Raiding the liquor cabinet as a teenager, I found whisky to be the least benevolent of all the spirits, with a harsh medicinal kick that was tough to love. Only at university did I rekindle the relationship, often after a morning's bracing workout as a hunt saboteur. Back then the brand was rarely fancy, usually a cheap blended whisky, mixed with ginger ale, but it set me on the road to a love affair that I just can't quit. The blame lies with Scotland, and part of me will always insist that you haven't tasted whisky until you've drunk it there, preferably after a long drive to a small, end-of-the-road pub. It's not mystical as much as ecological, something to do with the brackish, composty air, the tawny palette of the land, the wind, the rain. As a reporter in the Highlands in my 20s, I found myself in that happy circumstance often enough to work through a battalion of whiskies. But the one I return to most often is Highland Park, which somehow seems to capture the kelpy, peaty, rain-sodden terrain of the Orkney Islands, where it is made (at the northernmost distillery in Scotland). A touch sweet, a touch smoky, and one of the most satisfying glasses of Scotch you could wish for.
Whiskey 101: The Big Smoke
Single-malt whiskies have become so popular that they now account for 25% of Britain's food and drink exports -- or 1,135,000,000 bottles a year. The recession might temporarily slake that thirst, which is all the more reason to choose wisely. Herewith, our pick for each of Scotland's four main whisky-producing regions.
1. Ardbeg 10-Year-Old (Islay) This intensely smoky Islay malt resurfaced 10 years ago. Whisky Bible author Jim Murray anointed it 'World Whisky of the Year' in 2008.
2. Highland Park 18-Year-Old (Islands) We love the 12- and the 15-year-old, too, but this is the king of them all, a perfectly poised balance of burnt caramel, almonds, and smoke.
3. Glenmorangie 10-Year-Old (Highlands) American bourbon barrels (Glenmorangie has its own forest in the Ozarks) impart a subtle hint of vanilla to this classic all-rounder.
4. Macallan 10-Year-Old (Speyside) Rich, smooth, and affordable, this relatively young Speyside malt is a stalwart pro, a little toffee-ish, a lot more-ish.