Scotch & other whiskies


  • In the opinion of noted spirits expert Paul Pacult, Scotland is the epicenter of distilling today. It represents the perfection of existing technique as well as a fertile ground for experimentation. In addition to distilling technique, Scotland provides a fantastic terroir - Scotch reflects its place of origin more than any other spirit, even if the Irish more than likely created whiskey since they were well versed in beer production, and monks arriving in 800 AD probably brought some rudimentary distillation techniques, and by 1000 AD there were several stills operating.

    The fighting Irish monks landed in Argyle on the Campbeltown peninsula to civilize the Scots, bringing the skill of distillation with them, as documented by written records from 1494. In 1505, the Guild of Surgeon Barbers was granted a charter to sell whisky, and by the 1600s there were stills throughout Scotland producing Uisqe beatha, or the water of life as translated from the Celtic language. By 1700 there are 400 distilleries in Edinburgh, and the practice of distillation has been adopted by the culture at large in every economic strata. These were small, personal stills - there weren't any large scale stills until Ferrintosh in the late 17th C.

    In 1707 the Act of Union joined Scotland to England, and taxation of whisky was used to finance war with France. Between 1720 and 1735, Parliament passed 19 different acts taxing whisky production. Notwithstanding this political union, a collective decision among Scottish distillers was subsequently made not to pay the tax, and distillers moved to the most remote areas to avoid taxation, and thus began a century of "smuggling", which was a term that encompassed illegal distillation, tax evasion, and the illegal shipment of whisky.

    The 1823 licensing act allowed some to become legitimate, although this decision engendered some controversy within families. George Smith, a prominent Speyside citizen and the distiller of The Glenlivet made the leap to legitimacy. This move prompted many others to follow his example.

    Another influence at this time (1820s) was the introduction of column still distillation. By the 1850s, merchants in Glasgow and Edinburgh began to make vatted blends (a vatted blend of Scotch is one made up of a blend of several single malt whiskies, the idea being the sum result of the individual malts is greater than any single malt alone), particularly Andrew Usher, with his Old Vatted Glenlivet. It wasn't until the 1860s and 1870s that grain whisky was created, and ultimately other wine merchants, such as Johnnie Walker, the Dewars, the Bells, the Chivas Brothers, Ballentine, etc. also began to follow suit. (Grain whisky is a neutral grain-based distilled spirit, clear and un-aged, which in the case of the blended Scotch category, comprised of the aforementioned Johnnie Walker Red or Black class of brands, is a proprietary “blend” of grain whiskey, vatted or blended malt whiskies and various single malts, mixed carefully to achieve a given “house” style.)

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  • Barley was the grain of choice since it grows best in Scotland's difficult climate. It is also easy to store, and can be stored when malted. In the production of single malt Scotch whisky, the barley is malted (or caused to germinate) in order to release fermentable sugars. The first step is to soak the grain in water for two days, releasing the enzymes that convert the starch into sugar. The grain is placed on the malting floor or in a specially constructed box called a saladin box, and the germination starts.

    Before the leaves and roots begin to grow, the malt is dried in a peat-fired kiln to flavor the malt and arrest the germination. Peat is compressed vegetation that is halfway to becoming coal. It actually comes into play two ways: either the water flows through peat (The land of Islay is 37% peat), or, as noted above, the malt is dried by in peat-fired kilns. The fires dry the malt at a low temperature – about 70˚ C. Today, nearly all malt is purchased, and those who do malt their own barley typically do only a portion of it.

    Once the malt has dried, it is ground and soaked in four changes of increasingly hotter water to extract the fermentable sugars and form the wort. This wort mixture is placed in a vat and agitated to complete the extraction of sugar. Residual malt solids in the wort will add flavor to the finished whisky, and the solids left after draining are fed to cattle.

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  • The diagram above shows Glenmorangie's two distillation process as an example. Remember, spirits distillation is the process of heating a fermented liquid, evaporating off the alcohol as vapor, and then condensing it back into liquid form.

    The sugar-rich wort is fermented in a vessel called a washback to produce the wash. The fermentation process can also add flavor, since a shorter fermentation will produce a wash with more malt character, and a longer fermentation will produce a yeastier result, since the yeast will eventually begin to break down, yielding an autolytic note.

    The wash is usually distilled twice, although sometimes a third distillation is performed. The first distillation is carried out in the "wash still", and the result of this distillation is referred to as “low-wines”, with about 30% ABV. The quantity of low wines obtained is about two-thirds of the initial charge.

    These low-wines are redistilled in the "spirit still" to produce what is called British Plain Spirits or "new make", which is only 17 – 20% of the distillate. New make cannot be described as Scotch whisky until the spirits have been aged for three years. As with Cognac, the heads and tails, here called the foreshots and feints, are either discarded or added back into the low wines. The part retained in called "the middle cut" or "the heart of the run", and comes off the still between 75% – 60% ABV.

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  • In 1800 cask maturation was first introduced. Demand for Highland and island distilled malts in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and England drove the use of casks, which were procured in from wine merchants in England, and thus whisky matured in various types of cask became more popular and well known. The supply of casks to the distilling trade depended on what was available from the wine merchants, and whiskey matured in casks that held Sherry, Port, Madeira, Burgundy, and many other types of wine was produced, and often blended together.

    Today, most Scotch is aged in ex-Bourbon casks because they are inexpensive. The spirit is diluted with water to 63.5% ABV and run into cask; 1% – 2% of the spirit is lost to evaporation (the "Angel's Share) each year. In a blend when there is an age claim, the youngest whisky must be no less than the age claim. After aging, the Scotch is cut again to bottling strength, which is usually 40%, 43% or 46% ABV, although there are a number of whiskies (especially "single singles", see “Types of Scotch” for definition of “single singles”) that are bottled at cask strength. Normally the whisky is chill-filtered to stabilize it and sometimes coloring is added prior to bottling.

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  • The Highlands
    The Highlands are geographically the largest region, and the area is sometimes subdivided into the Western, Eastern (fruity), Northern Highlands (heathery, spicy: Glenmorangie), and midlands or South Highlands (soft). Climate and topography vary within the Highlands, giving a diversity of style. In general, however, these whiskies are balanced and elegant, with subtle notes of heather and honey. Among these are the classic styles referred to by spirits expert Paul Pacult as "inland" in order to differentiate them from the more maritime styles of whisky. In all cases, the level of peat is independent of the location of the distillery.

    In the center of the Highlands region is the sub-region of Speyside, which some people recognize as a separate region. It lays along the river Spey and its tributaries the Livet, the Avon and the Deveron. This area has very soft water, filtered through the Grampian Mountains. "Heather and honey" are common descriptors for this type of whisky, and it is generally regarded as the most balanced.

    This sub-region can be further subdivided by Scotch connoisseurs into smaller areas, including the Livet, Dufftown, Lower Spey and Upper Spey, the Findhorn, the Lossie, and others.

    Technically, the islands other than Islay are also considered Highland malts, although the whisky produced there can vary widely. Those produced on the Isle of Skye (Talisker), Mull, Arran and in the Orkneys (Highland Park), are somewhat maritime in character, but usually show less iodine than those from Islay.

    Islay is a small island, exposed to the sea. Ardbeg, Lagavullin, Bowmore, Laphroaig are examples of the whisky produced here. In general, they are smoky, with a strong dose of sea salt or iodine on the nose. The most common styles also use a lot of peat, since the island has no coal, and distillers traditionally resorted to the local peat. This is not uniformly the case, however, and there are un-peated styles produced here as well.

    Islay was the first region of Scotland to produce whisky, since the technology was imported from Ireland, and Islay is the closest outpost. One reason that distillation flourished on Islay in the early years was that the local lord collected the taxes on the mainland, but his sheriff, who was less exacting, collected them on Islay. Distilleries were legalized throughout the country in 1823, with the provision that they distill a minimum of 180 liters/week in order to ensure consistency.

    The Campbelltown region is in decline with only two working distilleries (Springbank, Glen Scotia). These whiskies are generally similar to Islay malts but with less smokiness.

    The Lowlands are defined by a line drawn from Dundee to Greenock. This area tends to produce smooth, mellow, and fairly neutral whiskies, many of which are triple distilled. The majority of the whisky distilled here is used in blends.

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  • Single Malt
    Single Malt is made only from barley malt, yeast and water. A single malt, such as Glenmorangie or Ardbeg, is distilled in a single distillery using a pot still (usually two distillations, except in the lowlands), and it is distilled in a single season. After the first distillation, the distillate is 22% – 24%, and after the second distillation it is 68% - 72% (the legal maximum is 94.8%, although it is difficult to exceed this without the use of special techniques). What is known as a "single single" malt is a bottling from only one cask. Single grain whiskies also exist, but they are much lighter in style, and relatively rare.

    Blended Scotch
    Blended Scotch is a blend of grain and malt whisky. Formerly, this was approximately 30% malt - 70% grain; now they are more like 35% - 40%.

    Blended Malt Whisky (formerly "vatted malt")
    The other category is blended malt whisky which is a blend of two or more malts from two or more distilleries; these whiskies were once called “vatted malts”, but this term is no longer used.

    Grain whisky
    Grain whisky for blends is normally produced in a continuous still from corn (purchased in England), or wheat (purchased in Scandinavia), and rye is not used. It is normally distilled in column stills and is used for producing blended Scotch (although there are some pot stilled versions). It is commonly distilled out to a fairly high proof, and must by law age three years.

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