LET’S cut to the chaser. The Gaelic word uisge, from which we derive “whisky”, doesn’t mean “water of life”. It just means “water”. It’s uisge beatha you need if you’re talking about water, life and the golden nectar in your glass.

I won’t bore you (too much) with the history and manufacture of whisky. One is hazy and I’ve never understood the other. Been round several distilleries but still can’t remember how the stuff is made. Too scientific for someone who got no marks for multiple-choice chemistry O-level. The basic idea, though, is you faff about with fermented grain mash – hmm, sounds yummy – then blooterate your wort, wash and worm, without forgetting your angels’ share (whisky that evaporates into the atmosphere).

Now, if I visit a distillery, I keep my inquiries brief:

“Do you know what you’re doing?”


“Good. Direct me to the gift shop.”

Having also extensively researched the origin of whisky, I can report authoritatively: naebody kens. Once you get past the Babylonians and all the usual crap, the best explanation is that Scottish farmers or clansfolk made it with surplus barley. It might have been used as rent and, later, for medicinal purposes. Not “medicinal” in the sense you mean it, mister.

I can comment authoritatively on more recent history: in the 1970s, when I was growing up, all whisky, like all beer, was awful. There was no real ale. Everything was flat and gassy. Whisky was all gut-rotting blends. There was even a concoction called Scotsmac, a mixture of whisky and wine believe it or not (never mix the grape and grain). It was called “the bam’s dram”.

Gradually, whisky returned to its roots with single malts. The first I recall were Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie, still decent and popular drams. But, generally, I still avoided whisky: dangerous stuff.

Later, I discovered Laphroaig and was hooked. Peat! Smoke! I’m an Islay man when it comes to whisky. Love of Laphroaig is the one thing I have in common with Prince Charles other than that we’re both useless. Later, I graduated to Caol Ila and Lagavulin.

Sadly, you need deep pockets for that stuff. I remember someone trying to headhunt me for a job (“and you’ll get your own brush”). He was paying so, after the food and wine (always mix the grape and the grain if someone else is paying), I ordered several double Lagavulins, crippling his “entertainment” budget for the month. At the end of the night, of course, I pooh-poohed the work: “I already have a brush.”

Lagavulin is dear because it’s usually 16 years old. A cunning trend recently has seen distilleries flood supermarket shelves with unaged whiskies, conning the tourist market in particular with couthy names like “Highland Bilge”. That said, one or two are surprisingly good. You have to try them all really. As Raymond Chandler said: “There are no bad whiskies. There are only some whiskies that aren’t as good as others.”

On taste, I cannot thole that “I’m getting biscuits and bananas” malarkey. There’s one standard for tasting anything: does it approach the platonic ideal of what it’s meant to be? Thus, beer should taste like beer. Not ruddy biscuits. The best beers are beery beers. You’d be surprised how many aren’t. With whisky, right enough, you can get sweet, smoky or peaty ones: I like all three in one glass (hello, Ardbeg).

Neither do I care about casks. Distillers keep boasting they’ve used old sherry, port or Irn Bru casks to give their whisky flavour. Here’s an idea: mature your whisky in a whisky cask. People get het up about this palaver but I’ll leave that to the dram queens. If I want to taste sherry, I’ll mutate into a maiden aunt and have a thimbleful of the damned stuff before a wild evening ironing my doilies.

I should address the controversial question of water. Here is the news: real men add water to their whisky. I learned this conclusively when on assignment in the Highlands. Our hotel boasted a vast array of whiskies. I hadn’t touched the stuff for years on account of a stomach ulcer occasioned by journalism and chips.

But I was persuaded to imbibe. The knowledgeable barman asked what kind I liked. I said taste of peat and aroma of honey (because I’d heard someone else say that in the bar earlier). Then he introduced me to the love of my life:

Caol Ila.

He also asked if we wanted a drop of water added to our drams. I said yes, because I’d heard you were meant to. My photographer colleague said no, as he felt it unmanly. The barman said: “You should add water. I will demonstrate why.” He poured some whisky into a wee thin porcelain jug that flared at the top to nostril width. Then he invited us to take a whiff. Of course, we didn’t know what to say. “Nice”, “Aye”, etc.

Then he added a teeny drop of water and invited us to repeat the procedure. Wow: aroma explosion! It’s counter-intuitive but, after all that maturation, a simple drop of tap water releases the dragon. Though not with all whiskies: I’ve tried a couple where the opposite result obtained. Unlike your correspondent, life is never simple.

Whisky can say much about you. Are you smoky or smooth? I used to work with a right unionist nutter: the full nine yards, Union flag tie, Rule Britannia ring tone, and his dram was Chivas Regal, because of the word “regal”. He should have been sectioned but instead became a Tory parliamentary candidate, which I understand is a similar procedure.

Not all Scots like whisky. These are called “weirdos”. The French love whisky. No bigger enthusiast than my Danish friend, Thomas. Northern Sweden has its High Coast whiskies. There’s Irish “whiskey” of course, and Americans have rye whisky and bourbon.

Some Japanese whiskies are supposedly good but, again, are prohibitively expensive. They must assume single malts are for special occasions rather than 5 o’clock.

Ruddy hell, it’s quarter past. Slàinte mhath, readers!