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Hugh and Colleen Gantzer unravel the mysteries behind this world-renowned ‘golden spirit’

Mist over Loch Lomond which mellows casks of whisky

The Scots didn’t invent Scotch Whisky: the Irish did. And thereby hangs a fascinating tale to be told over a dram of single malt, savoured with old friends.

There was a time when there was no whisky in Scotland. In fact there was no Scotland. Scotland got its name from a tribe of Irish Gaels who swept into the ‘western isles’ and Argyll in the fifth century. These adventurous people brought with them the secret of converting an ancient grain, which probably originated in the highlands of Ethiopia and southeast Asia, into an ambrosial drink. They knew how to transform barley into the golden spirit they called The Water of Life: uisge beatha. This was transformed into usquebaugh, pronounced, roughly, ooska-ba.

The Anglo-Saxons, who have never had much respect for any language, including their own, changed this to ooskie and, eventually to whisky. This is the way the Scots and Canadians spell it; the Irish and the Americans add an ‘e’: whiskey.

If you discount all the mystique associated with scotch, as we once made the mistake of doing, the method of making scotch whisky is very simple. Barley is soaked in water and spread. The grain gets ready to sprout, and converts its starch reserves into sugar, food for the seedling. Before the first green shoot can appear, however, the grain is crushed and heated over peat fires. Peat, the first stage in the formation of coal, consists of plants that have fallen into marshes and then got compressed as more plants piled on top of them. It burns with a smoky flame and it’s the smoke of peat that gives the characteristic taste to scotch. Even today, when scotch distillers use more modern methods of heating, they still add peat to the fuel to impart its special flavour to their whiskies.

The whiskies of Scotland
A copper still into which the fermenting mixture called ‘wash’ is transferred
A waterfall seen from the Glengoyne reception centre
A worker checks a still in the Glengoyne distillery
‘The best way to drink whisky is the way you most enjoy it’

The crushed grain, with its peaty taste, is called ‘malt’. This is now mixed with water and the sugary ‘wort’, pronounced ‘wurt’, is drawn off to ferment with yeast.

When the sweet wort is mixed with yeast, the living yeast cells attack the sugar and converts it into crude alcohol. This fermenting mixture is called ‘wash’. The wash is transferred into copper stills; heated; the easily evaporating alcohol passes through a coiled tube with cold water circulating around it, and the golden distillate condenses and falls, drop by precious drop.

This traditional process, using a copper still, creates Malt Whiskies. It is, however, a very slow process because the pot has to be cleaned after each batch. It is also whimsical, quick to react to changes in weather, the hand of the Stillman, even a dent in the copper pot. This is what makes malt whiskies so exclusive and so expensive.

They are, virtually, designer whiskies.

Not all Scotch whiskies are made only of malted grains. Some add a portion of unmalted barley and maize, cooked under steam pressure to break the starch cells. These are the less traditional Grain Whiskies. They are appreciably stronger whiskies and are distilled in a continuous process using a Coffey Still invented in 1830. The wash is fed in at one end and the distillate pours out at the other.

But the liquid dripping out of the still, whether Copper or Coffey, is not whisky..as yet. “why not?” we asked the Scotch Distillers’ Association. “Because,” said our informant with a Scottish burr in his voice, “it has had no time for the harsher spirits to leave through the pores in the wooden casks, and the gentle mists of Scotland to enter and mellow it.” This sounded like hype so we smiled disdainfully. Ignoring his repeated protestations and dire warnings, we got him to draw a dram of the distillate. It was as colourless as methylated spirits and had a rough aroma. But we pressed on, regardless, and one of us drank it. It went down smoothly enough but then it began to burn the throat, and it rose like a surfacing sea monster and slammed hard behind the eyes. It was vicious.

Now we know why all Scotch whiskies have, by law, to mature for at least five years; some mature for five times as much. Each distillery has a specific maturing time, and if the whisky is not tapped when it should be, it might taste unpleasantly woody.

Grain whiskies vary little from place to place, but the Malt Whiskies are divided into four distinct groups.

Lowland Malts are made in distilleries south of an imaginary line joining the former jute port of Dundee, on the east coast, to Greenock, on the west coast. Reputed Lowland Malts are Rosebank, Auchentoshan, Littlemill and Bladnoch.

North of the Dundee-Greenoch line are the Highlands which produce the Highland Malts which have more body and are slightly sweeter than their Lowland cousins. Highland Park; Strathisla-Glenlivet is sold as both an 8- and 15-year-old single malt and is a constituent of Chivas Regal and 100 Pipers; Glenfiddich which reputedly holds pride of place in the exported malts; and our personal favourite, Glengoyne, which is used in the blending of Cutty Sark and Redhackle. Its reception centre overlooks a waterfall and a flower bedecked glen.

In contrast to the mellow and full bodied Highland Malts, the Campbeltown Malts, from Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre, are said to have a sharper flavour than the others. Glen Scotia and Springbank are the only two Campbeltown Malts we know of.

Then there are the heavy whiskies distilled in Islay, pronounced ‘Eye-ler’. The Islay Malts, we were told, recall the iodine flavour of the seaweed and salt of their Altantic-washed island. Ardbeg, Bowmore and the very distinctive, and extremely assertive, Laphroaig. The 8-year-old, blended, Islay Mist has the strength of Laphroaig tempered with Glenlivet and Glen Grant.

Single Malts, clearly, could vary from batch to batch. One way to get a certain consistency is to buy Vatted Malts: a blend of two or more malts created by the discerning palates of skilled blenders. If one batch of one malt is sweeter than an earlier batch, then the blender could add a dash of a less sweet malt to equalise the taste. Glen Drummond, Glen Eagle, Juleven, The Seven Stills, Dewar’s 12 year old’, Capercaille, Strathspey, Glenleven and Duncraggan are some of the better known Vatted Malts.

Thanks to the efficiency of the Coffey Still, Grain Whiskies don’t have to be distilled near a gushing Scottish stream, or burn. They can be made in a port, drawing their grain in bulk from exporters all round the world.

Consequently Grain Whiskies are cheaper and in much greater demand than Malts. But they don’t have the peaty flavour. To overcome this disadvantage, whisky blenders mix malts, which do have the peat flavour, with the grain whiskies. And to obtain the right balance of colour, aroma, flavour and body, they have been known to use as many as 40 different whiskies to create their Blended Whisky brands. Bell’s, Teacher’s, Haig, Grant’s, Johnnie Walker, White Horse, The Famous Grouse, Dewar’s, Whyte and Mackay and Vat 69 are among the more popular Blended Whiskies, apart from the ones we have already mentioned.

A whisky can’t be called ‘Scotch’ unless it’s made in Scotland. But this hasn’t stopped other countries for distilling their own versions of this convival drink. Irish Whiskies, for instance, don’t have the peaty flavour of Scotch. An Irishman told us that their ancestors, who became Scotsmen, didn’t know how to keep the peat smoke out of their whisky and so they did the next best thing: ‘They made a virtue out of this pollutant!’ Irish whiskies go through three distillations and are sometimes blended with a neutral grain to make them lighter, or as the Irishman put it,

“Far more civilized” than Scotch.

American whiskies are, for most Scotch drinkers, an acquired taste which is rather difficult to acquire. They were first distilled in the early 1700s and are named after the grain that dominates the mash. Corn whiskies were invented in Bourbon, Kentucky, home of the ‘moonshine’ hilly-billy songs. It was, sometimes, referred to as ‘sour-mash’ whiskey, apart from being called Bourbon. Sour-mash is a mixture of previously fermented and new yeast. Most other whiskies are made from ‘sweet mash’ which uses only new yeast.

The Grain Factor: If the American Whiskey is made of at least 51 per cent barley it’s a straight malt whiskey. Fifty-one per cent rye malt will give a straight rye malt whiskey. The term straight bourbon indicates a whiskey made from at least 51 per cent corn malt. And then, just to confuse the issue, straight corn mash whiskies contain at least 80 per cent corn.

Then there is the eternal question, “How should whisky, or whiskey, be drunk?” The correct answer is “The way you most enjoy it”. Don’t believe those who claim it’s best drunk with water gushing down a Scottish burn. The old Scots had no other alternative. We have bottled mineral water, both still and sparkling, soda water and ice making machines, even warm milk as a certain scotch distiller’s father preferred. Most of us, however, do pour it out by ‘the peg’. The original peg was a Saxon invention: tankards had pegs inserted at regular intervals so that friends sharing the same tankard knew when to stop quaffing before handing it to the next boozer. The peg measure was reputedly introduced by St Dunstan to remove one source of drunken brawls. As Longfellow said, in his Golden Legend: Come, old fellow, drink down to you peg!, But do not drink any further, I beg, Cheers!