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

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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