A WHIST OF WHISKY
The waters of life come in various guises and tastes
The waters of life come in various guises and tastes
If you enjoy scotch, utter the words “uisge beatha”, and you will promptly be served a glass of whisky, at least in a Gaelic tavern. It means ‘water of life’ and in its abbreviated and corrupted form, ‘uis-ge’ sounds like, and means whisky. The vernacular came about because of its seemingly remarkable restorative effects. All ‘waters of life’—whether the French ‘eau de vie’ or the Latin ‘aqua vitae’ or whisky—is a product of the distillation of cereals or grain. (Not to be confused with beer and wine which are obtained by the process of fermentation).
While the term ‘Scotch’ has become almost synonymous with whisky, one might be forgiven in thinking that whisky had its beginnings in Scotland, providing sheep farmers in the cold highlands with a warm and lively breath. However, historical records show that distillation was in fact, developed as far back as 3000 BC by the Arabs and the Chinese. In fact the word alcohol came from the Arab word ‘al-kool’.
The ancient cultures, however, were more interested in the creation of perfumes from flowers and plants—distillation concentrated the essences of flowers. Legend has it that the art of distillation arrived in Europe with the Celts. But whisky, the art of distillation of malt liquor, appears to have been brought by Saint Patrick from Germany to Ireland. This happened in the 6th century when Irish monks acquired the secret of distillation. The Irish were therefore the first to produce whisky from grain.
By the end of the 18th century, there were 2,000 distillation stills that produced whisky throughout Ireland. The Scots established their first still in the late 1600s when the monks deigned to share their arcane knowledge. Irish immigrants later brought their distillation techniques to the New World, which is how the Americans came to produce their version of whisky—what the American Indians called ‘fire water’.
Perhaps because of their early start, the Irish became masters of distillation, refining the process into an art. (At one time, whisky even became a form of currency.) But the Irish, who concentrated on making refined malt whisky, preferred to distill their whisky in batches. They considered the continuous still (Coffrey still) to produce less-than-esoteric whisky and left that method to the Scots living in the lowlands. The raw material used to make ordinary grain whisky in a continuous still is wheat, and the resulting drink is fairly characterless and has to be blended with some malt whisky before it is released into the market. Canadian Club whisky is another option to characterless whisky produced from wheat; it is distilled from rye, corn and barley.
Malt whisky, on the other hand is the rendition of batch distillations of barley. Separate but subsequent distillations take place and consequently, whisky produced this way is the more expensive product. Additionally, the barley-based drink is imbued with more nuances and character than grain whisky, obviating the need for blending. This explains the price difference and taste contrasts between grain-blended and pure malt whisky.
But there is more. Malt whisky can be single or pure/vatted. Single malts are whiskies that are the issue of a single distillery, and each distillery has its own unique style. Pure/vatted malts are whiskies that are a blend of malts from various distilleries. For example, the famous whisky house Chivas makes a vatted malt called Century, which contains no fewer than 100 different malts in the unique blend. J&B also offers its super premium blend of 128 malts known as Ultima. And Johnnie Walker whiskies are blends with no age statement—even The Johnnie Walker that sells for more than US$3,500 a bottle is a blend, albeit one that contains elixirs from distilleries long since closed.
SMOKE & FLAVOURS
Whisky drinkers fall into many camps. The purists delight only in sipping single malts with warm water added to it to bring out the subtle flavours. There are those who enjoy gulping smooth, complex blended whiskies served cold ‘on the rocks’. Others revel in the nutty overtones of only malt whisky, or specifically, only whisky that matured in sherry casks such as Macallan.
Indeed, whisky takes on nuances depending on what type of cask it is matured in. Casks used for whisky may have previously contained rum, Sauternes wine, Port wine, Barolo, Chardonnay, Muscat, Amarone or Marsala. This is how producers endow their whisky with a unique subtle character.
There are other whisky lovers who adore peaty marine characters such as that found in Talisker. This whisky may have been matured in American oak casks, but its dominant character comes from barley grains that have been exposed to pungent peat smoke. Yearning for more smoky characters? Then look no further than Bowmore. During processing, the peat used for Bowmore is ground into a powder, hence increasing the smoke produced. Space constraints do not allow us to elaborate why Arbelour has spicy cinnamon nuances, how Jameson attains its creamy, fruitcake flavours... but you get the idea.
Independent bottlers have yet another offering. These specialist bottlers are like negociants. They buy casks of whisky from various distilleries and might even blend them in an effort to create a whisky that transcends each of the parts. One such bottler is Douglas Laing, whose offerings include single vintage-single casks and blends that may be made from Macallan, Glenrothes and Mortlach (Scallywag whisky by Laing). Similarly, Laing’s Big Peat whisky contains Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Port Ellen.
Given the multitude of styles and tastes, it’s no wonder that whisky has surpassed brandy and cognac in popularity. In France, the home of cognac, consumption of whisky is 80 times that of cognac. The Scotch Whisky Association shared that exports of Scotch whisky raise an average of
£4 billion yearly with almost 100 million cases exported worldwide, while the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac reveals that only about 15 million cases of cognac are exported per annum.
Fine whisky can be made anywhere in the world from Sweden to India. This is a fact that the Scots would not like to admit. In 2001 when Nikka’s 10-year-old Yoichi Single Malt won Best of the Best at Whisky Magazine’s awards, Japanese whisky became a collectible. In 2015, Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 topped ratings, followed closely by Taiwan’s Kavalan whisky in the same year. Last year, the award went back across the oceans to Canada—the
90-proof Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye took the ‘crown’ (sic).
MODERN FOR MILLENNIALS Millennials, however, drink for the taste and not because of awards or reputation attained. It is said they prefer a more modern style of whisky.
Such whiskies eschew the traditional method of making single malts. It rejects the long maturation of whisky in oak that had previously contained sherry, rum or others. Instead, new oak or first-fill oak is used. But as the flavours from new oak can be overbearing, measured ‘toasting or charring’ of the barrel is critical. Various types of custom-made casks can be used together (new oak, wine casks, heavy charring for some, etc) to recreate a flavourful and consistent whisky that is not dependent on ‘characters’ developed from long term ageing. After the flavours are implanted, the modern whiskies are goaded to ‘mature’ quickly—by decanting, racking and re-racking. The final product is quite impressive.
Monkey Shoulder is an excellent modern whisky. Three malt components— Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie—are matured in first-fill ex-Bourbon casks, and vatted together in small batches for up to six months. With stronger overtones of vanilla and spice from the first fill, the less knowledgeable whisky lover would have a hard time identifying the malt components, let alone the age of the drink.
The fact of the matter is: whisky aficionados abound because whisky comes in various guises and forms. And that is where tasting and drinking whisky get interesting.
Above Whiskies take on nuances of flavour depending on the casks they are matured in Opposite page Ardbeg distillery in Islay, Scotland
Opposite page A whisky classic—on the rocks Below Barley grains