Rupert Croft-Cook on Whisky

From Chapter 14, “Whisky”, in Wine and Other Drinks by Rupert Croft Cooke (London and Glasgow, 1963), pp. 117-22:

In the last fifty years we have seen many things reduced to a standard pattern but none more than whisky.  Tea, bread, cigarettes, beer––these are all made all grown and packed in vast quantities, all sold in uniform condition and quality.  The time will come when the shopper has no choice in anything; it will be great this, price that, and there you are.
Not that the standards are low ones.  Cigarettes of all the popular makes are probably better than many of those sold in my boyhood; there was a good deal of poor tea and there was certainly some rough, cheap whisky.  But taxation levels all things.  Before the first World War whisky cost about 3/6 bottle and a fine quality whisky 5/–.  The standard price of today is over 40/– of which about three quarters is paid in tax.  This means that only someone who cares for whisky as whisky, and not as a convenient form of alcohol, will pay more than the high standard price for a finer quality.
Many of the younger generation, in fact, simply do not know that there are such things.  Whisky is whisky to them; its only distinctions, which few of them can perceive, are between one advertised brand and another, whether you prefer John Haig to White Horse or vice versa.  If you talked of the bouquet of a fine whisky, its “peatiness”, its maturity, smoothness, colour or age, you would be thought affected and obscure.  Yet all these are as important as the corresponding qualities in brandy.  And fine whisky is still attainable at a cost which, because the tax is the same, Is only a little more monstrous than the price of whisky of standard quality.

Scotch: Malt and blended
Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, who has written a book on Scotch whisky* which is as full of entertainment as it is of information, divides whisky into six types:

“Pride of place belongs to Scotch malt whisky which is distilled in Scotland in a simple pot-still from a mash consisting entirely of malted barley.  It has a more distinctive flavour than all other whiskies owing to the exclusive use of malted barley and to the design of the stills.
“Scotch grain whisky is distilled in a ‘patent’ or continuous still from a mixed mash of cereal grain, preferably maize.  Malted barley is used to convert or saccharify the unmalted grain used in the mash.  The ‘patent-still’ has a more efficient rectification and greater fuel economy, but the whisky has less character than Scotch ‘malt.’
“Blended Scotch whisky is a mixture of matured Scotch ‘malt’ and Scotch ‘grain.’  The character of the blend is influenced partly by the skill and judgement of the blender and partly by the quality of the whisky used.
“Irish whiskey is distilled in Ireland from a mask of cereal grains saccharified by malted grain.
“American rye whisky is made from a mash of mixed cereal grains.  The mash must contain at least 51 per cent of rye.
“American Bourbon or corn whisky is distilled from a mash which must contain at least 51 per cent of maize.”
He regrets the passing from popular consumption of the single pot-still malt whisky, but admits that it goes best with Highland air and is ill-suited to the man who sits all day in an office.  It can still be obtained in its true state though most of that made today is used for blending with grain whisky to produce the popular brands.  Even so it is pot-still malt whisky from the Highlands, “off granite through peat,” which gives Scotch whisky its character.  Several brands can be obtained, some of which sell at as little as seven shillings a bottle more than blended whisky.
This at least, should not be drunk with soda.  Just as it would need someone lacking in all taste or sensitiveness to squirt soda into a fine old brandy, so to adulterate a great whisky would be Philistinism.  But lighter, younger brandies are often made for the purpose of drinking in a diluted form, and so are everyday blended whiskies.  It would be an affectation to serve whisky as we understand it in the South, the standard spirit meted out so scrupulously by publicans, in a brandy glass, but a fine old whisky, when it is obtainable, repays this. 
The way to drink whisky, like the way to drink anything else from claret to crème-de-menthe, is of course how one likes.  It is only because we so rarely see a very fine whisky that a caution is worth voicing.  The blended whisky we know can be drunk with or without soda, water, ice, just as it is preferred.  Ice will destroy much of its character but, as the majority of Englishman who drink it today are not interested in this, the objection is overruled.  I must say I can never see it drunk with ginger-ale or Coca-Cola without horror, for this would seem to mean that the drinker does not even like the taste of whisky and is consuming it merely for a temporary lift.  But on principle I would say he was right to drink it as he wishes.  It is only a great whisky which demands reverence.
However, our everyday whiskies should not be dismissed as poor, tasteless or without aroma.  On the contrary they are made with great care and skill and the blending of them is an art as intricate and solicitous as the blending of brandy or Sherry.  Grain whisky is almost tasteless but blended with the full-flavoured ‘single‘ malt whisky, of the Highlands, that is, that made entirely from malted barley, it produces the drink we know.  It was about a century ago that this blending began and it has become today the general practice of the great distilleries of the Lowlands.  The result, as we know, is a good sound whisky, lighter and more suited to the general taste than single whisky; it is an almost universally popular and respected drink.  [. . .]

Irish whiskey
Irish whiskey (the spelling of it with an “e” to distinguish it from Scotch is comparatively new) is made on a rather different principle.  For it barley malt and unmalted grains (wheat, rye, oats) are mixed in the “mash” but the resulting whiskey is usually bottled unblended with any other grain spirit and sold “straight.”  It is made with three distillations instead of two as in Scotland and it takes longer to mature.  Scotch whisky is not released from bond for a minimum of three years and is usually two years older at least before it is bottled.  Irish whisky is kept for no less than seven years, and the higher qualities twelve years, in the wood before bottling.  It has a distinctive flavour which is recognisable at once and has a good many adherents in England.

Rye and Bourbon
When someone else’s taste differs slightly from our own we are apt to suspect it of being assumed or snobbish and I must own that if I see Englishmen ordering an American rye or Bourbon whisky, when they could have Scotch, I find it hard to believe that it is a genuine preference.  These are grain whiskies, perfectly clean and healthy but totally undistinguished.
Their main difference from Scotch, apart from the fact that they made from unmalted rye or maze, is that their grain has not been “cured” or dried over open peat fires and therefore lacks any suggestion of the delicious smoky aroma which is the characteristic of Scotch.  Another difference is in the container in which American whisky is stored and matured—a 48-gallon barrel made of charred white oak which gives the whisky its reddish-brown colour.
Perhaps it is because American whiskies are not in themselves very interesting that so many excellent drinks have been evolved to make them so.  Whereas I have never yet found a rye or Bourbon I could drink straight as a liqueur at the end of the meal, I would hate to refuse a Mint Julep or an Old Fashioned or any other of the pleasant and refreshing drinks of which rye or Bourbon whisky is the prime constituent.  Nor would I want them made with Scotch, which should never be elaborated.
The simplest of these drinks is a Highball, which is rye or Bourbon whisky with ice and soda-water.  It is difficult to imagine an American or Canadian whisky, in fact, without ice and if not soda then something that even more successfully masks the woody flavour of the whisky.
A Mint Julep seems to throw Americans, and particularly those from the Southern States in which it originated, into emphatic and sometimes blood-thirsty argument.  I have heard it maintained that a Mint Julep should not be made with whisky at all, but with brandy, and every detail in this preparation seems to be debating point.  [. . .]

Whether or not the owner of a small cellar in England keeps a bottle or two of rye or Bourbon or both, he cannot be without Scotch, even if he does not drink it himself, for it has become an essential in every kind of entertaining.
If he is wise he will have a few bottles of one of the fine old unblended Highland whiskies to drink as a liqueur.  I do not, of course, mean a liqueur made from whisky like the excellent Drambuie which will be among his liqueurs.  I mean not, in fact, whisky liqueur but a liqueur whisky.  For whisky follows beer naturally and harmoniously, Being of the rain and not of the grape, just as Brandy follows wine at the end of the meal.  There is plenty of English food which is better with ale or stout then with wine and plenty of occasions when the most wholeheartedly wine lover just feels like a bottle of beer, or lager beer, or stout, with a meal.  A brandy after it would be a digestive transgression but a fine old whisky served in a brandy glass would rounded off splendidly.
As for “ordinary” whisky, are there not, for every man, occasions when it is the only conceivable drink?  It is of all nightcaps the kindest and for that last hour’s talk between friends before bedtime, there is nothing better than a whisky-and-soda or a whisky-and-water.  But there is no need to enumerate occasions for it.  It has become a part of British life.
Scotch by Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart (Putnam, 1951).

[Textual alterations:  vice versa was italicised; a comma was inserted after “Lockhart”; an asterisk replaced the superscript 1 for the footnote; the quotation was indented; “judgment” was changed to “judgement”; per cent was italicised; and Sherry was capitalised.]