Literary quiz time. Who penned the following?
"O Whisky! Soul o' plays and pranks! Accept a bardie's gratfu' thanks! / When wanting thee, what tuneless cranks / Are my poor verses!"
If you failed to guess Robert Burns (from the ode titled Scotch Drink), it may be time to get thine self into a remedial poetry class. Whisky was the Scottish national bard's muse, of course. It was also likely a complicating factor in his premature death at age 37.
I regret that Burns, whose Jan. 25 birth 252 years ago will be honoured by kilt-wearing, haggis-swallowing bravehearts at ceremonial Burns' Suppers around the country this Tuesday, never got to savour what most of us would call the good stuff. By 2011 standards, the general quality of Scotch in the 18th century was frightful. Heavy taxes kept the industry under ground, with bootleg moonshine the order of the day.
More surprising to many connoisseurs, perhaps, is the fact that much of the stuff looked and tasted unlike what we now call whisky. Years of wood-cask mellowing, which gives today's Scotch its amber hue and most of its flavour, became the norm only in the 19th century. Many Burns-era Scots sipped their clear, colourless drams fresh, sometimes even warm from the still. Russians and Eastern Europeans might have identified most of that "Scotch" by another name: vodka.
These days, there are fine whiskies from such unlikely places as Japan, India and Canada that, in spirit though not in international trade law, merit the name Scotch – certainly as much as any liquid that Burns imbibed.
Japanese Scotch? Don't knock it till you've tried it. Wish I could say the same of haggis.
Here are some favourites of the recent and forthcoming releases of limited-quantity, premium whiskies (all prices Ontario).
Lagavulin Aged 12 Years Single Malt, Scotland
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $110.50
Bottled at 57.9-per-cent alcohol, this younger sibling of the classic 16-year-old Lagavulin offers up less smoke on the palate but just as much complexity. I would argue it shows even better harmony. The high alcohol percentage carries the flavours well without the overbearing heat. It put me in mind of an unsupervised children's science experiment gone awry: Cheerios in a blender with liquid smoke, sea water, toffee, vanilla and a couple of Band-Aids. Only in this case it all tastes very right.
Bowmore Tempest No. 2 Aged 10 Years Single Malt, Scotland
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $73.95
Weighing in at a cask-strength 56-per-cent alcohol, this is the linebacker of Bowmores. It's powerful but seamless, with well-integrated smoke and salty tang wafting across flavours of cereal, citrus, caramel and spice. Just 2,000 cases were made of this second small-batch release from the distillery, and it's a bargain here: in Britain it sells for about 50 pounds and the suggested U.S. retail is $100.
Nikka Whisky Single Malt Yoichi 10 Years Old, Japan
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $110
Starts out punchy, with a strong left hook of spice, then delivers fruit, grain and smoke in equal measures, with a waft of iodine and sea breeze in a moderate, Bowmore-like Islay style. Whisky magazine ranked it Whisky of the Year in 2002.
Amrut Fusion Single Malt, India
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $68
Distilled in India from Indian and Scottish barleys, Amrut is well-rounded with a satisfying balance of flavours, which hint at barley, creamy vanilla, fruit, smoke and spice. It controls its 50-per-cent alcohol well. Amazing fact: Jim Murray, London-based author of the Whisky Bible, ranked it No. 3 in the world for 2010, with a score of 97 out of 100. In spirits circles that's a coup for India on a par with the Slumdog Oscar. My quibble: The flavours appear on stage all at the same time; I'd prefer some plot twists and more of a dramatic arc.
Benromach 10 Years Old Single Malt, Scotland
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $74.95
Big on grain and savoury character, mostly malted barley, grass and smoke. I expected more fruit notes from this whisky, which spent a year in casks that had formerly contained Sherry – after an initial nine years in the standard ex-Bourbon casks used for Scotch. The Sherry wood delivers a deliciously nutty nuance.
Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve, Ontario
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $69.95
Independent distiller John Hall has been producing some of this country's finest whiskies from a location in Niagara, where he also makes Kittling Ridge wines. Distilled from corn, rye and barley, and initially matured in U.S. oak, the spirit was finished for three years in barrels made from Canadian oak sourced 60 kilometres from the distillery. Full-bodied and smooth, with notes of vanilla, raisin, fig, spice and honey-nut cereal.
The Famous Grouse Gold Reserve Aged 12 Years, Scotland
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
A premium edition of the popular and very good blend, this Famous Grouse is malty and rich, with an essence of dried fruit, then a kick of spice followed by grain, building complexity before turning soft and smooth on the finish. Great value.
The Spiced Tree Malt Scotch Whisky, Scotland
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $67.25
From Compass Box distillery, this spirit shows a fat underbelly of dried citrus, apricot and malt, with a cream texture that turns tangy and spicy on the finish.
Glen Breton Aged 10 Years, Nova Scotia
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $90.05
The only single malt produced in Canada, by Glenora Distillery in Cape Breton. Made entirely from barley, it delivers the essence of single malt Scotch, but there's quirky character to it, a sort of honeyed-apple flavour. The toasted-wood essence could do with some tighter integration into the main flavours, but I like the creamy texture and peaty note in this medium-bodied effort.