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.


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

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