Part 1 of 4: A Spy’s Guide to Whiskey Basics

It was a good plan for as long as it was working. You’d managed to sneak into the sprawling underground lair disguised as a member of an exotic dance troupe hired to entertain the madman’s private army. The dance number was opulent, and you managed to maneuver yourself close to your target while still maintaining the beat on your tabla. But then his right hand man remembered you from a grainy photo handed over by a traitor somewhere in the ranks of Interpol. Suddenly you find yourself tied down in front of the villain in his egg-shaped plastic chair. He’s going to kill you. An alligator pit perhaps, or some sort of slow moving laser so he can savor your demise. But first, he will do two things: explain his entire nefarious scheme for world domination, and offer you a last drink. That drink will almost certainly be a blended scotch whisky.

For the villains of old Eurospy, crime, and Bollywood thrillers, no secret lair or fortified chateau was complete without a hidden panel that would slide open to reveal a silver serving tray, two glasses, and a bottle of whisky*. They drink it to celebrate. They offer it to the captured hero to gloat. And they drink it again when their nefarious schemes begin to crumble around them. It’s near universal. Italy, Germany, India, Turkey, the United States — it doesn’t matter where you are. If you are a megalomaniacal madman bent on world destruction or just a common thug who is sick and tired of Maurizio Merli slapping you around, chances are your drink of choice is scotch. You’re not going to catch Blofeld toasting the demise of James Bond with a Kahlua Mudslide, just as you’d never catch Bond wooing a sultry woman by ordering a Harvey Wallbanger. My tastes in life are suspect enough that I don’t begrudge anyone what they like, and those drinks each have their place — that place just happens not to be the control room of a secret lair inside a hollowed-out volcano.

Bond at the Bar

‘When I’m… er… concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad.” – James Bond, Casino Royale.

To call James Bond a thinly veiled wish-fulfillment stand-in for author Ian Fleming is to make the hilarious presumption that there’s any veiling at all. The Bond of the novels was basically a walking, talking catalog of everything that happened to interest and delight Fleming at the time he happened to be writing that particular novel (the movie Bond, on the other hand, was modeled somewhat more closely after British director Terence Young). Whether it was a drink, a meal, or “Pinaud Elixir, that prince among shampoos,” just about everything that fills James Bond’s universe was ported over wholesale from his creator’s life. And as anyone familiar with the books or the movies knows, alcohol occupies an important — more likely the most important — place in Bond’s life.

James Bond’s signature drink has become as iconic as the man himself. Across the world, anyone who can understand what you are saying probably gets the reference. And just about every novice drinker makes the social faux pas of ordering their first Martini by saying, “shaken not stirred,” while thinking they’re maybe the first (or, at worst, the third) person to order a martini that way. Slightly nerdier Bond aficionados will hit the bartender or waitress with the full set of instructions for the Vesper from Casino Royale. Bond fans who are nerdier still, however, will do what I’m about to do: drone on in a verbose fashion about the fact that, while pop culture identifies James Bond with the Martini, Ian Fleming’s James Bond was really more of a whiskey* man. In fact, after the betrayal Bond suffered at the hands of Vesper Lynd at the end of Casino Royale, he never orders a Vesper again. According to the late, lamented website Make Mine a 007, Bond drinks no fewer than 317 drinks throughout the series of books authored by Ian Fleming. One hundred one of those are whiskies or whiskey cocktails, with Bond heavily favoring bourbon over scotch — not an accident that Bond champions the American drink, since Bond also rails against the vileness of tea and expounds at length about why he prefers coffee. But scotch need not worry. Bond’s usual drinking buddy, the American CIA agent Felix Leiter, seems to have two functions in the novels: to slap his forehead and exclaim, “James, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?” and to order Haig & Haig scotch whisky.

* But before we begin our deep dive into the world of whisky, James Bond, and Bollywood villains, let’s deal with the letter “e.” You may notice that “whiskey” is also sometimes spelled “whisky.” The whiskey world has decided that this is an important topic. It isn’t. It’s no more important than the fact that some places spell the word “color” while others go with “colour.” It’s a regional variation, with Scotland and Japan preferring “whisky” while the United States and Ireland spell it “whiskey.” It doesn’t matter. But if one doesn’t mention it, one will get tiresome “umm, actually…” letters. So consider it mentioned, and consider it utterly unimportant. There are many variations in whiskey from region that matter; how you spell it isn’t one of them. For our purposes here, the more important signifier isn’t the addition or lack of an “e.” It’s the difference between a few basic variations on the whiskey theme. Now, whiskey or whisky, it’s all whisk(e)y, a distilled spirit made from grains and water, with yeast added to activate fermentation. Scotch, simply enough, is whisky made in Scotland. Like champagne is to a specific type of sparkling wine from a specific region in France, so is scotch a legally defined and pugnaciously protected term. It has to be whisky, and it has to be from Scotland. There are other rules, but those are the basics. Within the sub-category of scotch, there are a few subdivisions, but the most important for now are single malt and blended scotch. A single malt is a whisky that comes from one distillery and is made from 100% malted barley.

Blended scotch makes up the vast bulk of the scotch that is made and consumed. Traditionally, when people have referred to scotch, they were referring to a blend, and when someone who isn’t a whisky nerd is asked to name a scotch brand, chances are that if they don’t say “Jack Daniels” they’ll probably name a blended scotch — Johnnie Walker, most likely. Blended scotches combine a number of single malts in pursuit of a particular profile and then blend them with a neutral grain spirit — think something closer to vodka, produced cheaply and in huge quantities. In a blend, the neutral spirit generally makes up the bulk of what you’re drinking.

Because most single malts, despite the market for them on their own, are still sold to blenders (in fact, quite a few single malts will never be tasted as single malts by consumers, as 100% of the output is allocated for blending), and because less actual “whisky” goes into them, blends are much cheaper and, thus more popular. Some are great, some are good, and a few are questionable, but master blenders have been at this game for a long time now, and in a competitive market like whisky, few producers manage for very long with an inferior product. If you’re looking to dip your toe into the world of scotch, or if you are looking for a gift for an old timer, blends are almost always your best bet. Master blenders work hard and have passed knowledge down for decades about creating appealing, enjoyable, and above all, consistent blends.

Whiskey and War

Trying to pinpoint the “first” whisky is a sometimes fun but largely pointless endeavor, like naming the first “punk” band. For the sake of verifiable facts, let’s begin in 1494, which is the first officially recorded appearance of a distilled whisky in Scotland — which means it had been around for longer, but this is the first time the tax man got to it, and nothing exists in this world until it is taxed. “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” With that entry in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls, whisky — known then as aqua vitae, aka “water of life” — revealed its existence to future historians, drunks, and guys with handlebar mustaches lifting up trapezoidal weights. According to whisky lore, the distillation process itself came to Scotland by way of Ireland and is likely traced back to North Africa. St. Patrick, it is said, introduced distilling to Ireland in the fifth century, and the Dalriadic Scots took the process with them when they migrated to Scotland. St. Patty himself apparently learned the process from people in France and Spain, where distillation was used to create perfume and later used on wine to create brandy. In areas where there were no grapes, and thus no wine making, distillation of “mashes” made with an assortment of grain was adopted. The official use for this concoction, of course, was medicinal. Things that make you tipsy have a long history of being medicinal in nature, at least some of which is actually earned. For example, scientists have figured out that the presence of certain types of antibiotics in Egyptians mummies — antibiotics that would not be discovered by medicine for thousands of years — was because they occurred naturally in the beer ancient Egyptians consumed.

This medieval version of aqua vitae — usquebaugh in the Gaelic language, sometimes shortened to usky and later…well, I think you can figure it out from there — was raw, potent stuff that had more in common with backwoods moonshine that it would modern scotch. Distillation was still rough, the recipe and process for making the spirit varied from one maker to the next, and the notion of aging it in a barrel was basically non-existent. It was a local drink, made locally, but with a growing popularity across Scotland. A small modicum of organization was introduced in 1505 when King James IV — himself quite a fan of this intoxicating medicine — granted the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh sole rights to make and sell usquebaugh in the capital. Because there’s no trait you want more in your surgeon or your barber than drunkeness. Whisky continued to grow in popularity during the 1500s, and advances in still design and distillation began producing spirits that were considerably less harsh and less “occasionally deadly” than the early whiskies. The quality of spirit being made in Scotland began to improve steadily during the 1500s, and this happened largely because of war.

At the end of the 1400s, Europe and Britain were in a hopeless tangle of treaties that, the same as they would in World War I, seemed designed to eventually drag the entire continent into war. For our purposes here, the first to go at each other were Italy and France in what would become known as The Italian Wars. England allied itself with Italy, because if there’s one thing England loved, it was going to war with France. James IV of Scotland, unfortunately, had a binding treaty with France. Way back in 1295, John Balliol and Philip IV of France agreed that one country would always help the other if attacked by England. This agreement, known as The Auld Alliance, was renewed from time to time with little consequence, until eventually French monarch Louis XII called in the favor. As England came into the war on the side of Italy, Scotland was obliged by The Auld Alliance to invade England in support of France.

Italy — which is to say, Pope Leo X — was most displeased with Scotland attacking the English and threatened the Scottish monarch with censure from the church. England’s King Henry VIII decided that if the Pope was mad at James IV, Henry (himself not exactly a fan of popes, but whatever) might as well rub salt into the wound by declaring himself overlord of Scotland. He felt justified in doing this since, in 1502, England and Scotland had signed a non-aggression pact. By fulfilling Scotland’s old treaty with France, James IV was violating the newer one with England. James IV defied both king and pope, carrying out raids into England and sending Scottish sailors to reinforce the French navy. The war between the two neighbors came to a head in 1513, when James IV led a host of some 30,000 Scots into battle against the English. The Battle of Flodden, sometimes known as The Battle of Branxton since that’s actually where it took place, went poorly for the Scots. James IV himself led the army and paid the ultimate price, falling in battle and effectively ending Scotland’s involvement on France’s behalf in what was now being called War of the League of Cambrai.

Things settled down a bit, but not for long. Henry VIII’s support of Italy in the wars had less to do with England’s love of the Pope and more to do with their hatred of France. The Reformation, which among other things sought to address the vast wealth of the church and the terrible poverty of its followers, was gaining steam throughout Europe, and Rome was scrambling to curtail the damage. In distant England, Henry was pushing through a series of reforms to the Church of England that better reflected the mood of the population — and also happen to make it much easier for the crown to confiscate wealth from the church. In 1534, Henry VIII issued the first Act of Supremacy, naming the crown rather than the Pope as the supreme head of the Church of England. Among the things he did as the Church of England continued to extract itself from The Roman Catholic Church was begin the dissolution of monasteries.

Monks were the original distillers. What else are a bunch of dudes living together in a frat house going to do with their time? And suddenly, a lot of them were out of a job, so to speak. Forced to make it in the outside world, many former monks fell back on their distilling skills, creating an influx of knowledgable experts into the world of whisky making, which resulted in a substantial advancement in the art and science of distilling. Whisky making continued to thrive and evolve in a loose and wild style, with the occasional violent conflict over taxation, until 1823 when the Excise Act essentially laid the foundations for the modern whisky industry. At that time, whisky was still a pretty rough spirit. The knowledge of the monks advanced the process substantially, but that’s “advanced” by the standards of the 16th century. It remained largely a provincial indulgence sold locally by grocers — grocers who just happened to have surnames like Walker, Dewar, Ballantine, and Chivas.

Blending In

In 1831, an inventor by the name of Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey — or Patent — Still, sometimes also called a continuous or column still because why let something have one name when it can have like half a dozen? Traditionally, whisky was made in a pot still which consists of a rotund “pot” with a neck where condensation takes place. In a pot still, you could only make one batch of whisky at a time. Then you had to drain it, clean it, and pour in the next batch for distillation. By contrast, the Coffey still ran liquid through a long column that enabled distillers to ply their craft in a continuous flow. No batches. The only time you had to stop distilling was when you needed to clean the still or your workers went on holiday. The invention of the column still also led to the production of “grain whisky.”

Wait. Isn’t all whisky “grain” whisky, what with the legal definition of whisky being that it has to be made from grains? Well yes, but the designation of something as “grain” whisky at the time means that it is made with, well, pretty much any grain other than barley. It is more accurate for our purposes here to speak of them as “neutral” grain spirits, as the goal eventually became to produce a mostly flavorless spirit, which generally occurs because they are distilled at a higher proof. Not everything that comes off a column still is a neutral grain spirit. Many bourbons, for example, are produced in using column stills, and many grain spirits are rich in flavor because they are distilled at a lower proof. Single malt whiskies are, as you might guess, made with only barley. Anyway, grain whisky off a column still had an altogether different taste than rustic pot still whisky. So someone — that someone being a man named Andrew Usher — wondered what might happen if you took that big, beastly pot still whisky and blended it with the more refined and delicate column still grain whisky. What might happen, it turns out, is you might create the biggest whisky market in the world.

Since then, “blended” scotch has dominated the market. Up until very recently, it was pretty much all any whisky drinker consumed. Single malts — pot still whiskies made entirely from malted barley and distilled at a single distillery — were an almost statistically non-existent sliver of the market. As far as most people were concerned, single malts were nothing more than the raw ingredients that went into making true scotch; that is to say, blended scotch. In the past decade or two, many hardcore whisky aficionados have changed their tune, trumpeting single malts as the true expression of a whisky while blends are diluted and dumbed down for the masses. Go to any reputable whisky shop these days and you will almost certainly see the bulk of the shelves taken up with an array of single malt scotches — Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and so forth — while the blends are relegated to the bottom shelf, where spirits in specialty shops go to collect dust and die. This arrangement fails reality on a number of levels. First of all, anyone who thinks a single malt is superior to a blend purely by virtue of being a single malt is a person whose opinion should not be trusted in any matter of import. There are fantastic, complex, challenging single malts. There are also dumb, simple, one-note single malts. There’s everything in between as well. The same is true of blends. There are blended scotches that can easily go toe-to-toe with the best the world of single malts has to offer. There are also blends that are terrible. And the whole range in between.

The heavy weighting of a specialty shop’s whisky selection toward single malts also doesn’t reflect the simple economics of the industry. Over 90% of the single malt produced is used to make blends. There would be no single malt market if not for the demands of blended scotch. The world over, blends are still overwhelmingly what people drink. Chances are if you were ordering your first whisky without guidance from a whisky-literate friend or bartender, you probably ordered a blend, because those are the brands everyone knows. If your father or grandfather drank scotch, he almost certainly drank a blend. And recently, that wave of single malt snobs has come back around to the blends they once dismissed. Boutique whisky makers started making blends glamorous again. The tumultuous overinflation of single malts as they gear themselves more toward ultra-mega-billionaire investors and portfolio managers rather than drinkers also meant that people with less money to spend than previously but still possessed of a taste for scotch started eying blends, which are less costly than their single malt compatriots owing to the fact that the grain whisky that makes up much of a blend is considerably cheaper to produce. And what they discovered was that a lot of these blends are good. And when you talk blends — especially blends favored by movie villains — there is no more obvious a place to start than Johnnie Walker…

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