Study Guide - Spirits December 2013
Single Malt Scotch
In the introduction to his famous tome Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, the author (not the singer) describes a whisky's finish as "a crescendo, followed by a series of echoes. When I leave the bottle, I like to be whistling the tune." Now, we know that Scotch can be somewhat of an acquired taste, but for those of us that do enjoy a dram now and then we find the richness and diversity of flavors extraordinarily intriguing.
Let’s start at the beginning: what is Single Malt Scotch whisky? Simply put, “single” means from one distillery only, “malt” means malted barley only, and “Scotch” means that it is made exclusively in Scotland.
OK, now what is whisky? Whisky is made from grain and can be thought of as distilled beer. The grain used is barley and it goes through a malting process (which converts the starches in the grain to fermentable sugars) to become malted barley. At this point the distiller can decide to dry this malted barley using smoke from burning peat. This gives the finished whisky a pronounced smoky, “peaty” flavor.
The sugar in the now malted (and possible smoked) barley is released by steeping it in hot water. This sweet liquid, known as “wort”, is cooled down. Then yeast is added to convert the sugars to alcohol and, voilà, beer!
If we were making beer, this would be the time for hops or other flavorings, but we’re not, so off to the copper pot still we go. Distillation is the process used to purify the liquid and raise its alcohol content. The liquid is boiled in large enclosed copper pots and the resulting vapor rises up through a type of pipe (called the swan’s neck) that leads to another enclosed pot. During its journey, this vapor is condensed back to liquid form and collected in this second pot.
Once the final spirit is achieved, it is aged in oak barrels to mature and become whisky (most of the casks used are bourbon barrels made from American oak; however, some distilleries choose to age their whisky in old sherry, wine and even rum casks). Scotch whisky is one of the most highly regulated spirits in the world. The nearly 100 distilleries operating in Scotland must abide by the Scotch Whisky Association's rules: the alcohol has to be made entirely in Scotland and aged there in oak casks for at least three years and one day and the final product has to be a minimum of 80 proof. For a more detailed list of the regulations, visit their site http://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/
The regional classifications for Scotch whiskies are Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, Islands, and Campbeltown. And although this serves more as geographically delineations, there are some stylistic similarities.
Speyside – many aficionados will tell you that this is the whisky region. Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan hail from here and demonstrate the richer, more sherried style of malt.
Highlands – the Speyside area is part of the Highlands, but because over half of Scotland’s distilleries are located there, it is given its own recognized status. The style here is similar to that of Speyside
Lowlands – the Lowlands style is more of an aperitif scotch, light bodied and a bit more delicate; try Auchentoshan or Glenkinchie
Islay (eye – luh) - these are traditionally quite intense and assertive, peaty and medicinal; again note that within each region there are stylistic differences, take for example the lightly peated Bunnahabhain as compared to the monsterous Laphroaig.
Islands – this is a bit of a catch-all region, and the only similarity is that they are all islands. Compare the Speyside like quality of Highland Park from the Orkney Islands to the delicate Tobermory from Mull to the strong and peppery Talisker from Skye.
Campbeltown – in the late 1800s, this region was booming with more than 20 working distilleries and was coined the “whisky capital” of Scotland. Springbank is the most renowned of the three that are left and tends towards the Highlands/Speyside model.
How To Drink Scotch:
We enjoy our dram neat with a few drops of bottled water to release the whisky’s aromas. If you are a novice to the world of whisky, try it initially with a few ice cubes, and possibly with a splash of club soda or ginger ale. Don’t be afraid to experiment with some classic cocktails, such as a Rob Roy (essentially a Scotch Manhattan) or a Rusty Nail (Scotch with a splash of Drambuie). Slàinte! ('slawn-cha')
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