When labels can be just plain wrong

THE GREAT MARTIAL artist Morihei Ueshiba was once asked how it was that he never made a mistake. He responded that he made mistakes all the time, but he just recovered from them faster than other people. Oscar Wilde echoed a similar sentiment by writing: “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

I remembered both the minute I looked at the back of the Scotch bottle I held in my hands. It read, “Produced in the Orkney islands.”

That was interesting. I had just poured it for a person who had requested an “unusual” Highland Scotch whisky. When I pulled the bottle of Highland Park off the shelf I was reasonably sure that it would qualify. I was unfamiliar with the product but familiar with many Scotches, and certainly recognized “Highland” as one of the five main Scotch producing regions of Scotland. The others being the Lowlands, Islay, the Islands and Campbeltown.

In the bar business, you are often expected to have a working knowledge of all the food items on the menu, most of the wines on the list (sometimes up to 400 different wines) and all of the bottles behind the back bar. That is why “expert” is too often bandied about. There is so much to learn, and so much of it changes, that expert can be too broad of a definition. Even though I have been qualified as an “expert” on spirits by the courts of California and have written extensively on the subject, I prefer to think of myself as a student, a student who still has much to learn.

“That’s from Orkney,” said my customer. “Not the Highlands.”

“What?” I said, scanning the bottle.

“Highland Park is an area in the high park section of Orkney.”

While the terms “expert” and “author” raced through my head, I did what any student would do. I checked it out. He was absolutely right.

The Orkney Islands are north of the main islands of Great Britain and have been inhabited for over 5,500 years. First settled permanently by the Vikings, the islands became a vital trading link for the northern tribes. Later the islands came under control of Christian I (King of Denmark and Norway) who promised them as collateral for the dowry of his daughter Margaret, who was married to James III of Scotland. The dowry was never paid and the islands became the property of Scotland. Even today the islanders relish their separate identity.

“‘We are Orcadian first, and Scottish second’ many people would tell me during the course of my fieldwork,” historian Angela McClanahan wrote in 2004.

The Orcadians, however, did readily accept Scotch whisky and have produced it since the 1700s, beginning operations at the height of the conflict between the clans of Scotland and the British Crown.

Highland Park was founded in 1798 by Magnus Eunson and part of the distillery’s longevity might have to do with the fact that it is the most northern whisky distillery in Scotland, half a mile farther north than the one at Scapa. Which makes it the farthest distillery from the seat of the British Crown and the heart of that conflict.

Orcadian Scotch shares more taste similarities with the softer Highland styles (if any Scotch can truly be called softer) then it does with either the peaty Islay Scotches (pronounced “eye-la”) or the many “island” Scotches. Technically speaking, Orkney falls under the classification of “island” which also includes the islands of Arran, Skye, Mull and Jura, which range from the eastern coast of Britain all the way north.

Confusingly, “island” it is not “Islay,” which is a separate island (and a separate region) just southwest of the island of Jura. Islay is well known for its big peaty whiskies best exemplified by the brands Laphroaig and Lagavulin. Adding to the confusion, Jura, while technically an “island” Scotch, typically produces whisky with a big peat character more similar to most Islay Scotch.

Confusing huh?

Four things happened as a result of my exchange:

• I learned a little bit more about a subject that I knew quite a bit about already.

• I realized that there are many people that know more than I; Ueshiba, Wilde, as well as some guy from northern Marin.

• I have re-upped my membership to my martial arts class as well as my subscriptions to the Whiskey Advocate and the Folio Society.

• One smarty-pants earned himself a free dram of Scotch.