21 Sep 2014
The second time I had a real dram of Scotch on the tongue, as opposed to “Scotch and coke, please”, was in a tiny village just north of the small village of Tongue on the north coast of Scotland. The first was just hours previously.
My son and I had hired a Jaguar and, with four days to drive around Scotland, we’d reached the midpoint in what was one memorable road trip. Directed by a friend through the Cairngorms instead of taking the highway, we’d motored through some lush scenery, had lunch in the Glenlivet distillery, afternoon tea at John O’Groats, and tucked into a hearty dinner in a wee hotel in Craggan, which is literally a handful of houses with a huge view over the Kyle of Tongue.
We’d been playing Iain Banks’ audiobook Raw Spirit – In Search of the Perfect Dram along the way. This book, supposedly a guide to Scotland’s whisky distilleries, is also half literary autobiography, half motoring tales, half political philosophy, half Scottish history and all of it hugely entertaining. On missing the distillery tour at Glenlivet we had demanded a taster to soften the blow. We’d sat down before a carefully crafted authentic hearth, swirled the golden liquid around thistle-shaped glasses and tried to pretend we knew what we were tasting.
Clearly, we had no idea what Banks was raving about, so after an afternoon of driving up the coast north of Inverness, being tourists at John O’Groats, and dodging highland sheep on ridiculously picturesque roads, we repaired to the tiny bar of the Hotel Craggan to learn a thing or two about Scotch.
The Craggan Hotel, Barstool of Learning
There were a couple of locals in residence, and they offered to teach us a thing or two. This may have been a mistake.
Over the next hours, although we didn’t pick up the subtle nuances of nose and tongue, mouth and finish, we gained an understanding of the differences between a fruity Speyside single malt and the more robust tastes of the Islands. Our new friends happily shared in the class, and while we could wobble upstairs, some had further to go. “Och, ’tis fine; the car knows the way home,” one said.
In truth, I don’t remember a real lot of the details. Laphroaig was too savage and peaty for me, I recall, though my son liked it a lot. He may even have licked the glass to squeeze out the final drops.
“Is there anything local?” I asked, after an intoxicating tour of Scotland in a room half the size of my kitchen.
The locals considered, their eyes scanning the higher shelves of the bar’s stock. “Well, there’s Scapa and Highland Park from Orkney,” one mused.
Raised on a literary diet of naval history and science fiction, I selected Scapa, a not-too-outrageous mix of peaty and tangy, sweet and mellow. It’s probably my favourite dram, even now, despite some enjoyable competition from the middle reaches of single malts, each bottle costing north of a hundred dollars.
It’s hard to find in Australia, but I buy a bottle when I can find one, and the first drop of that golden Scotch on my tongue takes me half a world away, to a wee bar in a minuscule pub, in a land where the scenery is grand, the roads twisty and the cows shaggy.