One evening we settled down either side of a fine red fire while rain pocked the surface of the loch outside and swelled the streams that run through the tangled heather.
I put the bottle of Clan Gold on the table beside us. The liquid glowed a rich gold in the firelight.
“And what’s that?” he asked.
“That is the Real Thing; a true Scotch Whisky, as distilled in these hills for more than 500 years”.
“So we’ve had time to get it right. Scotch is the only true Whisky, you know. Even the name comes from Scotland”.
“Not ‘Scotch’ you idiot; the word ‘Whisky’ is a version of Uisgebeatha, which means ‘water of life’ in our ancient language.”
“I’ll take your word for it. And your point would be?”
“For a start, we’re very jealous of the reputation of our Whisky. By law every drop must be matured for at least three years before it can be called Scotch. Which is more than you can say for that stuff you usually drink.”
I poured out two measures of Clan Gold and added a dash of water. We’ve been friends so long that I knew exactly what his next question would be.
“Where’s the ice?”
‘Oh, you poor benighted Sassenach,” I said. Sassenach is what we call the English but it can also be translated as ‘barbarian’. “Ice masks the subtle flavours of a true Scotch. Other spirits may not have many subtleties to spoil, but in Scotch all you really need is a little cold water. Then you get the full benefit of all that history.”
“You can’t taste history.”
He took a sip of the Clan Gold. I could tell by his expression that the flavours were lingering on his tongue, changing as they did so.
“That’s the taste of history. Way back in fourteen hundred and something, it was mostly monks who did the distilling. Just imagine a cold grey monastery freezing in the grip of our cold grey Scottish winter. No wonder they crafted the ultimate remedy for gloom!”
He looked at the rain rolling down the window and took a warming sip of Clan Gold. “But I seem to remember that they knocked down most of the monasteries in the 1500’s.”
“That’s when the story gets really romantic. The monks fled to these hills and valleys, taking their knowledge with them. Hooded figures tramping through the heather, asking for shelter in cottages just like this.”
“You’re not seriously saying that’s part of the taste?”
“Actually, it is. Those old monks found wild places where the conditions were perfect for distilling, where the water was just right. A lot of the great distilleries still working today are on the exact same sites as the old illegal stills. And they still use the same methods. A true Scotch can’t be made on some industrial estate.”
“You bet. They were Scots after all and we don’t enjoy paying taxes, especially to the English. So they smuggled the stuff out. They hid the barrels in the heather on hillsides all around here and signaled from glen to glen when the soldiers were coming. It was dangerous work; men died for this precious drink.”
I poured us another couple of shots of Clan Gold.
“To the good old crimes!”
I raised my glass and the warm, complex aroma rose up to inspire me.
“Sometimes they hid it in coffins, even under Church pulpits. So some wild preacher could be threatening hell fire and damnation for wrong-doings while standing on a stash of angelic but quite illegal Whisky.”
He took another sip and rolled it around his tongue.
“Mm… ‘angelic’ isn’t a bad description.”
“It certainly isn’t – do you know what we call the part of a true Scotch that evaporates from the cask as it matures over the years? ‘The Angel’s Share’. You’ve got to admit it’s hard to imagine Angels taking a share of some mass-produced vodka.”
He gave me a grin.
“Then I guess from now on I’ll have to be on the side of the angels. Can I have another drop of Clan Gold? Water, no ice.”