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“Now, this … this is something very special,” says master distiller Mark Lochhead with a warm Glasgow burr, leaning on an oak barrel. “This is the Talisker 34-year-old.” Inside one of the oldest whiskey distilleries in Scotland, a small group is assembled, murmuring excitedly. The feeling in the dark, musty room, which looks much the same as it did when the Talisker Distillery opened in 1831, is that of a clandestine meeting. Outside, a cold rain falls from a slate-gray sky, lashing the cobblestones in the courtyard.
An assistant carefully opens a handsome wooden case, removes one of just 250 bottles released (retailing for $1,500 apiece) and fills glasses with a dram of the precious spirit, which has a deep golden color and a powerfully smoky aroma. Then Lochhead bears down on everyone in the room like a schoolteacher: “Very few people have tried this whiskey,” he says, almost in a whisper.
The taste of the 34-year-old hits with notes of peat, chili and spicy fruit. But it’s primarily salt, accompanied by pepper, that comes to the fore; after all, the Talisker Distillery sits next to a brooding sea loch and is in fact the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, off Scotland’s wild western coast. “It’s the water we use, the sea and the aging that give these flavors and aromas,” Lochhead says, swirling the whiskey, eyeing it and then sipping with palpable satisfaction.
Robert Louis Stevenson was also a big fan of Talisker, having immortalized it in a poem thusly: “The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it / Talisker, Isla or Glenlivet!” Judging by the reverent hush that has fallen over this room, it’s clear Stevenson would have been particularly pleased by the 34-year-old. The king o’ drinks, indeed. —CHRIS BEANLAND
To wish someone “good luck,” squeeze your thumb inside the other fingers of the same hand.
• Handschuhschneeballwerfer: a coward; literally, “someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs”
Smacking one hand onto the other, both palms down, means “let’s get out of here.”
• Anticonstitutionnellement: The word for “unconstitutionally,” which also happens to be the longest word in the French language
The thumb held up alone (a thumbs-up) means “five.”
• Yoko meshi: The stress caused by speaking a foreign language; literally, “a meal eaten sideways”
Reaching a hand behind your head to scratch the opposite ear indicates that something has been made too complicated.
• Pochemuchka: someone who asks a lot of questions; an inquisitive tourist, perhaps
ILLUSTRATION BY PETER OUMANSKI