By Franz Scheurer
I admit it I am a heathen. I prefer blended whiskies to single malts. There is nothing quite like a Johnny Walker Blue Label, in a large balloon glass as an after-dinner drink.
At least the above was true until just over a month ago and before my four-week trip to Scotland.
Visiting Speyside is where it all started. Thanks to Joe Mellis from Orlando Wyndham we had an introduction to Glen Grant and Glenlivet and visiting these two distilleries made me promise to myself to pursue tasting single malts as I figured, by now, that they must be an acquired taste.
Let’s have a look at Scotch Whisky:
Scotch Whisky is a distilled spirit made in Scotland from a mash of cereals and water, saccharified by the endogenous enzymes of malted barley and fermented by the addition of yeast. The making of Scotch whisky depends on a sequence of five production processes:
1) Conversion. During malting, the cell wall material and the reserve proteins of the barley grain are modified, rendering the starchy interior of the grain (starchy endosperm) susceptive so saccharification during the subsequent mashing process.
2) Extraction of sugars with heated spring water. The process of mashing defines the saccharification of and subsequent extraction of fermentable sugars.
3) Fermentation of the diluted sugars with cultured yeast. They are changed into a variety of compounds of which alcohols and carbon dioxide are the best known.
4) Distillation twice (sometimes three times) of the fermented wash to separate and purify the spirit.
5) Maturation of the spirit in oak casks.
A ‘single whisky’ is the expression used to describe the product of one particular distillery. Each distillery produces a single whisky, which is different in character and flavour from any other distillery. The Scots maintain that even if the process is exactly the same simply taking water from the opposite side of the spring will change the taste. They do take this to extremes when they install a new copper kettle to replace the old one: the supplier will have to duplicate the surface knocks and dents.
There are two kinds of Scotch whisky: Malt Whisky, which is made by the Pot Still process and Grain Whisky which is made by the Patent Still (or Coffey Still) process.
Malt Whisky is made from malted barley only, while grain whisky is made from malted barley together with unmalted barley or other cereals, (eg wheat, oats, rye, etc.)
A blended Scotch whisky is a blend of a number of distillates each of which, separately, is entitled to the description ‘Scotch Whisky’. When a consumer asks for a ‘Scotch’ he or she usually mean a blended Scotch whisky, that is a blend of as many as 50 individual malt and grain whiskies, distilled in Scotland. The wide range of single whiskies available ensures the continued high quality and consistency of brands of blended Scotch whisky and year after year enables blenders to ensure that their brands maintain their individual characteristics.
Blended Scotch whiskies account for 95% of all Scotch Whisky sold on the world market.
The Pot Still process, by which Malt Whisky is made, may be divided into four main stages:
The barley is first screened to remove any foreign matter, then soaked for two or three days in tanks of water, known as steeps.
After this, it is spread out on a concrete floor, know as the malting floor, and allowed to germinate. Germination may take from eight to twelve days and depending on the season of the year, the quality of the barley used and other factors. Throughout this period, the barley must be turned at regular intervals to control the temperature and rate of germination.
At the appropriate moment drying the malted barley, or green malt, in the malt kiln, stops germination.
The dried malt is ground in a mill and the grist, as it is now called, is mixed with heated water in a large circular vessel called a mash tun.
The soluble starch is thus converted into a sugary liquid knows as wort. This is drawn off from the mash tun and the solids remaining are removed for use in stock feed.
After cooking, the wort is passed into large vessels holding anything from 9,000 to 45,000 litres of liquid, where it is fermented by yeast. The living yeast attacks the sugar in the wort and converts it into alcohol. Fermentation takes about forty-eight hours and produces a liquid knows as wash, containing yeast, crude alcohol of low strength, some unfermentable matter and certain by-products of fermentation. (At this stage the process is not unlike making a beer)
Pot Still Distillation:
Malt whisky is distilled twice (some distilleries may undertake a third distillation) in Pot Stills, which resemble huge copper kettles. The spirit is driven off the fermented liquid as a vapour and is then condensed back into a liquid. In the first distillation the fermented liquid or wash is put into the Wash still, which is heated either directly by fire or by steam-heated coils. During the process of heating the wash, changes take place in its constituents, which are vital to the flavour and character of the whisky. As the temperature of the wash increases, vapours pass up the neck of the still and then pass through a water–cooled condenser or worm, a coiled copper pipe of decreasing diameter inclosed in a water jacket through which cold water circulates. This condenses the vapours and the resulting distillate, known as low wines, is collected for re-distilling. The liquor remaining in the Wash still known as pot ale is usually treated and converted into distillers’ solubles for animal feed.
The low wines are distilled again in the Spirit Still, similar in appearance and construction to the Wash still but smaller, because of the bulk of the liquid to be dealt with is less. Three fractions are obtained from the distillate in the Spirit Stoll. The first is termed foreshots, the second constitutes the potable spirit and the third is called the feints. The foreshots and feints are returned to the process and redistilled in the Spirit Still with the succeeding charge of slow wines. The residue in the still, called spent lees, is run to wast after purification, In the case of the Spirit Still, the design and the height of the head of the still and the angle of the wide-diameter pipe or lyne arm, connecting the head to the condensing unit, are important and have an effect on the distillate.
The Patent Still process by which Grain Whisky is made is continuous in operation and differs from the Pot Still process in four ways:
1) The mash consists of a proportion of malted barley together with unmalted cereals.
2) Any unmalted cereals used are cooked under steam pressure in Converters for about 3 hours. During this time, stirrers inside the cooker agitate the mixture of grain and water
3) The wort is collected at a specific gravity lower than in the case of the Pot still process
4) Distillation is carried out in a Patent or Coffey Still and the spirit collected at a much higher strength.
Unlike Malt whisky, Grain Whisky is distilled in a continuous operation in a Patent Still. This is sometimes known as the Coffey Still, after Aeneas Coffey, who developed it in 1831
Steam is fed into the base of the analyser and hot wash into the top. As the two meet on the surface of the perforated plates, the wash boils and a mixture of alcohol vapours and uncondensed steam rises to the top of the column. The spent wash runs down and is led off from the base. The hot vapours enter the rectifier at the base and as they rise through the chambers, they partially condense on the sections of a long coil through which wash is flowing. The spirit vapour condenses at the top of the rectifier and is run off through a water-cooled condenser to the spirit safe. Once the spirit begins to be collected, it runs continuously until the end of distillation.
Because of the rectifying element present in this process, the distillate is generally lighter in aroma than most Malt whiskies. It consequently has a milder character and requires less time to mature.
Both Malt and Grain whiskies must be matured after distillation. The new spirit is filled into casks of oak wood, which being permeable, allows air to pass in and evaporation takes place. By this means, the harsher constituents in the new spirit are removed and it becomes in due course a mellow whisky.
Malt whisky, which contains more of these constituents, takes longer to mature than Grain Whisky and is often left in casks for Fifteen years or even longer. The period of maturation for both Malt and Grain Whisky is also affected by the size of the casks used, the strength at which the spirit is stored and the temperature and humidity of the warehouse.
After maturation, the different whiskies are blended together. The blend is then reduced to the strength required by the addition of soft water. The different whiskies in the blend will have derived some colour from the casks in which they have been matured, but the degree of colour will vary from one whisky to another. Whisky matured in old sherry casks will usually be darker colour than that which has been matured in refilled whisky casks. The blender aims at uniformity in his product and he may bring his whisky to a definite standard colour by adding, if necessary, and amount of caramel, which is infinitesimal in relation to the volume of whisky involved.
The whiskey is then filtered carefully and filled by machines into glass bottles, which are sealed by one of several different methods and labelled. A number of distilleries sell part of the whiskey they distil for consumption as single or unblended whiskies. By far the greater part of their production, however, is used to make up the well-known brands of blended whisky that are sold all over the world.
Blending is the art of combining whiskies from several different distilleries, Malt as well as Grain. The combining of Malt with Malt or Grain with Grain is known as vatting. The objective of the blender is first to produce a whisky of a definite and recognisable character. It is of the utmost importance that his blend should never vary from the standard that his customers all over the world have come to expect. His second objective is, therefore, to achieve consistency. The blended whiskies are usually returned to cask and left to ‘marry’ for a period of months before bottling. Some companies prefer to vat their Malts and Grains separately and only bring the two together before bottling.
Many imitators of Scotch Whisky have tried to discover the factors, which give it its distinctive character and flavour. The distilling process itself is one factor. Scotch Whisky, after is has been distilled, contains not only ethyl alcohol and water but also certain secondary constituents. These include some of the essential oils from the malted barley and other cereals and substances that derive from the peat. The amount of these constituents retained in the spirit depends upon the shape of the still and the way it is operated and on the strength at which the spirit fraction is drawn off. The natural elements of water, peat and the Scottish climate all certainly have a profound effect on the flavour of Scotch Whisky, Water is probably the most important single factor and a source of good, soft water is essential to a distillery. The peat that is used in the kiln or oven in which the malt is dried also has an influence that can be detected in the peaty or smoky flavour of many Scotch Whiskies. The Scottish climate is extremely important, particularly when the whisky is maturing. At this stage, the soft air permeates the casks and works on the spirit, eliminating harsher constituents at exactly the correct rate to produce a mellow whisky. Most distilleries would agree that the location of the distillery and the water used are decisive factors. Adjoining distilleries that draw their water from different sources are known to produce whiskies that are quite dissimilar in flavour.
Location of distilleries in Scotland
Malt distilleries are divided into four groups, according the geographical location of the distillery.
1) Lowland Malt Whiskies, made south of an imaginary line drawn from Dundee in the east to Greenock in the west.
2) Highland Malt Whiskies, made north of that line and, within that area, Speyside Malt Whiskies from the valley of the River Spey. Whiskies from the islands other than Islay are Highland Whiskies.
3) Islay Malt Whiskies from the Island of Islay
4) Campbelltown Malt Whiskies from Campbelltown on the Mull of Kintyre.
Each group has its own, clearly defined characteristics, from the lighter Lowland Malt Whiskies to those distilled on Islay, generally regarded as the heaviest malt whiskies. Many blenders regard whiskies distilled in the Speyside area as being quite distinctive from other Highland Malt Whiskies.
Malt Whiskies, which differ considerably in flavour according to the distillery from which they come, have a more pronounced bouquet and flavour than the Grain Whiskies.
The production of Grain Whisky is not influenced by geographical factors and may be distilled anywhere in Scotland.
I managed to sample somewhere around a hundred different single malts during my stay in Scotland. I quickly learnt that the island whiskies are generally much peatier (or smokier) than the mainland whiskies and, although hard work at first, they are the ones that I came to adore.
My personal favourites, in order of preference, at this stage are:
1) Ardbeg 17 years old (Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky)
2) Laphroaig 10 years old (Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky)
3) Lagavulin 16 years old (Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky)
The only ‘mild’ whisky I liked was the Glen Grant, 10 years old from Speyside, a beautifully complex and light whisky.
So let me tell you a little about my new favourite drink:
The Ardbeg distillery was founded in 1815 by the MacDougalls of Ardbeg. Perched on a rocky headland, pounded by a relentless sea, the distillery’s scattered whitewashed buildings enhance the dramatic coastal landscape. Ardbeg has had a chequered past and in recent times been closed down for many years. Glenmorangie acquired Ardbeg in 1997 and has set about restoring the unique distillery to its former glory. Despite the turbulence of its past, none of Ardbeg’s qualities have been diminished. All of the timeworn traditions and skills have been carefully preserved and passed on to today’s craftsmen. Ardbeg’s point of difference is that they use a unique purifier in the Spirit still, unlike any other distillery. This makes if possible for Ardbeg to produce a whisky, which is superbly complex and enthrallingly mellow, with a captivating peaty sweetness that is unmatched in any other Islay Malt Scotch Whisky. The perfect balance is alluring and addictive, and best consumed with a few drops of water.
Ardbeg Scotch Whisky is sold as a 10 year old, as a 17 year old, as a limited 1975 edition and last but not least the Provenance, aged in Bourbon casks.
Try it, it is captivating!
For more information: www.ardbeg.com
WSET, London, U.K.
Sebastian Bulmer, Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, Isle of Harris, Scotland
Ardbeg, Isle of Islay, Scotland