Liquid Pleasures Beyond Wine: Scotch Whisky
During 2011 I wrote a number of posts for the project called The Art Of Life Magazine – of course talking about my favorite subject, wine. The project was closed and even the web site is down, but as I still like the posts I wrote, I decided to re-post them in this blog. Also, in that project, posts were grouped into the mini-series, such as “Best Hidden Secrets” and “Forgotten Vines”. The post I’m offering to you today was from the mini-series called “Liquid Pleasures Beyond Wine”, and the subject of this post is Scotch Whisky.
Also note that the series was written for a slightly different audience – I hope none of my readers will take offense in the fact that sometimes I’m stating the obvious…
Moving from grapes to grains (last week’s subject – Brandy), now is the time to talk about literally my favorite spirit: Scotch Whisky, or simply Scotch for a shorter name. Scotch is a part of a broader category of spirits which are called Whiskey, which is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the fermented grains. While Whiskey can be produced anywhere in the world, Scotch Whisky can be produced … yep, only in Scotland (by the way, note the spelling difference – Whisky versus Whiskey, and make no mistake using the right spelling when talking about Scotch – it is Whisky).
First mentions of the Scotch Whisky (will just refer to it as Scotch from here on) go all the way back to the end of the 15th century, so this alcoholic beverage has quite a bit of heritage and knew very turbulent times in its half a millennia history. Scotch can be made from different grains such as barley, wheat and so on, but many particularly famous Scotches are made from malted barley, and typically are called “malt”. And then if you ever paid attention to Scotch, I’m sure you heard of a “single malt” – that is a Whisky which is made out of malted barley at a single distillery. So just to emphasize – “single” here refers to a single distillery, and an opposite of single would be “blended”, in case Scotch from two or more distilleries is blended together. By the way – don’t be afraid of the blended Scotch – a lot of them are on par with the best single malts.
Making of the malted Scotch starts from the barley, which is steeped with water for some time to start germination process – during this process, complex starches will be broken down and converted into sugar. Next step is drying of the barley, which is typically done in the pit, using heated air. The heat is coming from burning of the peat (fossil fuel), which imparts the smoky flavor on the grains; later on the smoke becomes the part of the flavor profile of the final product – the intensity of the smoke varies greatly among different areas and different producers. Dried grains are coarsely ground and will be steeped with the hot water and will become a sugary liquid.
Next step is cooling off and then start of the fermentation process, which technically results in the beer with 7%-8% alcohol. From here on, the liquid goes through the first and second distillation process, which will get the level of alcohol anywhere between 40% and 94%, and then it is put in the oak barrels to age. The minimum age for Scotch is 3 years, but if we are talking about single malts, majority of them would age for 10 or 12 years (12 years seems to be a very popular demarcation line for introductory level Scotch from a lot of producers), and from there it can continue aging until it reaches 18-19 years (anything in between also goes). 25 and 30 years also seem to be a popular option, and 40-50 years old are not so rare – but keep in mind that the age of the Scotch will be appropriately reflected in the price (you expected that, right?).
Before Scotch is bottled, the decision is made regarding the strength of the alcohol in the final product. Sometimes it can be released at so called “cask strength”, which can be anywhere from 50% to 60% ABV or even higher. But more often than not, it is diluted with water to get to 43% – 46% of alcohol in the final beverage. One important note – unlike wine, Scotch doesn’t age in the bottle – however, once it is opened, again unlike wine, it doesn’t spoil and can be kept indefinitely in the bottle, just don’t forget to put the cork back every time you pour a glass.
With the same process used across the board (fermentation of the malted barley and [typically] double distillation), and the “fruit” (err, grain) being effectively the same (barley) versus many hundreds of different grapes used in the winemaking, would you expect that all the Scotch of the same age will taste the same? Well, it truly does not. What makes Scotches taste different? First of all, it is water, which is different in every Scotch-producing region. Then it is the type and intensity of peat smoke used for drying of the germinated grains. Of course the number of distillations matters, but more importantly it is the type or types of casks used for aging (some Scotches undergo aging in a few different types of casks before they are bottled) and the time of aging. Lastly, it is the type of filtering (or no filtering at all) which will also affect the taste of the final product. Oh yes, and a little bit of magic.
There are five official areas where Scotch is produced – Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Campbeltown (never tasted anything from this area) and Islay. There are also a number of small islands which produce Scotch in a very distinct styles (like Skye, Orkney and others), but they are technically considered the part of the Highland region. Each distillery produces Scotch in its own unique style, but there can be some general similarities between scotches. If we paint flavor profile for the different regions, using very wide brushstrokes, we can say that Scotches from Highlands are typically very balanced and round, with good balance of acidity, flavor and spiciness. Lowlands flavor expression is usually toned down, and Speyside are very delicate and nuanced – Orkney scotches (Scappa) are similar to Speyside in their expressions, but probably add a touch more body. Islay and Skye produce very powerful and assertive scotches, exhibiting tremendous amount of peat (read: smoke); those who like them (me!) find them very pleasant.
When you are looking at the bottle of Scotch, you would typically be able understand if this is a single malt or not, how old it is (10, 12, 14, 15 and so on years), or the year when it was distilled and when it was put in a bottle, as well as the type of finish – Madeira, Jerez, Port and many others types of barrels this scotch was matured in. Of course alcohol content, cask strength or not and type of filtering would also be typically denoted on the bottle. Well, as a popular trend, that exact age statement can be nowhere to be found on the bottle nowadays – but this should be a subject for a separate post…
There are hundreds and hundreds of distilleries making great single malt and blended Scotches. If you want to learn about all of the distilleries, you can start from Wikipedia link, or Malt Madness web site. At the same time, I would be glad to share the list of some of my single malt favorites: Ardbeg Alligator (Islay), Cardhu 12 (Speyside), Lagavulin 16 (Islay), Laphroaig 16 (Islay), Glenfiddich 15 (Speyside), Scappa 14 and 16 (Orkney), Talisker 10 (Skye). Of course the world is not limited by the single malts only. When it comes to blended whisky, there are a number of Whiskies which I can recommend – Johnnie Walker (Black, Gold, Blue), Chivas Regal 12 and 18, Monkey Shoulder, Compass Box, Blue Hanger, Black Bottle – and many others.
I hope I was able to share my passion for the Scotch Whisky – but I’m curious to hear what do you think about Scotch? Also, just so you know, in our next post we will insert only one letter ‘e” into the word Whisky, to discover to whole huge world of Whiskey. Until then – happy dramming!