Blending is an art and, by cannily marrying Highland, Lowland and Islay or Campbeltown malt whiskies with grain whisky (in a ratio from 30:70 to 50:50), the blender is able to maintain a uniform character in his final product, year after year. Unlike most American whiskies, Scotch is often artificially colored. (Aging in charred barrels gives bourbon and rye an amber color, but Scotch is aged in uncharred wood.) The coloring was originally meant to appease non-Scots drinkers, who were accustomed to brandy and suspicious of a colorless spirit. But at least one distiller bottles a "white" malt whisky for limited sale.