Experiencing a Scottish Highland games is a heady, sensual experience. Guests marvel at the concentration of sheep dogs herding their unruly subjects, shiver at the skirls and vibrations of the pipes and drums, and choke up a bit as national songs and anthems are presented with their colors. They breathlessly watch nimble dancers’ feet negotiating crossed swords, and hear grunts from athletes “tossing” what look like rocks and telephone poles – not rocks but 56 pound weights, and the poles are 17 foot long cabers, sometimes weighing in at nearly a hundred pounds. Sheepdog trials, and competitions in piping and drumming, Highland dancing, and heavy athletics are the jewels in the crown of a games. To some, there is another jewel, an opportunity to learn about and taste Scotland’s most recognized export: Scotch whisky.
I’ve had the privilege of presenting Scotch whisky seminars to consumer and trade audiences around the country year round, and at Highland games during “the season”, from February through November for the last 20 years. Following an introduction of what the four words “single” “malt” “Scotch” “whisky” mean, it’s the guests’ questions and specific interests in learning more about Scotch that become the heart of a seminar. Questions are answered succinctly and on-point, but then are used as springboards for a bit more explanation. For instance, oak is the answer to “What kind of wood is the whisky aged in?” This leads to a fuller description of American and European oak, and the casks’ previous use in aging Bourbon and sherry, and the role of charring the wood.
Some of the most often-asked questions have to do with the spelling of the words whiskey and whisky, the difference between Scotch and whiskey, and the difference between single malts and blended whisky. Another very popular concern is the proper way to drink Scotch – ice or not, mixers or not, keeping the bottle in the freezer, or not. Learning about peat, and that not all Scotches are heavily peated, brings on nods of approval and understanding among the audience.
Props and artifacts are always helpful in explaining materials and processes. I regularly use items from my personal collection at seminars. Seeing and feeling tools including a peat cutter, malt shovel, tapered auger, adz, and draw knife, along with actual pieces of charred cask staves and peat enable guests to feel a kinship with the skill and heritage that is behind Scotch whisky.
My friend, song writer and performer Jeanne McDougall, took time away from her clan tent at this year’s San Diego Scottish Highland Games to perform one of her latest songs, “There’s a Wee Bit o’ Scot in Us All”, mentioning most Scottish icons, and this verse, about whisky (Words © 2013, Jeanne McDougall):
Scottish is a state of mind, no matter where you’re born
And bourbon WOULD be whisky, if it weren’t for all that corn
And all those other spirits, it wouldn’t be their fault
If secretly they longed to be a single malt.