by Matt Wilson
Does it really matter?! The know-it-all will tell you that ‘whisky’ denotes Scotch whilst ‘whiskey’ denotes the stuff made in Ireland and the US. However, there are too many exceptions to rule to make it stick (one, off the top of my head, being George Dickel #12 Tennessee Whisky). So whisky it is then!
So what is it? Broadly speaking it describes an alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented cereal grain – barley, corn, rye, wheat – aged in wooden casks. The method is relatively simple, but the local differences in the way the components are put together leads to huge variations in style and flavour. Whisky may be sweet, salty, peaty, smoky…all this from just grain, yeast and water…and, of course, wood.
Far from a neutral container, the wooden cask is crucial in the development of the finished whisky. Its role is to mellow the spirit, softening any rough edges, adding colour, flavour and unique complexity. These characteristics will be heightened the longer the spirit remains in the cask.
Choosing the grain
The choice of grain is possibly the most important factor in determining the character of the finished whisky. Of the grains mentioned above, only barley will be used in isolation, as in Scotch Malt Whisky. The rest – corn, rye and wheat – will generally only form part of a ‘mashbill’, usually alongside barley.
Barley is the most expensive of the grains, bringing malty, cereal and buscuity notes to the whisky. Corn, the cheapest grain, brings sweet, spicy and oily notes. Rye brings body and some pepper and spice along with dried fruit on the palate. Wheat brings mellow honeyed notes, balancing the bolder characteristics of the other grains.
Rules designate the particular combinations and percentages of different grains within a whisky, so a Bourbon must be made from no less than 51% corn (usually between 70-90%), a Rye Whiskey from no less than 51% rye etc. Rules also designate the type of wooden cask to be used for aging – in US styles, barrels must be brand new. No such rule applies with Scotch, so whiskies here will often be aged in used Bourbon or sherry casks.
Rules, rules, rules!
The rules that surround whisky making are strictly adhered to today, and enforced by trade associations – such as the Scottish Whisky Association – as well as global institutions like the World Trade Organisation. Yet for the bulk of its history whisky has taken myriad forms. It has only really been in the last 100-125 years or so that the strict regulations have crept in. Prior to this, going back hundreds of years or more (to at least 1494 from written record), whisky makers would throw all sorts into the mash – potato, oats, sugar, turnips – and experiment with all manner of barrels for aging. Whiskies would often be flavoured with things like honey, anise or mint. Tell that to your finger-wagging traditionalist!
The seriousness with which the authorities take violations to regulations is illustrated by the story of Compass Box and their Spice Tree whisky. Pioneering American whisky maker John Glaser faced the wrath of the Scottish Whisky Association when he tried to get a bit too experimental a few years back. The SWA were perturbed by the use of new oak staves in the barrel during the maturation process used to create the rich, bold, sweet and spicy flavour that characterises this whisky. The Spice Tree was banned, becoming known as the ‘illegal whisky’ for a time. Needless to say it promptly flew off the shelves! But not to worry, the rebel Glaser soon came up with a way to skirt round the rules. He worked out he could use new oak heads on the barrels (perfectly legal), with varying degrees of toasting recreating the same unique flavour profile. Compass Box’s Spice Tree was saved!
Though tales of pioneering rule-breakers are entertaining, and whilst the rules they break may seem archaic, it is clear there do need to be boundaries in place to push! Some level of regulation is needed to maintain quality standards and to make it so the consumer knows what they’re buying.
Whisky production in 30 seconds
Malting – grains are steeped in water and spread onto a concrete floor where the grains begin to sprout. Before germination goes too far, this so-called ‘green malt’ is dried in a hot air kiln. For smoky styles (such as Islay malts), peat will be added to the kiln. Once dried, the malt is milled into a ‘grist’.
Mashing – the grist is mixed with hot water in a ‘mashtun’ (large circular metal container). Starch within the grains is gradually converted to sugar by enzymes also present in the grains. This sugar turns to a solution in the hot water (forming the ‘wort’) and is drained off through the base of the mashtun and through a heat exchanger.
Fermentation – at this stage a suitable yeast is added, which thrives on sugars converting them alcohol, CO2 and what are called ‘congeners’: a mixed bag of acids and esters. Some congeners can add interesting complexity to a whisky, whilst others will spoil it. The foamy wort will bubble for a few days until the alcohol reaches 5-10%. This mild brew is known as the distiller’s ‘beer’.
Distillation – the next stage sees the beer transferred to the still for boiling. The choice of still is down to the whisky maker. A ‘pot still’ is the most common form of still used for whisky making. It uses a method that has been around for hundreds of years whereby heat is added to the still, just enough to evaporate the alcohol only. The vapour rises up to a condenser – a length of coiled copper tubing – that cools and condenses the vapour into a distilled spirit. As the spirit flows from the condenser, the whisky maker closely monitors it, making sure only the finest portion of the liquid is diverted to a spirits receiver. The ‘top and tails’ (the initial and concluding portions of the liquid) will always be separated as they contain a number of impurities that would spoil the finished whisky.
Maturation – the whisky arrives in the receiver as clear as water and at around 70 to 80% abv. Usually water will be added at this stage to reduce the abv. An exception will be if the whisky maker wants to make what is called a ‘cask strength’ whisky, in which case it will be left as it is. Next the whisky will be poured into casks for aging. All of the colour and around 50% of the flavour will come through is barrel maturation. The choice of wood or the prior use of a cask will make a vast difference to the style of finished whisky, as will the length of time the whisky spends in it.
A bluffers guide to buying Scotch
Light and Soft
A good place to start for the novice, the Auchentoshan 12 Year Old (£33.90) is triple distilled Lowland malt known as ‘the breakfast whisky’ for its easy going, soft and delicate style. You may find toasted almonds and caramelised toffee on the palate with this one. Works well served from the fridge on a summer evening!
Sweet and Rich
For those who still fancy staying on the sweeter side, but fancy something with a bit more richness and complexity, then perhaps a Speyside malt such as the Glen Garioch Founders Reserve (£34.50) is worth a look. Unlike its big brother the 12 year old, which has a whiff of peat smoke to it, this whisky is pure butterscotch, sweet buttercream and citrus with a touch of spice.
Earthy and Spicy
A hallmark of the Highland style is its earthiness and spiciness. The Oban 14 Year Old (£40.00) is a good place to start here. It combines some fruit with on the nose with a whiff of salt. On the palate it provides dried fruit, orange peel and spice, drifting smoke, and that unmistakable salty tang. Good place to start if you find the Islay malts just that little bit overpowering.
The peaty style is most associated with Island malts, most famously those from Islay. Peat in a whisky can manifest itself in different ways, ranging from potent iodine aromas to a deeper smokiness. A decent point of entry to this style is the Single Malts of Scotland Caol Ila 1991 16 Year Old (£65.00), which is rich and earthy, with a good smack of peat. To me, the extended barrel aging is important to balance the peat in Islay whiskies. This 16 year old actually finishes quite soft, whereas younger styles may be a bit harsh to the novice tongue.