Whisky: An Introduction, Part IV


Changing World of Single Malts

In the final episode of ‘Introduction to Whisky’ I give you a couple of my tasting notes on the best selling Single Malts, and I will try and help you get acquainted with the changing world of this spirit. Gone are the days of Single Malt Whiskies being produced in small batches in remote distilleries of Scotland. While Single Malt Scotch Whisky is exclusive to Scotland, Single Malts are not. Single Malt Whiskies are now being being produced across the globe in sufficient quantities to be recognised; countries such as Canada, Ireland, Japan, Taiwan, and USA all have more than one brand which has international recognition. India has recently been put on the map by ‘Amrut Distilleries’ who have produced some spectacular Single Malt Whiskies. Amrut has in fact consistently astounded the world by creating unique and luscious Single Malt Whiskies. Some expressions from Paul John distilled in Goa have been recent additions.

Single malt whisky tasting

On one hand we have an increasing number of countries producing more Single Malt Whiskies and on the other hand we have the price of these drams going through the roof! And this phenomenon is not restricted to India where the tax on imported Scotch ranges from 130%-160%. Does not make economic sense does it? Let me crack at an explanation.

Production: Firstly the new entrant countries producing single malt whiskies though producing in significant quantity by the historical standards; are really not enough! Most of these production batches appear experimental to me and distilleries are getting acquainted to the process.

Acceptance: Single Malt Whiskies produced in a place like Taiwan often raise a brow, and the market will take some more time to accept this change. All I can tell you is that my one tryst with the Taiwanese ‘Kavalan’ has left me gasping for more.

Expansion of the Consumer Market: Statistics tell me that in 1990 the sale of Single Malt Scotch contributed to 1% of the overall sale of Scotch Whisky, and today the figure stands at 12-14%. When you get served Pultney for a private party in Langkawi (an island in Malaysia) you know Single Malts are reaching places. Increasing disposable incomes from countries such as China and India are creating new markets for the previously exclusive “Usige Beatha”.

Whisky as an Investment! Move over wine, Whisky investment is now reaching crazy heights. As weird as it may sound, it is true that a bottle of some of the rare Single Malts are selling for over $300,000! Yes, I got the number of zeros correct just in case you had a doubt. I will elaborate on this subject in one of my future articles, so for now just imagine that there are an increasing number of crazy people collecting drams rather than drinking them!

So, yes those would be some of my reasons why the Single Malt Whisky bubble has reached crazy proportions. A decent bottle of Single Malt Scotch which used to come in a 1 litre bottle and used to cost less than $15 now has a standard size of 700ml or 750ml and costs nothing less than $40 in tax free outlets! Where is that time machine? So in a nutshell demand is high, supply is low. The aged whiskies are giving way to young and NAS (No Age Statement) bottles with a lot of creativity and marketing blitz behind them. So that was the bitter part, on the other hand spirit is not as ‘un-obtainable’ as it was, it is available readily at any of the well stocked retail outlets and most often than not, ‘Glenfiddich’ or ‘The Glenlivet’ is revered to be a Whisky a notch above the famous Johnnie Walker Black Label or Chivas Regal.

When it comes to tasting and detail in notes there are enough ways to do it that will perhaps make the range of Single Malt Whiskies look minuscule! So again this section of the article is profoundly influenced by my opinion.

How to taste Single Malts?

With or without ice has been a debate in the world of Single Malts for quite some time now. I suggest that the best way to get the best out of the drams is to have a go at it without the ice. Reasons being pretty simple, ice to a certain extent numbs the taste buds and subtle flavours may be lost out. Also there is a more scientific reason associated which suggests that cold temperatures do impact the esters in Whisky and one may not get to experience the Whisky in the natural form. I have to add that in a tropical country such as India having a peaty Whisky in summer can be hard to send down, so if you out for enjoyment of the drink go right ahead and add some ice, but if you are out to study the drink in detail please refrain.

Next would be the dilemma of adding water! Like many questions to life the answer comes in many options apart from the standard ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Some experts believe that adding little water helps the Whisky release some of the hidden flavours, where as the opposing group claim adding water may contribute in changes of the taste, colour, flavour and does not retain the originality of the drink. My suggestion would be the most logical one (as per me)! Try it first without the water; this gives you the opportunity to have the first sip in the way the drink was bottled. Adding water has to be in very limited quantities and not quite like how we are used to being served in India with the expression ‘top it up’! A few drops with the help of filler or using a tea spoon would be the best way to ‘taste’ the malt depending on your preference of adding water or not.

Finally remember not to be coloured by opinions and suggestions which border on the realm of fallacy. If you are not able to taste some flavours that someone else can it is absolutely fine stick to your observations. We will start with something that is simple and available easily!

Glenfiddich 12 year old whiskey

Glenfiddich STD 12 Year Old 40% ABV – The largest selling Single Malt brand across the world. The colour is bright amber, has a nice nose to it; reminds me of some Indian cinnamon wine, sweet aromas of vanilla. On the first sip, lots of vanilla now, some resins and there is a bit of spice on the palate. It feels rather harsh without water towards the finish, but adding water makes the nose weak.

The Glenlivet STD 12 Year Old 40% ABV– This drink for me was the one that pushed me over the edge. Colour: Gold. Nose: Wonderful rich honey, vanilla, apples. First sip: Nice cream, toffee, honey, this is delicious any number of times I taste it, a bit of ginger and cinnamon and feels fruity. There is some bitterness towards the end but it remains one of the best entry level dram I have tasted.
Know your drink, & drink it responsibly!

Sláinte
Hemanth Rao

Opinions cited in the above article are purely of the author. Hemanth Rao is a Single Malt lover and the founder of Single Malt Amateur Club India. Read more about SMAC at https://www.facebook.com/smacamateurwhiskyclub

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Whisky: An Introduction, Part III

Finally, the Whisky!

Glenfiddich.distillery.in.Dufftown.Speyside.Scotland

No matter how brief the literature on the production and constituents of Whisky is, it always appears lengthy! Well, while the reader’s patience wears thin and interest levels dwindle, a gentle reminder… the spirit in question is mostly about the wait and time spent in anticipation- ‘Maturation’.

Whisky names and age statements are almost blended in conversation when spoken about. We ‘nosed’ the subject of ‘age statement’ regulation by the SWA in the previous episode. Since we now know what the statement stands for, now we will learn what happens in those years.

Maturation is the process of ‘ageing’ the distilled spirit in essentially ‘Oak’ casks. This is a process used to transform the spirit’s rough edges over the years as the wood imparts some of its properties to the liquid inside, resulting in the final product of Whisky. Scottish folklore says that this process was discovered by chance; as initially Whisky was consumed as soon as it was distilled and these Oak casks were mere vessels for storage! I can only wonder about the delight of the lucky or perhaps imaginative Scotsman who discovered that Whisky gets better when stored in these casks for a long period of time. I just hope that not too many such casks were thrown away before this discovery as ‘stale whisky’, if ever there was such a thing!

Whisky cask being rolled in Islay, Scotland

These casks laden with the Whisky are stored in large warehouses in a cool and dark environment. The temperature, location, moisture in the air all make a huge difference in the way the Whisky shapes up. Like all spirits, this one too has a habit of disappearing into thin air when stored for a long time! No, I am not talking about the occasional ’tasting’ of the blender to check on the health of the Whisky in the cask. I am talking about angels who come down to Earth to claim their share! Again, a myth? Not really. The alcohol in the spirit when undergoing maturation in the manner mentioned above, evaporates at the rate of 2-3% every year. The volume which is lost due to evaporation from the casks when stored is known as the “Angels’ Share”. This share claimed by the angels varies as per the region; in a tropical country such as India it has been touted to be as high as 10%! We are talking about the angels emptying the cask in 10 years!!! Not a very pleasant thought is it? This is one of the reasons the distillery staff regularly checks the whisky in the casks at regular intervals. Now you realize why 30-year-old Scotch is so expensive? Well, that is one rationale. There would be hardly any left in the cask!

Now that we are relatively clear on the basics of Whisky production and since this is an introduction to Whisky, I am pretty sure that a basic guide to the “Jerusalem of Whisky” (Scotland) and generic categorisation by region would help. After all, we should know how to choose our poison!

This section has to be prefixed by a statuary warning; while I make a generic approach to the subject of Whisky by region in Scotland, it will have a healthy influence on my beliefs, so any disagreements will have to be settled over the dram at your cost.

Traditionally, Scotland has been divided in as many ways directly proportional to the ‘experts’, but the majority classifies the country into 4-5 regions. These regions are Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Islay & Campbeltown*. This division is based on the characteristics of the Whisky from a place, which was easily identifiable. For example, the Whiskies with peaty and distinct phenolic notes were associated with Islay. As always, opinions differ when there are too many ‘experts’, especially when expertise is soaked with Whisky! So there are further divisions of regions and various opinions on which distillery should be counted in which region and if the Whisky is spicy or floral, but let me again try and keep it simple for the beginners.

Speyside single malt whisky

Speyside – Now this is the place packed with action. This region has more than half of the distilleries in Scotland. Most of the popular Single Malt Whiskies which are easily available worldwide would be probably churned out from this region. A Speysider Whisky would be the one which has no distinct uniqueness! Talk about a paradox! So getting an easy identifier on these would be really tough, but they do have a prominent nose.

Highland – This is a vast region and unless you are familiar with the imaginary division you may end up including Islay or Speyside. These Whiskies are usually full bodied and are more rich and expressive.

Lowlands – Whiskies from these regions are usually considered as aperitifs as they are light and floral. For a beginner, these are the ideal whiskies and these Whiskies are now increasingly being used to add flavour to food and desserts.

Islay – Perhaps the easiest of the lot to identify in a blind tasting session. If your Whisky has smoke, peat, seawater and medicinal notes, you can wager a bundle that this would be from Islay.

Now while I have given you some of the general characteristics of Whisky by region, I would also like to underscore the region theory in today’s world. In an age where barley was locally sourced and peat was not available in all parts of Scotland, maybe the influence of the local terrier would have been unique. But now most of the barley is imported and peat is available in Canada as well! So while the above classification should act as a handle, it should not be a Bible to go by.

Notes of some of the Whiskies from these regions and the changing world of Single Malt Whisky, all and more in the final episode of ‘Introduction to Whisky’.

Know your drink, and drink it responsibly!

Sláinte
Hemanth Rao

* Campbeltown is a region which was home to over 20 distilleries some time back but now has only a couple of active ones and due to its negligible presence on the map, this is no longer considered as a separate region. One has to keep in mind that there are many brands of single malts produced from the active distilleries.

Opinions cited in the above article are purely of the author. Hemanth Rao is a Single Malt lover and the founder of Single Malt Amateur Club India. Read more about SMAC at https://www.facebook.com/smacamateurwhiskyclub

Whisky: An Introduction, Part II

The Production

Scotch whiskey distillery 2

Hopefully after reading the previous editorial (Whisky: An Introduction, Part I) some you may know a tad more about the greatest sun downer of all times!

Let’s see if you get this one right – If a Scotch Whisky bottle has a label featuring an age statement ‘18 Year Old’ how old is the Whisky?

a. The average age of the Whisky is 18 years old
b. The oldest Whisky in the bottle is 18 years old
c. The youngest Whisky in the bottle is 18 years old

All you fine gents or ladies who are interested in the subject and get the above one right certainly are not a part of the majority! Contrary to popular belief that the age statement of Whisky displayed on the bottle is the oldest or the average age of the whisky, it is the age of the youngest Whisky in the bottle. So by that standards if a bottle has whiskies aged 12, 15 and 18 years the age statement will display as 12 years. Going by that rule, again laid out by the S.W.A; the answer to my question would be option ‘c’.

In the second episode of ‘Introduction to Whisky’ I will help familiarise you with the production of Malt Whiskies. While I know most of the readers are eager to get to the ‘practical session’ of Whisky tasting rather than spending precious time reading the ‘theory’ of the subject, I will try and concise the interlude. I can also assure you that learning the basics of Whisky production not only helps in appreciation of the spirit better, it also becomes a dominant factor in the selection of your Whisky!

So we left the discussion at barley? Or did I add water? I stumble on another raging debate! Adding water or not to, when tasting Whisky? We will save that for later. Limiting the subject to production; there is no Whisky without water! You will realise that water has an ever increasing role in the production of Whisky. The importance garnered is so dominant that you will find labels mentioning the ‘Source” of the water used in the production. The streams of Himalayas are also tapped! Not in the production of Single Malt Scotch…at least not yet!

During the ‘Malting’ process, barley is soaked in water for two to three days, then spread out to germinate. This process of germination takes around a week in Scotland, but in a tropical country like India this takes only a couple of days! Once the barley has begun to sprout it is dried in an oven called a ‘Kiln’. This drying not only stops the germination but also adds the flavour of ‘smoke & peat’. (The process of drying is often fuelled by burning ‘Peat’ *). The dried barley is then crushed in the ‘Malt Mill’, and is called ‘Grist’. Hot water is added to this ‘Grist’ in a large vessel called a ‘Mash-Tun’, where the ‘Grist’ and hot water is mixed thoroughly. This ‘Mashing’ process converts the starch inside barley to sugars, which can be later fermented to produce alcohol. Think of the mashing as similar to adding hot water to muesli!

This mixture is known as ‘Wort’ which is Whisky in its nascent form. The magic ingredient for the production of alcohol is yeast, brewer’s yeast to be precise. This special type of yeast is added to the ‘Wort’ in a fermentation container known as ‘Washbacks’, the fermentation takes two to four days and the ‘Wort’ turns to ‘Wash’ once done. ‘Wash’ is a frothy liquid with an alcohol content ranging from 7-10%; this is also a form of beer!! So how does this beer ‘grow up’ to be a spirit with alcohol strength of about 70%? The answer is ‘Distillation’.

Scotch whiskey distillery

The distillation of all Scotch Malt Whisky is carried out in copper ‘Pot Stills’. These are vessels with a large pot shaped bottom and a slender neck bent like a swan, this is where the vapours are collected during distillation. This process should be relatively simple to those readers who understand chemistry (unlike me). Alcohol boils faster than water so when the ‘Wash’ is boiled the alcohol vapourises first and condenses down the neck of the ‘Still’. The first time this process is carried out it produces something known as ‘Low Wines’ with an alcohol percentage lower than required (10-20%), the distillation process is then repeated to remove impurities and improve the alcohol yield.

I am sure most readers would have observed the line ‘Triple Distilled’ on a few Whisky and Vodka bottles. Most of the Single Malt Whiskies are distilled twice and some of them adopt the triple distillation process. This method of production in batches with ‘Pot Stills’ differentiates the process of Malt Whisky to that of Grain Whisky production which uses ‘Coffey Stills’ or ‘Continuous Stills’.

Whisky production is a matter of the ‘heart’, and I literally mean that! Every distillation run the produce is divided into three cuts:

1. Head (the first liquids which trickle from the condensation neck of the still)
2. Heart (the spirit which ‘Matures’ into Whisky)
3. Tails (like the name suggests the very last liquid produced)

This ‘heart’ of the distillate is a clear liquid with the desired alcohol content. Did I just say clear? What happened to the golden spirit that was the crux of the matter? Hold your horses or rather your drink. We have to let this liquid ‘Mature’ as stated above. Remember the literally ‘golden’ rule? For a whisky to be known as Scotch it has to undergo the maturation process for a bare minimum of three years? Hmmm, I hope ‘Age’ is not catching up!

The Maturation process, different regions of Scotland and much more in the next episode! Keep watching this space.

Know your drink, and drink it responsibly!

Sláinte!
Hemanth Rao

* Peat is a fossil fuel found in European countries and is used by distilleries to dry the barley. Its ability to impart a smoky flavour to the barley is much desired and used widely though more efficient alternates are available

Opinions cited in the above article are purely of the author. Hemanth Rao is a Single Malt lover and the founder of Single Malt Amateur Club India. Read more about SMAC at https://www.facebook.com/smacamateurwhiskyclub