and Colleen Gantzer unravel the mysteries behind this world-renowned
over Loch Lomond which mellows casks of whisky
Scots didnt 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.
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.
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 its 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
whiskies of Scotland
copper still into which the fermenting mixture called
‘wash’ is transferred
waterfall seen from the Glengoyne reception centre
worker checks a still in the Glengoyne distillery
best way to drink whisky is the way you most enjoy it’
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
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.
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.
are, virtually, designer whiskies.
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.
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
Grain whiskies vary little from place to place, but the Malt
Whiskies are divided into four distinct groups.
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.
contrast to the mellow and full bodied Highland Malts, the
Campbeltown Malts, from Paul McCartneys 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
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
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, Dewars 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
dont 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.
Grain Whiskies are cheaper and in much greater demand than
Malts. But they dont 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. Bells, Teachers,
Haig, Grants, Johnnie Walker, White Horse, The Famous
Grouse, Dewars, Whyte and Mackay and Vat 69 are among
the more popular Blended Whiskies, apart from the ones we
have already mentioned.
whisky cant be called Scotch unless its
made in Scotland. But this hasnt stopped other countries
for distilling their own versions of this convival drink.
Irish Whiskies, for instance, dont have the peaty flavour
of Scotch. An Irishman told us that their ancestors, who became
Scotsmen, didnt 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
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 its 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. Dont believe those who
claim its 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 distillers
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!