Happy National Scotch Day! We hope you’re kicked back in a comfortable chair, whiskey, rocks or old fashioned glass in hand, sipping a dram of the water of life. That’s no hyperbole, by the way. Scotch whisky evolved from a Scottish beverage called uisge beatha, which translates to “water of life.”
Scottish distillation is believed to have begun over 520 years ago in the 15th century. The honor of distilling 8 bolls of malt went to Tironensian monk Friar John Cor who was based at the Lindores Abbey in Fife. Brother Cor was a servant of the court of Scottish King James IV, who holds the distinction of being the last monarch of all of Great Britain to be killed in battle. Of course, where there’s government control there are taxes. And, of course, where there are taxes there are those who seek to circumvent them. The production of whisky was first taxed in 1644, which immediately led to illicit whisky stills. As of 1780, Scotland counted 8 legal distilleries and several illegal distilleries…to the tune of 400. To make it simpler to operate legally – and stomp out the illegal operations – the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Excise Act in 1823, which ushered in the modern era of scotch production. Just 8 years later, the column still was introduced which made it less expensive to produce whisky and produced less intense, smoother liquid. In 1880 the phylloxera bug (which attacks grapevines) descended upon Cognac and other wine producing regions of France, which bolstered the popularity of Scotch whisky.
Speaking of regions, there are five recognized in Scotland: Lowland, Speyside, Highland, Campbeltown and Islay. However, scotch can be made in any locale in Scotland so long as it’s distilled completely within that specific place. The Lowland region has only a few distilleries currently in operation with a couple of new distilleries that have opened but not brought a product to market. Speyside has the most distilleries, including the iconic Macallan, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. The Highland region consists of the islands dotting Scotland with the exception of Islay and, curiously, a few Lowland locations in the north-east. Campbeltown has had some interesting distinctions. At one time it was the “Whisky Capital of the World,” and yet it also once lost its designation as a recognized region because so many distilleries stopped production. Islay is a well-known region which hosts Fèis Ìle (Festival of Malt and Music) at the end of May each year. It’s also known for its characteristic use of peat, which produces smoky whiskies. Here you’ll find Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Bruichladdich.
In the beginning, all scotch whisky was produced from malted barley. For the curious, a malted grain is a germinated cereal grain, meaning the grains are soaked in water in order to make them germinate and then dried with hot air to stop the germinating process. Malting produces enzymes that develop sugars and proteases. Late in the 18th century, wheat and rye were introduced by commercial distilleries. While we’ve all seen rare (and expensive) examples, such as 40-year-old Dalmore, the minimum requirement for scotch is that it be aged for at least three years and one day in oak barrels. Over 90% of the barrels used to age this water of life are American oak. When you see an age statement on a bottle (meaning it’s guaranteed-age whisky), that number must be in reference to the youngest whisky that makes up that particular scotch. In simple terms, an 12-year-old scotch may include older whiskies but a 12-year is the youngest.
Now let’s tackle the most controversial topic of scotch: single malt versus blended malt. The reality is that there are actually five categories of scotch, not just the two over which many whisky drinkers argue: single malt, single grain, blended malt (which used to be called vatted malt or pure malt), blended grain and blended Scotch whisky. The confusion seems to stem from the word “single,” which, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t mean that only a single grain, barrel or batch was used during production. Rather, single means a single distillery was involved. The fact is that most every scotch on the market is a blend. The single malt category simply consists of scotch produced from only water and malted barley by a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills. The single grain category indicates that a scotch was distilled by a single distillery with water, malted barley and, possibly, whole grains of other cereals, malted or unmalted. Then we have the blended categories. Blended malt is simply the blending of two or more single malt scotches from different distilleries, while blended grain indicates that the product is a blend of two or more single grain scotch whiskies from different distilleries. A blended scotch whisky consists of one or more single malt and one or more single grain scotch whiskies.
Before we let you go to explore and enjoy a dram, let’s discuss the ways in which you can sip a scotch. First off, if you’re drinking in Scotland you should order a double dram because according to Scottish law, a dram is just 0.25 centiliters. Next, let us be clear that your way of enjoying your drink is your business. Neat is just fine, although it really isn’t the way of the Scotsman. Sipping a scotch neat certainly allows you to experience the liquid in a straight up, unadulterated manner. Some like ice in their scotch. The issue with ice is that it can stifle the aromas and flavors of the whisky. Then there’s the way that the Scottish drink their namesake: with water. A drop of water or two “opens” the amber nectar of the gods, meaning you’ll really be able to discern complex flavors and aromas. Depending, ofr course, on the product you’re tasting, you may pick up such flavors as chocolate, cinnamon, orange, licorice… You may notice that some scotches become hazy with the addition of water while others do not. Should the liquid turn hazy, it’s not chill filtered.
We could keep going but it’s time for you to raise a Glencairn glass to your friends and toast Friar John Cor. Slainté!