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Imagine the Scottish Highlands around AD 500. A savagely beautiful landscape—rolling heather and peat-covered hills, pure water flowing from burns and springs, fields of ripe, golden barley gently swaying in the summer Highland breeze. The procedure for producing a fermented, low-alcohol beverage was already known by this time, and Highlanders were already enjoying a primitive form of beer.
The production of alcoholic beverages is considered a significant marker of civilization. The Chinese and ancient Greeks, for example, both produced crudely distilled alcoholic drinks. There is evidence of the distillation process in Britain long before the arrival of the Romans. However, that too was still rudimentary. Unlike the beer of our day, the stuff that Highlanders drank more than 1,500 years ago must have resembled thin, alcoholic oatmeal.
THE VIEW FROM BEN NEVIS, THE HIGHEST POINT IN SCOTLAND.
When the Moors arrived in Europe some time between the ninth and tenth centuries, they brought with them a sophisticated process of distillation originally developed to make fragrances, which was adapted to make spirits from fermented grains. In Britain in the early part of the sixteenth century, because of the perception that whisky possessed medicinal and curative powers, the Guild of Surgeon Barbers was given a monopoly on the production of whisky.
A QUAINT BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER DEE.
The first distillery officially documented was erected sometime in the 1670s, although distillation was occurring well before this time. Ironically, the whisky made by the unlicensed distilleries was said to be of a higher quality than the product made by the “official” distilleries because smugglers did not have to follow the draconian governmental guidelines regulating alcoholic strength and other levels of concentration. By the early nineteenth century, many illicit distilleries became licensed. Many more new distilleries were built on the sites of former illicit stills. Often the smugglers themselves were recruited to run these new legitimate operations, because of their prior experience.
HEATHER-COVERED HILLS DOT THE LANDSCAPE OF SCOTLAND.
Andrew Usher, who was an agent for Glenlivet Distillery, famous even in 1853, came up with the first vatted malt and gave it a proprietary name, Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet. A specified blend of malt whiskies of various designated ages, Usher’s recipe could be predictably reproduced. Up until this point, blending was used to hide the flaws of cheaper whisky by adding small amounts of good malt. Whisky was delivered to wholesalers in either wooden casks or stone jars. Then the blending was done by grocers, wine and spirit merchants, and inn owners. But with Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet, an affordable good drink was now available in a bottle and made available to the general public. Other blended recipes developed during this period, including Dewar’s, Haig, and Johnnie Walker. Between the new ease of production and transportation and a high-quality product, whisky exporting flourished.
DEWAR’S WAS ONE OF THE FIRST BLENDED WHISKIES; THIS BOTTLE IS FROM THE 1880S.
Starting in 1860 and lasting until the late 1890s, a vine-killing microscopic bug called phylloxera destroyed most of the vineyards in France. Because no grapes were available, brandy could no longer be produced in commercial quantities. Scotch filled the gap in that market and fully established itself as a desirable and sought-after beverage all over the world.
Since 1900, the popularity of malt whisky has gone through several cycles of expansion and contraction. The major events of the twentieth century—World War I, the Great Depression, Prohibition, and World War II—severely impacted the production and consumption of whisky. After each of these catastrophic events, however, the whisky industry revived itself. Through intense determination, perseverance, and skill, whisky makers continue to produce to this day a great variety of whiskies of consistently high quality, great breed, and distinct style. Times have never been better for lovers of malt.
THE MASTER BLENDER INSPECTS A NEW BOWMORE SPIRIT.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
The goal in writing this guide is to provide easily accessible information about the history, production methods, current trends, availability, and tasting profiles of single malt and Scotch whisky.
At first blush, the world of whisky can seem a bit daunting in its variety and complexity. There are many different distilleries, around one hundred by last count, many of which produce and bottle a profusion of whiskies. Add to this the explosive growth of the independent bottling movement. The independent bottlers provide us with whiskies from individual casks, usually at cask strength, single-vintage bottlings, and library ranges, which include numerous vintages from a single distillery. Wood-finished whiskies—that is, whiskies that spend some additional aging time in barrels made from various kinds of woods—have recently become popularized. Just to further complicate the issue, all of these ranges are available in both official distillery bottlings and independent bottlings. New vatted malts, single-grain whiskies, and a continually expanding catalog of blended whiskies continue to enter the market. It’s no wonder the consumer is overwhelmed.
This guide explores the world of whisky one step at a time. First, the history of whisky is discussed, outlining the development of the distilleries and the refinement of the distillation process. This is followed by an explanation of production methods. The malt whisky regions are described, and examples of various whiskies are cited that illustrate each region’s individual and unique characteristics. “What’s on the Label” provides definitions of bottling, labeling, and aging terms. There is a discussion of aging and bottling regimens, as well as statistical information relating to the whisky industry and the worldwide market. One indispensable section is the alphabetical guide giving the individual single malts with descriptions, tasting notes, and distillery contact information. A listing of currently available blended whiskies with tasting notes follows. A glossary of terms and a resource guide for further exploration conclude the guide.
THE DISTILLING PROCESS:
NO ORDINARY TRICKLE
The word distill derives from the Latin destillare, “to trickle or drip down.” Alcohol boils, conveniently, at a lower temperature than water. This simple rule is the basis for all distilling. Hot, boiled vapors are directed into tubes cooled by immersion in water. The result is condensation, in which the cooling vapors trickle back into a liquid state. But this description oversimplifies a time-honored, laborious process and the sublime product it yields. Making Scotch whisky is more like this:
1. Pick some ripe barley.
2. Submerge it in local spring water for several days.
PEAT IS USED TO FUEL THE FIRE THAT DRIES THE MALTED BARLEY.
3. Spread out the soaked grain on a large flat surface—the floor of a barn will do nicely—and, during the course of the next eight to ten days, turn it over each day with a large, flat, wooden shovel. Why? Because it helps the barley to begin to germinate—to begin to sprout. Inside each grain, enzymes are converting starch to sugar. More later on how these sugars are converted to alcohol.
SHOVELING PEAT INTO THE FURNACE HELPS TO DRY THE BARLEY AND STOP THE GERMINATION PROCESS.
4. Take this wet, barely germinated barley and spread it out on the floor of a large kiln to malt. (When you visit a distillery in Scotland, look for the malting shed. It is the low building with the interesting pagoda-shaped ventilator on the roof.) Start a fire under the floor, fueling it with peat; it works well and there is a lot of it close by. This step stops the barley from further germinating and—a nice bonus—peat, which is composed of highly compressed organic material, smokes when it burns. This smoke impregnates the grain and leaves a lovely smoky, peaty flavor in the finished product.
THE STRATHISLA DISTILLERY CLAIMS TO BE THE OLDEST DISTILLERY IN SCOTLAND.
5. Clean the grain and grind it by passing it through a grist mill.
6. Place the grist in a large vat and add hot water. The local water often has trace minerals and some “peaty” quality, which imparts additional flavoring elements. The remaining starch in the grist is converted into sugar, which is then dissolved into solution. Repeat this cycle of draining and adding hot water several times. You have now produced wort, a sweet liquid.
THE MALTED BARLEY IS HEATED IN A MASH TUN; THIS ONE IS AT THE AUCHENTOSHAN DISTILLERY.
7. Drain the liquid into a large, deep wooden or stainless-steel vat and add brewer’s and/or distiller’s yeast. (Use the leftover stuff, i.e., husks and depleted grain, for high-quality cattle feed.) There’s lots of action for the next two or three days: boiling, steaming, and frothing. Fermentation is happening. (If you are a citizen of AD 500, you know how to do all this because, so far, the process pretty much resembles the way you make beer.)
AFTER TWO DAYS IN THE WASH BACK OR FERMENTATION VATS, THE LIQUID IS KNOWN AS “WASH” AND IS READY FOR DISTILLATION.
8. Now you are ready to implement the new technology: fill a heavy cauldron with the fermented liquid, which contains 5 to 9 percent alcohol and is now called wash. Cover tightly. Place over a coal fire. Sticking out of the lid of the cauldron is a spout. Sprouting out of the spout is a coil of copper tubing. This coil is generally submerged in a barrel of cold water (or some other arrangement, so long as cold water flows over the coils). As the vapors produced from the boiling of the wash rise through the spout and into the coils, the temperature changes inside. This causes the vapors, which contain oils, flavors, esters, alcohols, water, and various other pure and not so pure agents. These condense and drip down the coils, to be collected in some sort of receptacle. After you have run all the wash through your still and collected it, clean the still, refire it, and repeat the process.
THE DISTILLATION PROCESS, WHICH SEPARATES THE ALCOHOL FROM THE WASH, TAKES PLACE IN THESE HUGE COPPER POT STILLS.
9. Having completed this first distillation, you now have in your possession a quantity of liquid known as the low wines (which contain 20 to 25 percent alcohol). To purify and concentrate the flavors and alcohol of this liquid, you embark upon a second distillation. From experience, you know that at the beginning of this second distillation, the stuff that comes out first, called the foreshots, is still pretty impure and not very drinkable, so you drain it off and save it to distill again with the next batch. Now, finally the middle cut, the stuff you have worked so hard to produce, is drawn off. After this is completed, all the feints, that is, the remaining distillate, are drawn off and saved. This production is too impure and/or dilute to consume and will be mixed with the foreshots and the next batch of low wines for the next time you distill.
THE DISTILLED SPIRIT IS POURED INTO THE OAK BARRELS THAT WILL BE USED FOR THE AGING PROCESS.
10. Mix a little gunpowder with a little of your whisky and light the mixture. If it doesn’t light, it’s not strong enough; if it explodes, it’s too strong. If it burns steadily, you have proof.
11. Put the colorless whisky into casks. Sell most of your production to whisky merchants so you can pay the rent on the farm. These merchants will bottle it as they need it, selling right out of cask (no aging) for the average Joe and aged a bit in cask for the gentry. Of course, always keep a little for yourself to drink with your family and friends.
IN ORDER TO BE CONSIDERED SCOTCH WHISKY, THE LIQUID MUST SPEND AT LEAST THREE YEARS IN SCOTLAND IN CASKS IN AN AGING CELLAR.
Whether it’s 1494, the date of the first recorded purchase of malted barley for the production of Aqua Vitae; or 1690, when Ferintosh, the first distillery mentioned by name, suffered a fire; or 1932, when America’s Prohibition was repealed; or 2004, when thirty bottles of Scotch whisky were sold overseas every minute—in five hundred years, the process of distilling malt whisky has remained fundamentally unchanged.
WHY SCOTCH WHISKY?
How did our ancestors discover the process and devise these methods of production? The distillation of whisky is fascinating, especially if one is inclined to contemplate its origins. As a testament to human ingenuity, its process is unrivaled in its efficiency and completeness. At the end of the day, however, we could be talking about distilling paint, ethanol, or rocket fuel, so easily is the basic principle replicated using other substances.
This being the case, we may now ask ourselves where, exactly, does Scotch whisky come from? From whence does this beautiful and poetic nectar, fully formed in each and every one of its individual manifestations, emerge? The immediate answer to that question is obviously Scotland, and, more specifically, several regions within that country as defined in the last century: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, Campbeltown, and the Islands. The Highland region is further subdivided into North, South, East, West, and Speyside. The Islands encompass the islands of Skye, Mull, Jura, Arran, and Orkney.
THE MALT WHISKY-PRODUCING REGIONS OF SCOTLAND.
Indeed, geography offers something of a clue to what makes this marvelous beverage marvelous. But there are other essentials:
• the amount and quality of peat used in the malting process
• the mineral content and flavor characteristics of the water used by the individual distillery
• the distillery’s proximity to the ocean
• the type of barley
• the degree of its germination and the intensity of malting
• the style, shape, and general condition of the stills
• the experience of the still master, and last but not least,
• the kind of barrel used for aging and maturing of the distillate
Nor should we forget fairies, wood and water sprites, legendary historical figures, and a host of other mythological creatures that populate Scotland and its whisky industry.
PEAT CONTRIBUTES TO THE DISTINCT TASTE OF SCOTCH WHISKY.
Recent years have seen a great many changes in the production and marketing of single malt whisky. Much corporate jockeying has taken place. The result has been both a greater degree of concentration of distillery ownership in fewer corporate hands and, paradoxically, an increase in independent ownership. Close to 90 percent of all the distilleries in Scotland are owned by corporations, most of which are multinational. The remainder are either independently owned or are in partnership with independent bottlers.
Because no one can agree on the perfect aging regimen, or even the best kind of barrel to use in the production of making malt whisky, many distilleries now offer a range of whiskies. Contained within this range are whiskies of various ages and vintages, different alcoholic strengths, and different kinds of wood finishes. The notion of single-cask bottlings—whisky bottled at full strength (without dilution to bring down the proof) from a single cask—has taken hold.
Sophisticated whisky drinkers look for unique and unreproducible traits in their whisky. In addition, variations of more traditionally vatted whiskies are sought after, hence the wood-finished ranges, which are imbued with additional levels of flavor complexity by aging them in different types of wood.
THE TELFORD BRIDGE, CRAIGELLACHIE, CROSSES THE RIVER SPEY.
THE MALT WHISKY–PRODUCING REGIONS OF SCOTLAND
The whiskies produced from each of the different geographic regions in Scotland have distinct and identifiable characteristics.
When the Scots refer to the Highlands, they’re talking about the upper two-thirds of Scotland. Everything that one associates with Scotland in terms of customs, language, and even plaid comes largely from this region.
The river Spey, which runs through the Highlands, has the greatest concentration of distilleries now in Scotland, hence the subregion known as Speyside. In general, the whiskies from this area tend to be sweet, clean, and rather subtle.
Speyside whiskies vary in weight and express differing intensities and layers of complexity. Some malts have pronounced fruity and honeyed notes, whereas others are bone dry and a bit salty. Still other whiskies exhibit pepper and other exotic spice notes.
The delicate, refined famous whiskies such as the Macallan and the Glenlivet, fruitier and somewhat spicier malts (Knockando and Glenrothes), and whiskies that possess spicier and more powerful characteristics (Mortlach and Aberlour) are all from this region.
THE SCOTCH FROM OBAN IS KNOWN FOR ITS PEATY CHARACTERISTICS.
THE NORTHERN HIGHLANDS
The whiskies from the Northern Highlands are medium-bodied. A maritime, salty, seaweedy, and sometimes spicy character prevails. Clynlish and Glen Ord tend toward the spicier and saltier end of the spectrum. Dalmore and Glenmorangie are a bit richer and full-bodied.
With few distilleries in this region, those such as Ben Nevis, Glengoyne, Loch Lomond, and Oban share the characteristics of being full-flavored and possessed with a persistent palate. Creamy and nutty notes abound. In the case of Oban, there is an obvious peaty character.
The whiskies nearer Edinburgh have fresh and fruity notes and light to medium body. The distilleries located a bit further south, in Campbeltown and Islay, are more full-bodied, with chocolate, toffee, and caramel qualities.
The Campbeltown region was once home to the largest number of distillers, but, through overproduction and unsavory business tactics, it became associated with mediocre and cynical whisky production. Three distilleries are left in Campbeltown at the moment, and Springbank is the only one producing commercial quantities of whisky. One of the most highly regarded distilleries in Scotland, Springbank produces three different malts. Their flagship bottling is medium-peated, salty, and has some exotic fruit notes. Longrow is made from heavily peated malt. The third, Hazelburn, is made from unpeated malt.
Located on the southern coast of Scotland in view of Northern Ireland, Islay (pronounced eye-lay) produces whiskies that are easily identified because of their intensity and very specific flavor profile. The distilleries of Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Bowmore, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain all call to mind powerful whiskies that are salty, intense, and reminiscent of the smell of the ocean. For some, their intensity may be a bit too much, but for those serious about their whisky, at least one favorite is likely to come from this region.
THE WHISKIES FROM THE TOWN OF EDINBURGH ARE LIGHTER THAN OTHERS.
THE BOWMORE DISTILLERY PRODUCES THE FULL-BODIED SCOTCH FROM ISLAY.
ISLE OF MULL IS HOME TO TOBERMORY WHISKY, WHICH CAN BE SALTY BECAUSE OF ITS PROXIMITY TO THE SEA.
FLOOR MALTINGS, SUCH AS THIS AT THE SPRINGBANK DISTILLERY, ARE FREQUENTLY BEING REPLACED BY DRUM MALTINGS.
THE AUCHENTOSHAN DISTILLERY IS KNOWN FOR THE LIGHT-BODIED WHISKIES OF THE LOWLANDS.
This region is the most industrialized and heavily populated region of Scotland. Lowland whisky was used primarily for blending because of its charm and fresh qualities. Auchentoshen is light-bodied and fresh and tastes of green herbs. Bladnoch is also light and displays a bit more fruit. Glenkinchie has a nose that exhibits floral and grassy notes. All these whiskies share an easy-drinking, fresh, slightly fruity character.
THE ISLANDS OF SKYE, MULL, ORKNEY, ARRAN, AND JURA
The island whiskies share some general attributes. Peppery, smoky, peaty, and salty are some of the traits. But the whiskies from each island have some specific characteristics. The whisky produced in Jura is medium-peated, slightly salty, and mouth coating. Tobermory whisky is made on the small Isle of Mull. It is lighlty peated and a bit sweet. Whiskies from the Arran Isles are the least distinctive in character of all the island whiskies. Talisker is produced on the Isle of Skye. It’s a big, powerful whisky that is very spicy and salty. There is a pair of whiskies produced on the Orkney Isles: Highland Park and Scapa. These whiskies have it all: spicy, smoky, spicy, salty, and peaty. Scapa tends to express more of the seaweedy and salty notes; Highland Park has more smoky aromatics.
SPIRIT SAFES ARE STILL USED BY DISTILLERIES TO ENSURE THE ALCOHOL IS PROPERLY CONTROLLED AND ACCOUNTED FOR.
WHISKIES FROM THE ISLE OF JURA CARRY SOME SALTY, PEATY CHARACTERISTICS.
- On Sale
- Dec 10, 2012
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal