Finally, the Whisky!
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!
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 – 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!
* 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