Guide To Drinking Scotch

Wednesday, Jul 27,2011

In honor of National Scotch Day, here is a guide to drinking Scotch.

“The proper drinking of Scotch whisky is more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed.” – David Daiches

Becoming a scotch drinker takes a little work and a bit of maturity. Therefore, to truly appreciate a good scotch, you need to know the history.

Originally known as “Aqua vitae” or “water of life” for it’s healing properties, the first recorded reference to the substance is found in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls of 1494.

Scotland’s King James IV was recorded as purchasing whisky from the local barber upon a visit to Dundee in 1506. That he purchased it from the barber would not have raised any eyebrows in that time period. “In 1505, the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh was granted a monopoly over the manufacture of aqua vitae – a fact that reflects the spirits perceived medicinal properties as well as the medicinal talents of the barbers”

Royalty and the clergy were not the only ones to enjoy whisky. The farming community discovered new benefits of the distillation process near the end of the 16th century. Both barley and oats were staple crops of Scottish agriculture, but due to their cold, wet climate, the long-term storage of grain was nearly impossible.

How Scotch Whisky is Made

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The production process of scotch whisky is surprisingly simple. It involves malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.

1) Malting - the process of turning barley into malt, very similar to the early stages of making beer. Barley is soaked or “steeped” in water, drained, then spread out on the malting floor to germinate. During the germination process (generally 6 or 7 days), enzymes are released which convert the starches into maltose, a sugar. At this point, the malted barley is dried using the smoke from an underground furnace called a “kiln.” The fire for the furnace is often stoked with peat which is why you’ll hear scotch drinkers refer to a smoky peat flavor in many whiskies.

2) Mashing - the dried malt is then ground into a course flour with the consistency of oatmeal, called “grist.” The grist is then mixed with hot water and pumped into a vessel called a “mash tun.” In the mash tun, the water and ground malt is thoroughly mixed and allowed to steep so that the sugars in the malt are released into liquid. This sugary liquid is called “wort.”

3) Fermentation – The wort is then drawn off and pumped into large wooden or steel vessels called “washbacks.” Once there, it is combined with yeast and allowed to ferment. The length of fermentation can be different depending on the environment, but it generally takes about two days. “The living yeast feeds on the sugars, producing alcohol and small quantities of other compounds known as congeners, which contribute to the flavour of the whisky,”. The resulting liquid is anywhere from 5-8% alcohol by volume and is called “wash.”

4) Distillation – The wash is distilled twice (single malt in a pot still, grain whisky in a Coffey still). The first still is the wash still and is used to separate the water from the alcohol by boiling the wash, collecting the evaporated alcohol which condenses at the top and collecting it in a condenser. The resulting liquid is called “low wine” and is approximately 20% alcohol by volume.

The low wine is then sent through the second still, also called the “spirit still.” This process is slower and the climate must be very closely monitored. “The stillman discards the first part of the distillate, called “foreshots” and the last part known as “feints,” because these contain unpleasant higher alcohols. The centre part of the distillation is preserved and this is the whisky we drink. This spirit is colorless and gets its color during maturing in oak barrels.

5) Maturation – The unfinished scotch is then placed in oak barrels, or casks, for the maturation process to begin. Throughout the maturation the whisky becomes much smoother, increases in flavor and begins to retain the golden color of the barrels inside which it rests. Traditionally second-hand sherry barrels were used to age whisky, but today bourbon barrels are also common. Some producers experiment with other varieties including port, beer, cognac and even wine. Each barrel passes on a distinct flavor to its contents.

In order to be considered “scotch” is must be aged in Scotland for at least three years. Though each whisky reaches its maturation at different ages, most are now aged anywhere from 8-20 years. Old whiskies are also more rare and cost a quite a bit more. For example, a bottle of Highland Park Single Malt Scotch 25 Year Old could cost $239.

Geography – The Scotch Regions and Their Distilleries

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Just as in the wine world, where names like Napa Valley or Burgundy tell someone not just where a wine is made, but what to expect as far as variety and flavor, scotch whisky has its own geographic regions.

  • Lowland - the whisky of this region is generally considered to be more mild, mellow and delicate. The three distilleries in operation include: Glenkinchie, Bladnoch and Auchentoshan.
  • Highland - the largest geographic region for scotch includes well-known distilleries such as: Dalmore, Glenmorangie, Oban, Talisker and Dalwhinnie.
  • Islay - known for heavier, more smoky scotch varieties, it has eight distilleries, each with their own unique character including: Ardbeg, Bowmore and Laphroaig to name a few.
  • Speyside - adjacent to the River Spey, the area with the largest number of distilleries to include: Glenfiddich, Aberlour, The Glenlivet and The Macallan.
  • Campbeltown - the smallest of the whisky producing regions, once home to several distilleries, but now only home to three: Glengyle, Glen Scotia and Springbank

Drinking Scotch Whisky

The drinking of scotch whisky should be enjoyable, not intimidating. The following are some general guidelines.

tulip-glassGlass – While there’s nothing wrong with using a standard tumbler, many scotch experts recommend using a tulip-shaped glass which allows the whisky to be swirled without spilling and, more importantly, concentrates the aromas at the neck of the glass. 

Water - While water is not a must, many scotchmen will throw a little water in with their scotch to help enhance their ability to taste the individual flavors that can often be masked by the well-known “burn.”

Ice – Many like to add ice, but try it without as well.

Your First Bottle of Scotch

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The key is trying all kinds of scotch to education yourself and expand your pallet. It’s a taste that must be developed.

 

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