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What is Scotch whisky?

A brief look at the history and processes that have come to define Scotch whisky.

In short, whisky is an alcoholic spirit made from grains. It is commonly associated with Scotland and Ireland but is produced all over the world.

The earliest trace of the distillation of alcohol was recorded in 9th century Baghdad but the transference of this knowledge to Western Europe is something of a mystery. Some believe the technique was observed by travelling Christian monks who later studied and perfected the skill themselves. It seems likely that they would later have brought the knowledge to Ireland and onwards to to Scotland.

One story suggests that distillation first came to Scotland when Angus Og of Islay married the daughter of the Baron of Ulster in 1308. When the bride-to-be arrived in Scotland she had in her service a physician by the name of MacBeatha who’s family would go on to serve the Lords of the Isles for generations. It is not unreasonable to assume that they had some understanding of the process. Without better evidence, however, this remains complete speculation.

The earliest record of the process being performed in Scotland comes from the opposite coast, at Lindores Abbey in Fife. There, one Friar John Cor was commissioned to produce Aquavitae on behalf of King James IV in 1494. When the late 16th century saw Reformation radically change Scotland’s religious landscape, Lindores Abbey and places like it were destroyed and many of the monks forced to flee. Struggling to survive, some sought work as a farmhand and it is here that the story of Scotch whisky really begins.

The monks taught their new employers how to convert leftover barley into a tradeable product and the practice grew into a national pastime, with families across the highlands and islands of Scotland distilling spirit for their own consumption as well as for trade with neighbours and passing merchants. Before long, the Government, as they are wont to do, tried to impose bothersome taxes on the practice but only succeeded in creating an underworld of illicit distillers and smugglers that lasted for generations, until the eventual passing of the 1823 Excise Act persuaded many distillers to go legitimate. Thus, the blueprint for the industry, as we know it today, was created.

The production of Scotch whisky is now strictly regulated. In the case of malt whisky, barley must undergo a malting process in order to kickstart germination. First steeped in water, it is then allowed to rest for a short number of days. These conditions replicate the onset of spring and encourage the grain to access its internal reserve of starch in order to sprout. At this point the maltster halts the process by drying the barley over a kiln. Sometimes a peat fire is used, giving some whiskies a unique smoky character.

Once the barley is dried it is ground to a grist in a mill and then mixed with water in a large vat known as a mashtun. During this process the starch in the grain begins to convert to sugar which can then be collected in the form of a syrupy liquid known as wort. The wort is transferred to fermentation vessels, or washbacks and yeast added. The yeast converts sugar into alcohol, creating a beer-like wash of around 9% alcohol by volume.

The wash is then fed into kettle-like copper Pot Stills which are heated from below. As the temperature increases, the alcohol content evaporates and rises as a vapour, which travels up the neck of the still and along a pipe known as a lyne arm before passing into a condenser to be cooled back to liquid form. The process is repeated a second time and sometimes a third, in order to achieve the desired strength and the resultant new make spirit passed through a safe where the distiller waits to collect the best portion of the liquid.

The spirit is divided into thirds. Only the middle portion, the heart, is collected in order to be matured into whisky, the rest is dubbed heads and tails and is either too high in strength and full of dangerous chemicals, or too low and full of undesirable flavours. These are added to the wash of the next production run to be distilled again.

The heart, meanwhile, is filled into oak casks where it will stay for a legal minimum of three years. As it rests, the cask expands and contracts with the changing seasons, drawing spirit in and out of the porous wood, all the while imbuing the liquid with flavour and colour. The cask’s influence is no small thing, with some claiming up to 60 or 70% of the eventual character comes from the wood. Quite how they arrive at this conclusion is something of a mystery, however. It would be more appropriate to say that a whisky takes on the flavour of a cask, depending on a number of factors, like how many times the vessel has been used before and what liquid it previously held, if any. New virgin oak casks tend to swamp a liquid in woody flavour, so second hand casks are generally preferred, like those having previously contained bourbon, sherry, port or wine. Sometimes the previous contents can have a dramatic effect on the whisky itself.

Depending on its purpose, a cask will be deemed ready for bottling by a master distiller / master blender / production director / whiskymaker, or whatever else they choose to call themselves. It will either be bottled on its own as a single cask release, or more commonly vatted with several other casks to create a batch of whisky that can be bottled and shipped out to retailers. Then people like you and I finally get our excited paws on it. That’s where the fun really starts.

I hope you have found this first chapter of Whisky 101 useful. It would be impossible to cover every aspect of whisky production in depth, especially taking into account the vast variation in styles across the world but since single malt tends to be the thing that gets most of us excited about the spirit, it seemed that a look at its history and production would be as good a place to start as any.

Is there something you’ve been dying to ask but never felt able to? I am not an expert by any means, but I’ve paid enough attention over the years of my hobby that I’ve accumulated some useful knowledge and if I don’t know the answer to a particular question, I will likely know someone who does.

Moran taing (many thanks),

Neill Murphy

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