Whiskey Dossier: Scotland

Along with Christianity, Christian monks exported the system of distillation from Ireland to Scotland by the 14th century, possibly earlier. The initial substantiation of its existence on the island of Britain, however, didn’t occur until the waning years of the 15th century. A Scottish Exchequer Roll recorded in 1494 that a Benedictine cleric, Friar John Cor, of the Lindores Abbey in Fife, made a rather sizable purchase of barley malt in the amount of “viii bolls” for the purpose of making “aquavitae”.

Since a boll amounted to 140 pounds, eight bolls of malted barley (or 48 bushels) topped the scales at well over half a ton and could produce approximately 13 to 15 hectoliters of 7-8% abv ale. That’s from 343 to 396 U.S. gallons of beer. As writer Michael Brander, author of The Original Scotch (1975, p. 5) states, “…it is clear at once that this was no small operation. Half a ton of malt producing probably in the region of seventy gallons of spirit was not required for private consumption. Obviously the monastic establishment…was distilling on no mean scale…”

By the middle of the 16th century public perceptions of uisge beatha had begun to change. In addition to uisge beatha being widely employed as a medicinal liquid it started likewise to be viewed as a social libation. Legislation initiatives introduced in the Scottish Parliament in 1555 and 1579 suggest that the use of malted barley for the production of uisge beatha had greatly accelerated across Scotland in the second half of the 16th century. The two Acts each addressed, in part, the mandatory shifting of malted barley use for making bread and brown ale and away from the distilling of uisge beatha. Poor harvests and subsequent food shortages were the reasons given by Parliamentarians for the restrictive legislation.

Doubtless, the staunchly independent Highland and island Scots scoffed at the dictates of a governing body with which they felt little, if any, connection. These initial 16th century Parliamentary edicts were the first of what would eventually become an onerous litany of regulation and taxation measures concerning distilling that would give rise to an unprecedented era of illegal distilling and smuggling.

The Scots’ first generations of uisge beathas were distant shadows of what was to come. After all, the farmer-distillers were unschooled and the conditions, materials and equipment were unsophisticated and untidy. Production was minute in comparison to modern times because the era’s pot stills ranged in size from a scant four to five gallons only up to, if rarely, fifty gallons. At their finest, Scotland’s early Whiskies were pungent, throat-grating spirits that provided a quick buzz and a brief respite from the day in, day out hardships and tedium of Middle Ages Scotland. At their worst, they were bad tasting, fierce, skull-cracking brews. Alcohol poisoning was common and sometimes resulted in unpleasant deaths.

Scotch Whisky’s authentic trendsetters, superstar personalities and innovators didn’t begin appearing until the 1700s. Then, the hallmarks of the 18th and 19th centuries proved to be the technological advances fed by a frenzy of ideas and a hunger for profitable gain.

>>Scotch Whisky Production

Grain, water and yeast. At first blush, the value of this trio of commonplace substances seems modest. Though humble in worth, these individual ordinary elements become complex and extraordinary once they are carefully combined and processed.

Barley has customarily been the requisite grain for making Malt Whisky in Scotland. This is not because barley was the only grain that grew well in Scotland’s difficult, sometimes atrocious, climate. Oats, rye and wheat did as well. Farmer-distillers in the early period of distillation selected an ancient strain of barley that had four rows of spikelets, called bere, as their grain of choice. An alternative variety was two-row barley, which made smoother ales and whiskies according to some distillers, but bere proved to be first among equals.

This was for two reasons. Bere’s reliably large crop yields in poor soils and rainy climates and its early ripening tendency accommodates farmers. Before being milled, the barley is allowed to partially germinate, thereby, stimulating the grain’s natural starches. This partial germination breaks down the cell walls and is called malting. Next, the malted barley is dried in kilns to halt the growth of the natural starches. The dried malted barley is then ground into powdery grist.

Water from a trusted source, such as a burn (stream) or a spring, is boiled and mixed with the malted barley grist in large metal vessels called mash tuns. Mashing converts the starches into maltose, a natural sugar. The soupy result is a walnut-colored, sweet-smelling liquid called wort. The wort is pumped into another metal tank, the washback, and yeast is injected. The introduction of yeast triggers fermentation. Over 48 hours the innate sugar, the maltose, is transformed into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Fermentation changes the base materials into low-alcohol (7–8 percent), fragrant wash that is, for all intents and purposes, beer.

The wash-beer is then moved to a kettle-like copper pot still, the wash still, and is set to boil. During the tumultuous first distillation, the vapors are forced to pass through a cold, coiled pipe, or condenser, a.k.a., worm. Since alcohol boils at 173.1 degrees Fahrenheit and water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the wash’s alcohol vaporizes well before the water, causing a separation of properties. The alcohol vapors return to liquid form while traveling through the icy cold worm. The moderate alcohol liquid (20-24 percent alcohol), or low wines, is pumped into the spirits still for its second distillation for further purification and to elevate the alcohol level. Following the second distillation, the condensed vapors become a high-alcohol (70–72 percent), limpid distillate, the spirit.

After the second distillation, the bio-chemically altered base ingredients smell, feel and taste anything but like simple water, grain and yeast. Through malting, mashing, fermentation and double distillation in pot stills, the grain, water and yeast unite to become one liquid substance: pure grain alcohol.

This sequential series of events is how all Scotch Malt Whiskies are born. Made in small batches in pot stills Malt Whiskies are the oldest type of Scotch Whisky and the sole variety of Whisky made in Scotland prior to the 1830s when another kind of distillation, continuous distilling, introduced Grain Whiskies. Modern era Scotch Whisky producers utilize both kinds of distillation.

The resultant transparent-as-rainwater liquid is deceptively compelling. When drawn fresh off the still, virgin spirit smells strikingly similar to a damp garden in June. Dewy scents of fresh flowers, green vegetation and pine rush at you one moment, then yeasty odors of bread dough or dry breakfast cereal tickle your attention the next.

The potent, 70-72 percent alcohol, immature fluid burns the tongue initially if tasted undiluted. But as the taste buds adjust to the virgin alcohol’s racy nature, layers of ripe fruit and grain flavors emerge. Even at this nascent stage, one can project how the razor-edged charms of the spirit can with maturation, mellowing and time be transformed into an alcoholic beverage of unusual virtuosity, nuance and complexity.

The raw spirits are next placed in oak barrels for maturation and mellowing for a legal minimum of three years. Scots have traditionally preferred used barrels, in particular those from heartland America that once held Bourbon (Kentucky) or Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, and southern Spain that formerly aged Sherry, Spain’s fabled fortified wine. In recent years, experimentation with different varieties have used barrels has led some distillers to include barrels that once held port and assorted wines in their cooperage inventories. Barrels are rarely refilled more than three times because at that advanced point much of their acids (lignin, tannin, vanillin) have been leached out, rendering them useless. Barrel selection is an extremely important job, one that affects a whisky many years down the pike.

>> Scotch Whisky Varieties & Official Classifications

Since the invention of the continuous still in the 1820s-1830s, there have been two distinct varieties of raw Whisky made in Scotland: Single Malt Whisky, or Whisky made in small individual batches only from malted barley at a single distillery using the traditional pot still method; and Grain Whisky, or Whisky made in enormous volumes from corn or wheat via the continuous distillation process in tall, metal column stills. Typically, Single Malt Whiskies display deeper character and individual tastes than Grain Whiskies. These two fundamental Whisky types create the five legal classifications of Scotch, as defined in 2009.

  • Single Malt Whisky. This is the 100 percent malted barley Whisky of one distillery distilled by individual batch in a pot still, labeled under the originating distillery name. Some Single Malt Whiskies are labeled under the names of independent merchants who purchase barrels from single malt distilleries than bottle them under their own name.
  • Single Grain Whisky. A Whisky made at one distillery from malted barley with or without whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals, like wheat or corn, but which does not comply with the definition of Single Malt Whisky.
  • Blended Malt Whisky (a. k. a., vatted malt, pure malt). A 100 percent malted barley Whisky that is produced from the Malt Whiskies of at least two malt distilleries and labeled under a brand name.
  • Blended Whisky. A Whisky that is comprised of one or more Single Malt Whiskies and one or more Single Grain Whiskies and labeled under a brand name rather than a distillery name.
  • Blended Grain Whisky. A blend of Single Grain Whiskies that have been distilled at more than one grain distillery.

Also, when a Scotch Whisky label declares an age, like “15 Years Old”, that indicates that the youngest Whisky used in the creation of that Whisky was aged for no less than 15 years. There may be older whiskies in the final product.

Many spirits authorities believe that the Whiskies of Scotland, especially the Single Malt variety, own the widest latitude and roster of smells, tastes, and textures of any spirits category. This is so for two reasons. One, the Single Malt Whiskies of Scotland are at this time in history the finest grain distillates produced, possibly ever.

Two, Single Malts accurately reflect their places of origin like no other type of distillate, with the possible exception of Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and Borderies Cognacs, and as such display remarkably vivid and precise personalities.

With regard to this second point, much has been made out of the so-called “Whisky Regions”, which were initially defined in the 1980s as Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, and Islay. These were refined in the 1990s to nine or ten regions, depending on who was doing the defining. A much better way to look at Scotland’s Single Malt Whiskies is either as an inland Whisky or as a maritime Whisky. Inland Whiskies (Speyside, Northern Highlands, Central Highlands, Lowlands, Western Highlands) are those that offer floral, oaky, grainy, and softly smoky qualities while maritime Whiskies (distilleries on Islay, Orkney Islands, Isles of Skye, Mull, Arran, Campbeltown or seaside locations) are salty and briny to varying degrees, reflecting the distillery’s nearness to the sea. This singularity and authenticity are what makes Scotland’s Single Malts so attractive and distinctive.