Four fundamental elements of the universe –– earth, air, fire and water –– combine to create a fifth. What is it? Of course, single malt Scotch whisky, distillations of Scotland’s riches into the world’s greatest drink.
The product of one distillery, a single malt has its own distinctive flavour, influenced by unique constituents, not blended with other spirits into endlessly repeatable homogeneity.
Traditionally, malt whisky began with water-soaked barley spread on the floors of primitive malting houses. After sprouting, the grain was toasted over smouldering fires of natural peat cut from the moors. The dried barley was ground, and the grist mashed with hot water in a large circular tun. The sugary wort was extracted, infused with yeast and fermented. The resulting wash, like sour beer, was fed through a copper pot still, a slow procedure needing the skilled hands of an experienced stillman.
The clear crude distilled spirit filled selected casks, usually oak barrels that previously stored bourbon or sherry. Now, in cool dark warehouses, time, wood and natural chemistry transform this liquid. Scots whisky makers boast that the land’s cool, clean air steals through the porous casks and charms their contents. Initially clear and pungent, a golden, mellow spirit emerges eight, twelve, perhaps 25 years later. About 2% of the whisky evaporates annually, lost to the heavens. It was the angels’ share.
Scotch whisky dates back centuries to the ancient Celts who distilled uisge beatha – the water of life. Whisky was essential in early days, praised for medicinal qualities and prescribed for the relief of all discomforts, including that of childbirth. To begin with, there was no large-scale production; quantities made were in proportion to family needs, although grain farmers occasionally made whisky for sale and learned to make it well.
As in modern times, authorities intermittently undertook to curb or prohibit alcohol, but they always enjoyed the revenues it produced. In 1644, government enacted laws to tax and control Scotch whisky trade and the 1707 union of England and Scotland led to even more onerous taxation. Whisky making went underground and illicit distillers fought bloody skirmishes with the British excise men for over a hundred years. Ironically, a road network built by the English to police clans of unruly Scots also enabled smugglers to transport whisky to the insatiable markets of the south.
Smuggling became standard practice, conducted without moral stigma. By the 1820s, despite continuous destruction of illicit stills, more than half the whisky consumed in Scotland went untaxed. Influential landowners, whose grounds already produced some of the finest unlawful whisky, promised to help stamp out the forbidden trade if revenuers gave incentives to distill lawfully. The result was a dramatic cut in tax rates, which led to acceptance of licensing and control. Many of the now respectable distillers were former smugglers and “new” distilleries appeared on old production sites. Whisky smuggling died out almost completely.
By the 1830s, new equipment enabled continuous distillation of cheap grain whisky, a less intense spirit than the malt whisky handcrafted in pot stills. Inevitably, someone mixed lighter grain whisky with character rich single malts and produced a less challenging and lower cost product that found wide appeal. Blended Scotch whisky was born.
Another important stimulus to growth of Scotch production was the devastation of French vineyards by the phylloxera aphid in the mid 19th century. This great plague destroyed most European vines within 2 decades. French wine and brandy virtually disappeared until vineyards were replanted using immune rootstock from Texas, of all places.
The Scots took advantage of French misfortune, and by the time the wine industry recovered, Scotch had replaced Cognac as the spirit of choice in fine homes. Super-rich American steel man Andrew Carnegie often bestowed Scotch whisky upon his friends. After one gift, Mark Twain replied, “I got the whisky, dear Saint Andrew – and something happened to it. Always does.”
Until the 1980’s, discerning drinkers in North America could not readily experience the pleasures of single malt whisky. These beverages remained rare outside Scotland because the whisky companies, who made their fortunes from blended whisky, were reluctant to promote single malts. But, in modern times, we can enjoy a great variety of these unique whiskys.
People usually group Scotch whisky according to their originating geographical regions — the Highlands, the Lowlands, Cambeltowny and Islay. However, the origin does not fully explain taste. Several are delicate with a soft balance of sweet fruits and floral fragrance and others are full bodied, complex and aromatic. A few are famous for their strong flavours of peat and smoke – powerful tasting, bursting with distinctive ocean tang.
A contemporary approach to classification tries to match whisky according to taste characteristics. A Scots author and academic, Dr David Wishart, produced a set of guidelines to categorise malts according to flavour. Wishart described many flavour types, including “Smoky”, “Medicinal”, “Winy”, “Fruity”, “Spicy” and “Nutty”. The result is 10 distinctive single malt whisky styles ranging from Cluster A, which covers strongly sherried malts, to Cluster J, which includes the heavily peated, pungent Islay malts.
The classification helps casual drinkers find their way round the myriad of malt whisky styles. If one enjoys a particular single malt, then those in the same cluster should be of interest. Regardless of help from classification systems, the enjoyment of fine liquor is dependent upon experience and understanding. Experience allows us to compare what we taste against some previous flavour—and understanding allows us to organise and inform the experience.