A Primer on Scotch

by Larry Smith

I wish someone had told me these things when I was much younger.

I remember first learning about Scotch after a discussion stemming from the old “What Kind of Man Drinks Cutty Sark?” ads in Playboy magazine. As a 12-year old kid, all manner of contraband was obtained and smuggled to our secret “fort” in the woods:  cigarettes, fireworks, and yes even Playboy magazine. First all of the pictures were ogled to death, then all of the party jokes were committed to memory before the ads eventually got perused – up to and including the Cutty ad.

In order to find the answer to the burning question posed by this well-thumbed magazine, on a dare, my best friend Bobby snuck some of his dad’s Cutty Sark. He poured some into an old 6.5 oz Coke bottle, and refilled the whisky bottle with water “so he wouldn’t know”! Looking back now, we can see how that probably wasn’t the smartest idea. Later that day, deep in the woods, I learned to hate Scotch!

I’ll never forgive him for that! (But our buddy Phil, still drinks Cutty to this day!) I never did find the answer to the Cutty question, but I did find out that there is a certain wisdom behind age requirements for certain purchases.

Today, I know that a taste and appreciation for Scotch Whisky is an acquired affair, developed gradually over many sessions, becoming a deeply personal matter depending on the various influences encountered on the journey. And knowing what I know now, I see there is a Scotch for just about everyone and every taste.

I thought it might be fun to briefly explore the various types of Scotch available – the right way this time – along with some of the characteristics of each.

 

Scotch 101:

The first thing you have to understand is that for any whiskey to be called “Scotch”, a few simple rules have to be followed:

·    First and foremost, you MUST misspell “whiskey” without using the “e”! I’m not sure why, but it seems to be a source of great pride to the Scots!  (I’m sure they’d insist that they are the only ones who spell it correctly, but that’s a discussion for another day!)

·    It must be both distilled and matured in Scotland from Scottish ingredients using Scottish water. Besides being a legal thing, many attempts have been made to duplicate the taste of Scotch whisky in various places around the world but with absolutely no success. There is a lot of debate as to exactly why this is so, but for our purposes, we will simply accept it as a point of fact:  Scotch comes from Scotland.

·    By law, the maturation must be done in oak barrels not exceeding 700 liters capacity for a period of not less than 3 years. (Not that anyone would actually buy a bottle of 3-year old Scotch!)

Oh, while we’re on the subject of aging, if you have had a bottle of 16-year old Scotch squirreled away for the past 12 years, you know what you have?  A 28 year old bottle of Scotch? Nope! You’d have 12-year old bottle of 16-year old Scotch! Once bottled, it no longer benefits from the passage of time. It’s the interaction between the charred oak inside the barrel and the whisky itself that smoothes out the flavor and adds to its complexity and character. That’s one reason for the “700 liter capacity” clause. But I digress.

A word on Malt:

Water, yeast, malt – that’s all that’s needed to make Scotch. But malt is one of the most misunderstood ingredients. What is it? Where does it come from?

Malt is merely germinated barley.  You see, barley starch will not dissolve in water, and the yeast cannot ferment the starch, so they play a trick on the barley to get around this. The barley is “malted” by soaking the raw cereal grain in water for 2-3 days, then allowing these seeds to germinate for 8-12 days. They think they’re going to become new barley plants, and begin their own internal process; they secrete an enzyme called “diastase” that converts the insoluble starch into fermentable sugars that the plant would need in order to grow! Brilliant!

But the process must be stopped before the seeds begin to grow roots!  Once the optimum enzyme levels have been reached, in order to halt the germination process, the malt is dried. Most places throughout the world where malt is made, this is done by using hot air, but in Scotland the method for drying the germinating barley is by heating it with smoke, which usually includes peat from the nearby bogs.

Peat is big business in Scotland. Professional bog workers cut the peat from the bogs and dry it into brick shaped chunks, then it is sold widely throughout the country as fuel for fire. Its smoke is very aromatic, and as with most other things, the constituents in the peat varies from one locale to another giving each its own special properties. With the introduction of this peat smoke, the Scotch has just absorbed its first local flavor influence, because the malt will hold the taste of this smoke throughout the rest of the process.

 

The next thing is to understand that Scotch is divided primarily into two camps: “Blends” and “Singles”.

Blended Scotch Whisky:

By far the most popular, blended Scotch whisky accounts for the majority of the Scotch that is consumed worldwide. Blends are created from many different malt and grain whiskies taken from various distilleries around Scotland. Typically there would be about 4 parts grain to 1 part malt whisky in a recipe that might incorporate as many as 20 different malts in the final blend. These whiskies are so popular because skilled masters can produce individual blends with distinctive characteristics in a consistent manner batch after batch.

Some examples of these include Dewar’s, Chivas Regal, and yes, Cutty Sark!

There is also a version of blended Scotch called “Pure Malt” in which only single malt whiskies from different distilleries are combined by a master blender, mingling them together in various quantities to produce a distinctive whisky with its own character and traits. “Pure malt” merely signifies that no grain-based whiskies were included in the blend.

 

Singles:

They are called “singles” because they are produced by a single distillery. There are a few different types – the most widely known are the “Single Malt” whiskies, but there are also “Single Grain” and “Single Cask Malt” Scotches.

Single Grain:  All-grain whiskies are made without malt, primarily from corn, wheat or unmalted barley, with nearly all of it dedicated to the making of blended whiskies. Their production volumes are much higher than the typical malt distillery, but very few single grain whiskies are ever released to the general public, making them extremely hard to find.

Single Cask Malt:  Sometimes called “single, singles”, this refers to a malted whisky produced and bottled by a single distillery all of which was aged in the same barrel. Since most of the casks used for this purpose have a capacity of only 200 liters, by the time the angels take their share each cask usually yields only about 400 bottles, making it a very exclusive quaff. (The “angel’s share” is what evaporates during the aging process.)

While single cask malts enjoy this exclusivity, it comes at a price.  Their consistency from batch to batch cannot be controlled by the typical method of mixing different casks together to create a homogenous consistent taste. It is quite possible that 2 bottles sitting side by side on the shelf could be from 2 different casks, and therefore have slightly differing tastes.

Another might be thought of as a mixed blessing. These “single singles” are often bottled at cask strength (with no water at all being added) often resulting in a spirit that is 50-60% alcohol! Since much of the flavor can be masked by the alcohol, most distillers recommend diluting the whisky with water so it may be consumed at 28-30% strength in order that all of the flavors may be fully appreciated. To forego this in favor of a stronger drink is to actually shortchange yourself!

Single Malt Scotches:  For most discerning Scotch drinkers, here’s where the rubber meets the road. A distiller produces this whisky strictly from malted barley (without any other grains or fermentable products) in copper pot stills as mandated by law. Only about 5% of this pure malt Scotch is bottled, with the rest going into blends.

Single malts are usually classified by the area of Scotland in which they are produced. They pick up certain regional flavor characteristics from the climate, the air, the water, and especially from the peat used to fuel the fires during the malting and distillation processes. But while they share certain traits, it is not true to say that all whiskies from one area taste the same – each develops its own special nuances that allows every Scotch drinker their own specific favorites.

There are 5 distinct areas where Single Malt Scotches are produced. I will try to give a very brief description of their characteristics:

·    Lowlands: The Lowlands region lies south of an imaginary line drawn from the town of Greenock on the Clyde estuary on the west coast of Scotland, to Dundee on the Tay estuary on the east coast.

Traditionally Lowland Single Malts are triple distilled often giving them a softer and lighter character. They often display more malty, grassy characteristics and subtle delicate aromas than whiskies from other regions.

This likely played a role in the waning of the Lowland distilleries, as many single malt drinkers prefer somewhat heavier whiskies, while those who prefer lighter ones are often satisfied with the less expensive blends. The region, once having plenty of distilleries, only boasts three which remain active today:  Glenkinchie, Auchentoshan, and Bladnoch.

At least six other lowland single malts are still available, though no longer actively distilled:  Rosebank, Kinclaith, St. Magdalene,Ladyburn, Inverleven and Littlemill.

·    Highlands:  Moving north of this line takes us to the Highland region. The Highlands include most of the rest of mainland Scotland, which in Scottish terms is a very large area, and thus a very wide variety of characteristics can be found in Highland Malt Whiskies.

Generalizations about the Highland region are less valid, as its whiskies will range from dry and heathery to sweet and fruity – some even have a touch of smoke due to their proximity to the west coast peat bogs.

·    Speyside:  Geographically these distilleries are actually grouped in the Highlands in the valley of the River Spey, around the areas of Moray and Badenoch in northeastern Scotland. But since there is such a concentration of distilleries, and since the specific climatic conditions produce a whisky of an identifiable character, a separate classification was required for them.

It is home to approximately half of Scotland's malt whisky distilleries. This small area of land located to the north west of Aberdeen produces mellow, sweet, malty and particularly fruity malt whiskies.

·    Islay (‘EYE-lah): Nowhere else in Scotland are the regional effects more varied, perhaps because of the widespread area of the islands. The lowest in altitude of the malt producers, this region encompasses areas that stretch from the Orkney Islands located along the north coast of Scotland, all the way down the west coast encompassing the isles of Skye, Jura, Mull Arran and Islay itself. 

These islands in general produce some robust whiskies rife with coastal influences reminiscent of fresh, salty sea air. However, it is more specifically the southernmost distillers such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbe that produce heavily peaty, smoky tasting malts. They also possess notes of iodine, seaweed and salt which is thought of as being so characteristic of the Islays.

The distilleries to the north tend to make whisky lighter in character, closer to a typical Highland style. These are distillers such as Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, and Kilchoman.

Bowmore, usually classed among the north Islay whiskies, is more centrally located and has a flavor correspondingly intermediate between the two groups.

·    Campbeltown:  Distilled in the burgh of Campbeltown on the Kintyre peninsula, this area was once a major producer of whisky with as many as 28 distilleries, and claimed the title "whisky capital of the world". The area has since declined due to economic depression and the area's increasing association with poorer quality whisky. Only three distilleries continue to produce whisky in Campbeltown:  Springbank, Glengyle, and Glen Scotia.

 

Perhaps now you better understand the journey I referred to earlier! Scotch is as much a science as it is an obsession. I only wish I could get that taste out of my memory so I could fully enjoy my own journey without returning to that fort in the woods from so long ago!

And Bobby, if you’re out there, maybe you should consider repaying the “old man” for that watered down Cutty! He might not have said anything at the time, but we all know he knew. He’s one helluva guy, your old man!  Tell him hi for me!