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Over the course of its historyfrom its legend-enshrouded origins in the early Middle Ages to its ubiquitous presence in our own centurywhisk(e)y has acquired a stature unmatched by that of any other spirit in the world. This has less to do with its actual popularitypeople worldwide drink far more vodka or spirits made from rice or sugarcanethan with the myths that have come to be associated with it. Just as absinthe was the favorite drug of artists at the turn of the century, whisk(e)y was the inspiration for many of the young century's writers. In countless books and films it was presented as the ultimate masculine drink. It was never far out of reach of gangsters, whores, secret agents, bankers, and lonely men-about-town. Ladies and other decent folk stuck to gin, the second most popular spirit in the English-speaking world.
It cannot be determined whether the Irish or the Scots were the first to distill uisge beatha ("water of life"). But we do know that the English were responsible for transforming the Gaelic word uisge into whisk(e)y. The different spellings used by the Scots, the Canadians, the Irish, and the Americans were adopted only in our own century. (Whisky is used by Scots, Canadians, and Japanese; whiskey is used for all others, including generic references.) The English also gave the drink its worldwide prominence. On the one hand, their subjugation of Ireland and Scotland led to mass emigration and thus to the rise of independent whisk(e)y cultures in the United States and Canada, and even in Australia and New Zealand. On the other, they opened up world markets for the Irish and the Scots in which whisk(e)y could compete withgin.
Today whisk(e)y is drunk around the world, and more and more countries are producing it themselves. Japan was the first, then came European countries like Spain and Germany. At the moment it is mainly the emerging marketsBrazil, India, Koreathat are getting into the business in a big way, constantly introducing new brands.
Decreased sales in the traditional markets of Europe and America and the increasing concentration of the whisk(e)y industry in the hands of a few huge concerns have at the same time tended to reduce the number of available brands to those of the few world leaders: Johnnie Walker, Jim Beam, Canadian Club, Jameson. Under the shadow of such mass production there suddenly developed a small, elite market concerned with quality. Scottish single malts, especially limited single-barrel bottlings, are now rightly considered the noblest of spirits, and increasingly the finer American brands, small-batch and single-barrel bourbons, are providing stiff competition.
The market is always in motion, making it virtually impossible to provide an overview that is accurate for very long. Especially short-lived are the various versions of particular brands; not only do many firms constantly present new special bottlings, but the independent bottlers of malt whiskies seem determined to add to the confusion. Year after year, many of them keep putting the same labels on bottlings of new versions whose alcohol content alone can vary widely.
The present survey was accurate at press time, in the spring of 1997, when the Scottish whisky industry was again in turmoil, indicating that the ownership of any number of brands may soon change.
The popularity of the various types of whisk(e)y is just as subject to changes in fashion as is the way they are consumed. For a long time blended Scotch was considered the supreme stimulant, drunk either over ice from the heaviest possible tumbler or with soda in a tall glass. Now, however, Scottish malts are attracting increasing numbers of devotees who prefer to sip them from "nosing glasses," slender flutes resembling the Spanish copitas, which allow one to appreciate their diverse aromas. They disdain ice cubes but will accept a few drops of water, which often help to reveal the malt's complexity, especially that of the heavier malts. For this reason it has become customary to offer a patron bottled spring water from Scotland. All other additives are forbidden, and anyone who orders a whisky sour made with malt is sent packing.
By contrast, bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys are great for mixing. Only their most venerable versions should be drunk straight, preferably from nosing glasses and not, as one occasionally sees people doing in the United States, from cognac snifters, which prevent one from appreciating their aroma. The plainer bottlings are stronger and not as complex, so a few ice cubes do no harmon the contrary, the ice makes them more palatable.
All of these customs can be justified, but one must not forget that whisk(e)y is meant to be enjoyed, and no one should allow his pleasure to be diminished by arbitrary rules.
Author Biography: Born in Munich in 1957, Stefan Gabányi studied cultural anthropology. For many years he has worked at Schumann's Bar, the most famous cocktail bar in Germany.