The whisky man

Scotland native ‘Ralphoosh’ is Israel’s own connoisseur on this most Scottish of spirits.

Ralph Katzenell (photo credit: RALPH KATZENELL)
Ralph Katzenell
(photo credit: RALPH KATZENELL)
When Ralph Katzenell sits down to enjoy a glass of whisky, he does so with the discrimination of someone who knows, indeed loves, whisky.
“Your ability to appreciate a whisky – to analyze it with your tongue, your memory, your nose – changes with age and whether you’re feeling well or sick,” notes Katzenell in the melodic tones of his native Scotland. “I’m not what you’d call a nose – that is, a person who has developed a talent for analyzing smells.
There are only a few noses in the world, and they’re mostly employed by perfumiers in France.”
Katzenell, often referred to as “Ralphoosh” among the inhabitants of the northern enclave of five towns in which he lives, has been educating himself about whisky for years. An analytical chemist by profession (that branch of chemistry in which you ask “What is it and how much of it is there?”), his job has taken him all over the world, where he availed himself of the opportunity to sample a range of drinks from many countries.
This is what Katzenell has to say about his beloved libation: In the early 1980s, I was at a very highgrade restaurant in Wiesbaden [Germany].
Most people were drinking beer, so I sidled up to the bar and I noticed a Macallan 25-year-old. The waiter brings the drink to my table, and it’s got a couple of ice cubes in it. I’m shocked. One does not drink a Macallan 25-year-old with ice cubes. This is a very expensive drink, this is not an ordinary whisky, and you do not dilute it with ice cubes. I told the waiter, ‘Bring me a Macallan, and you pour it into the glass in front of me. No ice.’ It’s from then that I began to expand my knowledge of whisky by simply visiting the bar while everyone else was downing huge amounts of beer.
Whisky is fun
My job involved visiting farmers and mill owners all around Britain and analyzing the wheat. As I got closer to the Scottish border, the offerings of the bars improved. When I reached a small town called Coldstream, I came across a Glenlivet 15-year-old, and it was a Damoscene moment. It was the first whisky that said to me, ‘This is what I should be drinking. This is good stuff. This is enjoyable. This is fun.’ And moreish.
And, of course, as I moved into Scotland, the range of whiskies that was available was much larger than you could get in England. And so I moved into testing different whiskies.
Whisky in history
The first reference in Scotland to whisky was in 1490, when it was called aquavita – the water of life. A friar would get a certain number of bools (a measure of volume) of grain to make aquavita.
The word “alcohol” comes from Arabic. The Arabs used a distillation technique that involved holding a sheepskin, or something woolly, over a bubbling vat of fermented liquid; the vapors would then rise up into the wool, and what they’d squeeze out would be alcohol. But they used it only for medicinal purposes, not drinking pleasure.
The great discovery was the marriage of oak barrels and the making of whisky for storage, which took place mostly in Bristol. The Brits imported huge quantities of sherry and port from Spain and Portugal. As a result, Bristol had a waste disposal problem with casks. And the Scots came down, took them up to Scotland and used them for the storage of whisky.
Today, most Scotch whisky is matured in casks from America in which bourbon has been stored for two years. The casks are broken down into staves, shipped to Scotland and then reassembled.
This is how it’s distilled
There’s a lot of fuss and mystique associated with the art of distillation. There are many stages in the making of whisky, and distillation comes near the final stage To make whisky, you are basically fermenting three major products and about 10,000 minor products. The three major products are methyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol and some water. Initial distillation boils off the methyl alcohol, the wood alcohol. If you’re a very careless distiller and you include some of that methyl alcohol in what you then condense, it can make you blind.
The vapors rise up the neck of a still and then come down what is called the lyme arm. After cooling, the liquid is collected.
The first run is rejected because it’s full of impurities. The second portion that comes off is mostly ethyl alcohol with more or less 72% alcohol, and the rest is water. This is the central cut that evolves into whisky.
And then whatever is left is rejected because it’s got all sorts of nasty-tasting carcinogens in it.
This whisky is dead
Somebody gave me a 20-year-old Miltonduff as a present. Theoretically, it should have been a phenomenal whisky; 20 years old, a single malt from a famous distillery. I opened it up, and I poured myself a generous slug and I sat down to drink it – and nothing. I’d never come across anything like this before. It’s what’s called a dead whisky.
What can you do with an expensive bottle of dead whisky? So I began experimenting to find out happens when you mix whiskies.
I mixed a good whisky with my dead whisky in a rather rigorous fashion. I used an instrument called a pipette that enabled me to deliver very precise bools of various whiskies into a glass. And I discovered that you can take a dead whisky and add 10% of a good whisky to it and it’ll be a great drink. You use the dead whisky as a carrier for a tasty whisky which will dominate over the dead one.
However, you cannot do anything with a bad whisky. I took a medium good whisky and mixed it with another medium good whisky and I got a medium good whisky. So what! So now I was on the lookout for dead whiskies, the most tasteless whiskies I could find. And I came across one that was a reliably weak-tasting whisky that was a good carrier for a dominant whisky, a Highland Park 12-year-old.
Is it kosher?
There’s a huge amount of literature on the kashrut of whisky; it’s highly controversial, with a range of deeply held and polar points of view. Whisky is traditionally made with only three or four components.
One of them is clearly barley or wheat; the other is yeast, and the other is water. So where’s the problem? Well, at a certain stage of the whisky-making process, there’s a lot of foam. In order to prevent spillage, an anti-foamant is added, and this can be animal based. So if it’s from a pig or any non-kosher animal, the whisky is non-kosher.
Is the whisky produced and managed by Jews on Shabbat, which by definition is not kosher? Was the whisky matured in a cask that previously held a non-kosher wine? If so, the deliberate impartation of the character of non-kosher wine to whisky makes the whisky non-kosher.
Crisis in the whisky market
There was a great crisis in the whisky market in the late 1980s. I used to bring in a lot of duty-free malt whiskies such as a Glenmorangie 10-year-old. Then one year, I noticed, something wasn’t right – was it a fake? What had happened was that none of Glenmorangie’s product was maturing. It was going into the cask and just sitting there – no interaction between the whisky and the wood – oak, in this case. So a research institute in Scotland contracted a world expert called Dr.
Jim Swann to find out what had gone wrong. He did the most thorough scientific analysis into what contributes to whisky taste that’s ever been done.
Swann is also the adviser to an Israeli distillery start-up.
Mixing his own
So I was working with various ideas of mixing whiskies and expanding the range that I drank; but as I got older, I found that there are physiological changes. You can’t drink that much whisky. And the ability to [discern] taste goes down. If I say it doesn’t taste like it used to, well, of course it doesn’t – I’m older. Therefore, I’m looking for more distinctive tastes.
I remember the days of the great Macallans.
To me, they always had a twist of liquorice in the background, as well as Dundee fruitcake and cherries – and I wanted to recreate that. So I set out to create a liquorice-tasting alcohol as a first step and then to see if I could adapt that to blending my own whisky.
A few years ago, I was in the States and I came across this whole industry of micro- distilleries. They’re everywhere, and they’re making some wonderful products.
I bought a wooden cask in Woodstock, Vermont, that sells for $60. Ten miles down the road in Windsor, Vermont, they’re selling the same cask for $120.
So for the sheer fun of it, I’ve been experimenting with happens to a whisky when you mature it further. And this barrel system from America enables me to do it at home without too much trouble and fuss.
Have some chocolate
I’ve been making up a lot of mixes and drinking them under standard conditions. There’s no point going out and having a huge meal and, with your mouth full of the flavor of steak, try to do something analytical. Whenever a Scotsman drinks, he has a jug of water next to him to clean his nose and some bread to clean his mouth.
And while I was having fun mixing whiskies to see what happens, I also came across what I thought was my invention.
If you take a really tiny piece of chocolate, allow it to melt in your mouth and then sip your whisky, you get a whole different taste and appreciation for it. Later on, I found out that the French have being doing that with chocolate for centuries.
Really pure alcohol tastes slightly sharp. It has a prickle on your tongue, in your nose, the back of your throat.
So the question is, how can you have a smooth drink if the basic product has a prickle? My conclusion is that all these drinks contain different taste suppressants because they’re suppressing that perception of prickle. It’s natural to the process of making whisky. I’m utterly convinced that whisky contains a sensation suppressant – and that is obviously what the chocolate is doing. The chocolate is suppressing certain tastes and allowing other tastes to be more dominant.
Down the hatch
I don’t drink a lot, but my policy is that what I do drink is going to be the best I can get hold of – whether I make it or I buy it.