POUR YOURSELF A WEE DRAM
Whether it’s an explosion of peat for your hipflask or a diverse dram in the pub afterwards, a day’s shooting wouldn’t be the same without a nip of Scotch whisky. Andrew Flatt presents an informative guide to an iconic tipple for novices and connoisseurs
Why finding the perfect whisky for your post-shoot enjoyment needn’t be difficult. By Andrew Flatt.
The production of Scotch whisky has remained much the same for the past 200 years or so. The process has become more streamlined and efficient, but it is basically the same as it was when first pioneered.
‘Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae’ is the oldest written reference to whisky, found in the Scottish
Exchequer Roll for 1494.
The engineering is essentially the same wherever whisky is distilled, but it is the variation in distilling techniques, equipment and maturation that makes for such a diverse range of flavours and styles in the finished product.
Simply put, whisky is essentially an alcoholic spirit made by the distillation of a grain mash. There are five stages to the production process. Malting: the barley is partially germinated and ground down. Mashing: the sugars are extracted from the barley, by the addition of hot water, to form a solution. Fermentation: the addition of yeast then turns the sugars into alcohol.
Distillation: the alcohol is extracted by heating up and then cooling the fermented liquid.
Maturation: the spirit is placed into oak barrels and left for at least three years.
The Scotch Whisky Association have set some very strict rules as to what can constitute Scotch whisky: it must be made and bottled in Scotland, be a minimum of 40% abv (alcohol by volume) and be matured for at least three years in oak casks.
With Brexit looming, there is currently much discussion and deliberation by the European Union
regarding the geographic protection afforded to Scotch whisky.
Scotland is divided into five traditional regions in terms of whisky production, recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association.
Lowland: light and floral. Examples include Glenkinchie and Bladnoch.
Highland: a large region with a diverse flavour of whiskies, including Clynelish, Dalmore and Glenmorangie.
Speyside: honey, fruity and light. Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and Cardhu are popular choices.
Islay: smoky and phenolic (think TCP). Classic distillers include Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Bowmore.
Campbeltown: peaty, briny and powerful, highlighted by the whisky produced by Springbank and Glen Scotia.
Traditionally, each region produced a distinctive style of whisky, but companies are now experimenting with new methods and casks, blurring the distinct flavours that once divided the regions.
There is an argument, which I tend to lean towards, that there should be a sixth geographical region, which would encompass distilleries on Scottish islands, apart from Islay. Island distilleries, such as Arran, Jura and Highland Park, are currently placed within the Highland region.
There is also an ongoing and reasonable argument that geographical regions are irrelevant in the modern era, something I will touch on later.
Most of the regional differences come about purely as a result of the varying topography and geography of Scotland, rather than any differences in the whisky production. The best example of this is the heavily-peated and phenolic notes found in whisky produced by Islay distilleries. The most plentiful fuel these distilleries have to burn during the production process is peat, which gives the whiskies their unique flavour. Other areas use wood or coal to fire their plant, which imparts a different character entirely.
Nowadays, there are distilleries from all over Scotland using peated barley. Distilleries such as Tomatin and Glen Moray produce limited quantities of peated whisky every year, which brings us back to our argument about the irrelevance of the traditional regions.
Types of Scotch
There are five distinct types of Scotch whisky.
Single malt: the product of a single distillery, created from a mash of malted barley.
Single grain: the product of a single distillery, made from a mash of grains other than malted barley.
Blended malt: a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies.
Blended grain: a blend of two or more single grain Scotch whiskies.
Blended Scotch: a blend of single grain and single malt whiskies.
There is a great deal of snobbery in the whisky community towards blended and grain whiskies. Blended malts were originally designed to smoothen the extremes of character found within single malts, making them more palatable and approachable for the everyday drinker. It is worth noting that around 90 per cent of whisky sales worldwide are of blended whiskies. They are often seen as basic, perhaps lacking the complexity and character of single malts, being made up of various malt whiskies, with examples including Johnnie Walker, Dewars and Ballantines.
Some blends may be made up from recipes of 40 or more different component whiskies, usually containing a higher proportion of grain whisky than malt.
Grain whiskies tend to have an unfair reputation as the single
malt’s poor cousin, as it is much easier, quicker and cheaper to produce, often making up the bulk of a blended scotch.
Typically a blended scotch will contain 60-80 per cent grain whisky. It is worth acknowledging that this grain element can give real flavour and texture to blended whiskies. A good, well-aged single grain whisky is a great dram indeed. Single grain whiskies such as Carsebridge, Invergordon and Port Dundas are all well worth looking out for.
Scotch whisky must be matured in oak casks. These casks come from a variety of sources, but most are bourbon casks from America, as they are plentiful, due to rules governing bourbon production in the United States, whereby the casks can only be used once.
Barrels can be used multiple times in Scotland, but the more they are used, the less impact on the flavour of the finished product - think of the first time you use a tea bag compared to a second or third time.
Some whiskies are matured in sherry casks, which help to impart another dimension to the flavour, adding a richer, spicier taste.
Less common whiskies are finished in red wine, white wine, port or rum casks, each having its own unique flavour.
It is important to note some important terminology. Whiskies that have spent their entire maturation in a certain cask are said to be ‘cask matured’. If they have only been ‘cask finished’, they have perhaps only spent a few years or months in a new cask, after being transferred from another. As a result, cask-matured whiskies will have taken on much more flavour from the casks than cask-finished ones.
One of the first, if not the first, distilleries to experiment with cask finishing is The Balvenie – its Doublewood expression spends almost 12 years in bourbon casks before being transferred into sherry casks for a few months, helping it to take on extra flavour.
Its important to remember that the age stated on the bottle is the minimum age of the whisky inside. I know of several 10-yearold whiskies that use a quantity of 12-year-old whisky in the marrying process. If a tiny amount of a fiveyear-old whisky was coupled with a 50-year-old whisky, then it would have to be sold and advertised as a five-year-old.
Neat or mixed?
Is it acceptable to add anything to your whisky? In my opinion, and that of many others, it is more than acceptable to add a little (a few drops or perhaps a teaspoon) of water. Most whiskies, especially those bottled at what is referred to as ‘cask strength’ (up to around 60% abv) will benefit from a few drops of water, to reduce the alcohol content and release the flavour.
For the same reasons that red wine is more flavoursome at a room temperature, I feel whisky is better without ice, allowing the dram to breath and develop in the glass. However, if you prefer your dram with a few cubes of ice, then that’s perfectly fine. You pay your money for it, so you should be able do what you like with it, whether it's adding ice, cola, green tea or ginger beer. During this year's hot summer, I’ve probably drunk more than my fair share of whisky and soda.
To get a full appreciation of the drink, though, you must first try to understand and appreciate it in its original form.