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Howard Lahti is a rock-it scientist. Fifteen years ago, the Canadian geologist/geochemist was pondering a stone sample over a snifter of Scotch (single malt) when he was struck by an idea: Why not use a piece of chilled Scottish granite to cool his favorite spirit?
Today, Lahti's bright idea is a hard reality. His Scotch "On the Rocks" imports granite from Scotland to Golden, where it's cut into one-inch cubes, polished and packaged in sets of four -- and then sold to Scotch fans to drop in their drinks.
Lahti's permanent rocks chill a shot without melting and diluting the aged handiwork of Scotland's malt artisans. While a Scotch purist wouldn't dream of adding an ice cube to his drink (or even more than a drop or two of water to release a Scotch's flavor), this new application of very old materials has turned over a new stone in sipping satisfaction.
"There are good aromatics and bad ones, eh?" Lahti says from his home in Nova Scotia. "What these rocks do is lower the vapor pressure of those nasties that come out of the Scotch. When they cool it down, they also suppress the harsh alcohol taste."
For Scottish Scotch sippers, Lahti's rocks do something even grander: They bring a Scotch back home. "What the Scots people like about these," Lahti explains, "is that there's a very formidable spin to it, eh? The water that made the Scotch percolated through these primordial granites. When you put these rocks, which are from Scotland, in the Scotch, you're basically reuniting the Scotch with the granite."
Terry Burr heads up the company's Golden-based marketing effort (on the Web at www.scotchrocks.biz). Single-malt drinkers, he says, fill a "narrow demographic which likely has more money than good sense." And he's banking on more than a few members of this demographic dropping $90 for a quartet of granite cubes that come in their own wooden gift box, complete with a personalized brass tag and a sliver of tartan fabric that honors the purchaser's clan.
"There's as much of a psychological aspect to this as there is a physical aspect," Burr says. "The perception is that it's a return of the Scotch to the granite that it flowed over. It seems to have some kind of effect by returning the malt to its origins.
"Perception," he notes, "is reality."
"There is a lot of aura in it," Lahti agrees. "And it actually does work."
Indeed it does. A chilled Rock dropped in a dram of Scapa single malt yields a drink with far less smoke, alcohol and complexity in the nose. On the tongue, the granite cube produces a spirit of less intensity and alcoholic heat, a muted flavor emphasizing malt over proof.
Granted, that effect could be of questionable value. Do we want to drop hard-earned dough on a good single malt, only to mellow it with a chilled stone? "It opens a different window," says Lahti. "It's a different way of tasting Scotch."
To some, that's a window that might be better kept shut. Scott Diamond is the owner of Pints Pub, which serves over 200 versions of single malt. Although he hasn't tried the cubes, he likes the idea of the granite-to-granite connection they provide. But he's cool to the idea of cooling Scotch. "Chilling the spirit is a negative," he says, "because it anesthetizes your tastebuds and cuts down on the enjoyment of the flavors."
Nosing the whisky delivers much of its appeal and character, so numbing the experience in the nostrils could also be a bummer. "Too cool is not good," Diamond explains. "It cuts down on the whole appreciation of the flavors and the nuances going on there. That's what you're paying for."
Charlie Sturdevant owns the Cheshire Cat, an Arvada brewpub that hosts Scotch and beer tastings each month. Like Diamond, Sturdevant prefers his spirits with a few drops of water to free their essences. Unlike Diamond, he already has two sets of Rocks -- which appeal to his geologist background and help out at his tasting events. "Not everybody likes room-temperature whisky; they're not evaluating it," he says. "For those that like the taste of whisky but don't like to get complicated about it and want the full flavor, these are ideal. They're much better than an ice cube.
"Single malts can be very intense," Sturdevant adds, "and this helps subdue their flavors, some of which can be very harsh." They serve as "training wheels" for single-malt newcomers.
His personal set of Rocks, however, are not for the regular Cheshire Cat customers. "They're too darned expensive!" he says, chuckling. "They're a gift to get for somebody who has everything."
So far, Scotch "On the Rocks" has aimed its marketing as much at champions of Canadian industry as single-malt fiends -- high rollers hip to a novel alcohol accessory. At corporate offices in Canada, Rocks rocked, Lahti says: "It's not just for tasting Scotch. It's a corporate gift." In fact, a large Canadian petroleum firm is also considering Rocks as company gifts this year.
Burr's research indicates that some corporate types think that the price tag is too low, especially because the Rocks work well with other spirits. "They really take the bite off of bad bourbon," he says. And he's right.