"A Wee Drammie"
Celebrated in song and verse by an authority no less famous than Robbie Burns himself, Scotch whisky is enjoying increasing popularity here in Canada. With good reason. The delightful range of taste and aroma of Scotland’s traditional “water of life” has come as a pleasant surprise to many of its new fans in this country.
David Daiches, a much-published expert, notes that many individuals will still order a “Scotch” or a “whisky” in a bar or restaurant without specifying what kind they want. While it is arguable that there is no such thing as bad Scotch whisky, making such a generic request is similar to asking a sommelier to bring “wine” without further elaboration. In fact, there are many different kinds of Scotch whisky, whose radically different characteristics can be appreciated very easily, even by those of us who make no claim to be connoisseurs. A professional wine judge of the author’s acquaintance asserts that there are considerably greater and more obvious differences in the taste and aroma of different Scotch whiskies than exist among different kinds of wine.
The special features of each whisky are derived from aspects of the manufacturing process that are unique to the particular distillery where it is made. Precise formulae are closely-guarded company secrets, often handed down through many generations. Old-timers joke with mock seriousness that a small still house may never receive a thorough housecleaning, for fear that disturbing the pattern of the ancient cobwebs on the ceiling will alter the traditional taste of its whisky!
However, the general steps in the manufacturing process are universal. Whisky is made from malted barley. The grain is soaked in water until it germinates. It is then dried over peat fires, the smoke rising up through a perforated, metal floor. The dried grain is then ground up and mixed with warm water to make a mush called wort. Yeast is added to the wort, which then ferments in huge vats in the tun room for 36 - 40 hours, making an alcohol-containing liquid called the wash. This beer-like liquid is heated in great, copper kettles; and the vapor is distilled by passing it through coils of cooled, copper pipe. The distillation process is repeated twice. The distilled liquor is tested for quality. Water is added as necessary to achieve the correct alcohol content (usually 43 percent by volume for the North American market).
The spirit is poured into huge, oak barrels of 180 liters, or hogsheads of 250 liters, or 500 liter butts. Then it is stored in bonded warehouses to mature -- for no less than 3 years by the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988; but typically from 8 to 16 years for most well-known brands. Some special spirits may be casked for 30 years or more. The longer the time in the cask, the more mellow the liquor -- and the higher its retail price. The tannins and wood sugars in the oak play a major role in maturing the spirit. The oak allows the whisky to “breathe,” so that the harsh elements evaporate into the atmosphere as the so-called “Angels’ Share.” Some wags contend that to appreciate Scotch whisky in many a Scottish glen, all one needs to do is inhale deeply!
The process of maintaining the wooden barrels in which whisky is matured is fascinating, too. Tourists are welcome at the Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie, Scotland, one of the very few places in the world where the art of barrel-making is still taught to apprentices. Used, oak sherry casks from Spain were used traditionally for the maturation of Scotch whisky. Nowadays, empty bourbon containers from the United States are usually employed. The liquor previously stored in the wooden barrels adds subtle flavor to the finished product. Each distillery owns its own stock of barrels, which can be recycled up to three times with proper maintenance. The symbol “XXX” used by cartoonists to denote alcohol originated in the marks painted on barrels to show the number of times they had been used.
Several well-known distillers provide tours of their establishments for those who are interested. For example, at the Strathisla Distillery in Keith, Scotland -- home of the excellent Strathisla single malt as well as the world-famous blend, Chivas Regal -- the entire distillation process is revealed for the tourist. This picturesque establishment, founded in 1786, has a Canadian connection: it is now owned by Seagrams. Good-humored guides give visitors a tour of a pristine, refurbished premises where the aura of tradition has been carefully respected and preserved. A comfortable tea room is thoughtfully provided for the refreshment of traveling companions who have no interest in the manufacture of distilled spirits.
Because the differences among various Scotch whiskies depend on the natural variation of water and peat, the differing personalities of these products are generally associated with the geographic regions of Scotland from whence they originate. Broadly speaking, there are Western malts and Eastern malts. Western varieties tend to have “heavier” flavors, reminiscent of the smoke of the peat fires used in the malting process. It is said that the iodine content of seaweed mixed with the peat gathered from littoral locations adds to the particular, sharp aroma of whisky from the western islands of Islay and Skye -- though one suspects that the large quantities of peat smoke deliberately introduced into the products during malting has more to do with their distinctive, regional flavor. The sharp taste of Talisker from the Isle of Skye has many loyal adherents; but it doesn’t please everyone. Even more distinctive are products of the western island of Islay, of which Bowmore and Lagavulin are but two of the well-known “single malts” (products of a single distillery) available here in Canada.
The extreme, smoky character of another Islay whisky, Laphroaig is an acquired taste. According to the company's frank self-assessment, "You won't be the first to hate it, or the last to love it!" An apocryphal story holds that Laphroaig was the best-selling Scotch whisky in the United States during the Prohibition years of the 1930s, because Customs officers unfamiliar with its unique character assumed that a liquid with such a medicinal smell could be none other than the “disinfectant” under which nomenclature it was often imported! Little did they know!
Less demanding on the palate is the still-distinctive, but slightly more subdued nature of a west Highland product such as the 14 year old Oban single malt, praised by its many admirers as exemplary of its species.
Eastern offerings, by contrast, tend to be more delicate and complex. Almost anyone can distinguish between the two regions in a blind taste test. An east coast whisky like Glenmorangie is quite different from west coast products -- less robust, but more mellow. The many whiskies of the Strathspey region of eastern Scotland, south of the Moray Firth, are justifiably famous for their sophisticated, complex tastes and aromas. Speyside brand names like Cragganmore, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Cardhu and dozens of others are recognized the world over for their smooth flavor and high quality.
The subtle pleasures of lowland whiskies are not to be overlooked despite the Highlander’s scoffing dismissal that Lowland malts are intended for ladies who shy away from the strong tastes of more robust Highland whiskies. It is true that a whisky like Glenkinchie from the Edinburgh area has a lighter, “fruitier” aroma than its Highland relatives, but its delicate taste is very agreeable.
Another popular misconception, especially in North America, is that any “single malt” whisky is inherently superior to a blended variety. This is far from true. The products of as many as 50 different distilleries may go into the creation of a premium blend, the proportions of which are always proprietary trade secrets. The quality of a blend depends, naturally enough, on the component spirits that are used to make it. Chivas Regal, for example, is a highly esteemed blend that commands a higher price than many of the fine single malts that are used in its creation. The overwhelming bulk of the output from Scottish distilleries is used to make the well-known blends of Scotch whisky that outsell every other spirit on world markets.
Professional tasters wax eloquent, attempting to describe nuances of taste and aroma that the rest of us can understand best by sampling “a wee drammie.” That famous expression accurately describes the small quantities in which a beverage that is 43 percent alcohol is best appreciated: good whisky is savored in much the same way as a liqueur. Given the great differences between the various kinds of Scotch whisky, a sensible way to proceed is to purchase miniature sample bottles. In this way, one avoids the risk of being stuck with a large bottle of a pungent spirit that one does not particularly like. Unlike wine, whisky does not improve -- or change in any manner -- after it has been bottled. Keeping a bottle of fine spirit in the cellar does not enhance its quality one whit.
So, enjoy! Or, as they say in the Scots’ Gaelic toast, slainte!
For a cautionary tale on the perils of too many "wee drams", see the next page . . .
© 1997-2004 Neil Harding McAlister