(June 2016) During my recent trip to Scotland, I was amazed at how similar the Scotch Whiskey production process is to wine. Not only does whiskey go through a fermentation process like wine, but it is aged in oak barrels, can be blended or produced as a single malt (similar to a single grape varietal with wine), can express terroir, and experts use a similar process to taste and evaluate whiskey as they do with wine. After my visit to Scotland, I came away with a much greater appreciate for Scotch whiskey.
Brief History of Scotch Whiskey
An employee at the Whiskey Experience in Edinburgh described the history of Scotch whiskey. He said that the art of distillation, created by the Arabs, was brought to Scotland in the 12th century by “warrior monks and priests” returning from the Crusades. They started first in Ireland, but then the process came to Scotland where they used malt barley roasted over peat fires.
Barrel aging was not added to the process until the 17th and 18th centuries, and in the beginning the main purpose was for transport. However, over time, they realized the barrel imparted some nice flavors to the Scotch, so it was adopted to the process. In the 1900’s they started migrating away from used sherry barrels to used American oak barrels. Apparently the reason they preferred old barrels is because they are less expensive to purchase, and the Scots have always been known for their thriftiness.
|Poster Advertising the Whiskey Experience in Edinburgh|
Scotch Whiskey Today
Today in Scotland there are around 120 whiskey distilleries, and they export a large amount of their production around the world. Many of the high quality bottles are priced at $50 and higher.
Currently around 90% of the production is aged in American Oak, because it imparts some mellow notes and helps to round out and balance the whiskey. However, some producers are starting to experiment with other types of oak, and are finding that customers enjoy the nuances that different barrel types impart. For example, we tasted one whiskey that was aged in Tuscan red wine barrels, and noticed it had a slight pink color and a hint of dried strawberry on the palate. Other producers are using Caribbean rum casks and even used Sauternes barrels.
|Rare Bottles of Scotch Whiskey in Museum at Whiskey Experience in Edinburgh|
Four Major Whiskey Regions With Different Terroirs
We attended a seminar where we learned about the four different whiskey-producing regions of Scotland. Just as with wine, that can taste different based on the country and appellation in which it is produced, whiskey tastes different based on where it was made. We were also able to smell and taste the difference of these four major regions (see map):
- Lowland Region in the southern part of the country produces whiskeys that are lighter in style and often have citrus notes
- Highland Region is the north is known for medium-bodied whiskeys that have flavors of vanilla and butter
- Speyside Region south of Edinburgh and in the central part of Scotland exhibits tropical notes that include mango and banana nuances. After tasting a variety of whiskeys, I discovered that Speyside was my favorite.
- Islay Region is located on an island off the northwest coast of Scotland, and is know for big, smoky, peaty, and very serious whiskeys. These are often my husband’s favorites.
|Photo of the Whiskey Aroma Wheel on Wall at Whiskey Experience|
Basic Process to Make Scotch Whiskey
At the Whiskey Experience we enjoyed a fun Disney style ride in a whiskey barrel that whisked us through the production process. Here are the basic steps:
- Roast malt barley – over gas or peat fire. A peat fire imbues malt with smoky notes
- Grind roasted barley into grist (looks like flour)
- Mix grist with pure, clean Scottish water
- Ferment mixture by adding distiller’s yeast. Fermentation takes anywhere from 2 to 4 days.
- Distill liquid at least twice, according to Scottish regulations, and sometimes a third time. The more you distill, the lighter and more elegant the whiskey.
- Age in used oak barrel (usually American oak). Age from 3 to 50 years. Never top – just let angels have their share. The longer the whiskey is aged, the darker it becomes and it also develops more character. Obviously the older the whiskey, the more it costs.
- Bottle – single malt whiskeys are bottled from a single barrel. Blended whiskeys are obviously a blend of different single malts.
|A Tasting of Whiskey from the Four Major Terroirs of Scotland|
Five Steps to Taste Scotch Whiskey
We also enjoyed learning how to taste whiskey correctly using a small glass designed for whiskey evaluation. Just like wine appreciation, there are five major steps to enjoy whiskey:
- Examine Color – hold the whiskey glass up to the light to appreciate the color of the liquid. Is it a light gold, bright copper, or rich amber? The darker the color, the older the whiskey.
- Review Body – swirl the liquid in the glass to see how wide the “legs” are. Are they thin and slender, medium width, or fat? The fuller the legs the heavier the body and alcohol level. Scotch whiskey ranges from 40 to 50 proof.
- Smell the Nose – Swirl the glass and stick your nose deep inside. Inhale the aromas to determine the region and barrel regime. Do you smell citrus, fruit, vanilla, mango, nuts, smoke, herbs, etc? There are many aromas that can be derived from whiskey (see photo of aroma wheel)
- Taste on Your Palate – take a small taste of the whiskey letting it glide over your tongue. (Do not gargle in your mouth like wine or you may choke). What other flavors do you discover on the palate? How “hot” is the whiskey?
- Evaluate Finish – spit or swallow the whiskey and then evaluate how long the taste lasts in your mouth. Does it disappear quickly, linger a while, or last a very long time? The longer the finish, the better the whiskey (just like wine!).
After spending a week tasting different whiskey across Scotland, the one that I fell in love with was Balvenie 21 Years. It is from the Speyside region and filled with notes of tropical fruit and vanilla. It also is very smooth on the palate with almost a caramel note, and the finish seems to last forever. It reminded me of a Grand Cru Bordeaux.
|Bagpiper Playing on the Sidewalk in Edinburgh|