by Ray Pearson
Whisky is the ultimate drink. When you drink whisky, you are really
drinking. We see it in the movies usually ordered by the manliest guy in
the room before he whacks the bartender for being “uppity.” It seems a
bit unmanly to ask to learn about whisky, but this is Into the Soup and
we assume nothing.
When they came to me to write about whisky, they said “Let’s pretend
(cough, cough) that we know nothing about it. Never really drank it and
don’t (cough, cough) know the difference between scotch and bourbon or
single malt and... milk shakes.”
So, I’d like to propose a toast: To us, and to our new venture in
learning about whisky together. Cutting right to the chase, let’s start
with some questions, to see how much we already know:
What is the difference between “Scotch”, “whiskey”, and “whisky”?
Why is it called single malt? Is there a double malt?
What the heck is malt anyway?
Why “glen” and what does he have to do with scotch?
While we are at it, who is “peat?”
What makes Scotch smoky? Can I do it on a grill?
Knowing the answers to these questions will make you wise beyond your
years, and the envy of all your potent potable friends, not to mention
the “uppity” bartender!
Whiskey vs. Whisky?
“Whiskey” is a generic term for a distilled spirit made from grain.
These grains are usually corn, wheat, rye, or barley. Now, depending on
which grain is used, and in what country the whiskey is distilled and
aged, it has different names, and spellings. In general, we’re talking
about five primary whiskey producing countries: Ireland, Japan, Canada,
Scotland, and the United States.
In America, the principal grain used is corn (at least 51%, by law), and
the whiskies have various names, including Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey,
and sour mash.
In Scotland, for single malts, the grain is barley, the liquid is
distilled and aged in Scotland, and the spelling is w-h-i-s-k-y without
the “e.” Derivation of the spelling is clouded in conjecture and there
are no hard rules. Maker’s Mark American whisky is spelled without the e
in deference to the owners’ Scottish heritage single malt means the
liquid in the bottle is the product of a single distillery. Every drop
came from just one distillery – the one listed on the label. There is no
Single malt means the liquid in the bottle is the product of a single
distillery. Every drop came from just one distillery – the one listed on
the label. There is no double malt.
If a Scotch whisky is not a single malt, it is a blend between two to
four dozen single malts comprising, very roughly, about a third of the
bottle’s content. The remaining liquid is grain whisky, usually not
malted. Malted barley has a much deeper, robust flavor than unmalted
A glen is a valley, usually associated with a river. Many distilleries
were originally built in glens to take advantage of the water supply.
Some well-known distilleries are located in the glen of the rivers
Livet, Fiddich, and Devron. Not all glens are associated with rivers.
Glenmorangie, for instance, has two Gaelic roots: “glen of tranquility”
and “glen of the big meadows”. And, despite the famous line in the movie
Sideways (“make mine a glen … any glen”) – THERE IS A DIFFERENCE.
Peat is decomposed and compressed organic materials, including mosses,
leaves, roots, and branches, found in marshy bogs. The peat is dug from
the bogs and dried. In days gone by, it was used as a fuel for heating
and cooking. Smokiness is determined by how much peat “reek” (smoke) is
infused into the drying barley, before the grain is ground into grist.
The grist then goes on to other steps in the process.
It’s in the Water
There is actually more water in a single malt whisky than there is
alcohol! Most single malts are 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), leaving 60%
as water. This is like “40% chance of rain” also meaning we’ve got a
shot at no rain. It also means the water used should be good stuff.
Water is one of the three ingredients to make single malt, the other two
being yeast and barley. It is used to soak the harvested barley so the
kernels will germinate. It’s also used in various stages of production,
leading to the creation of a liquid similar to beer. After distillation,
water is used to reduce the ABV before the liquid goes into the casks.
After years of maturation, water is again used to reduce the ABV to
bottling strength. Distilleries are very proud of their proprietary
water sources and go to substantial efforts to protect the integrity of
the precious water.
Blame it on the Moonshine
When the distilled spirit goes into the casks, it is completely clear.
In America, this very high proof, gut-wrenching liquid was called
“moonshine.” It’s only after many years that the rich color palette
develops, from pale yellows to deep golds and beyond, thanks to the
action between the wood and the liquid.
Let the Angels Rejoice!
Maturation is a fancy name for aging. In Scotland, single malts are aged
in a variety of warehouse types. The most picturesque, and the type you
generally see on distillery tours, is the dunnage warehouse, with earth
floors, thick stone walls, and casks stacked no more than three high.
During the many years of maturation, a portion of the whisky evaporates
through the wood casks and is lost to the gods. This earthly loss is
called “the angels’ share”.
Two types of wooden casks are generally, but not always, used to age
Scotch. The first, and majority, are made from American white oak,
previously used to age American whiskies. The second cask type is made
from European oak, previously used to age sherries. Most single malts
are comprised of liquid aged in both kinds. There are some single malts,
however, that are aged only in used bourbon casks or only in used sherry
casks. Things are never easy.
No Joke… A few words about the more popular myths surrounding single
A man walks into a bar and says “Barkeep, give me your best Scotch - the
oldest you’ve got.” What Pete, our very wise and soon-to-be myth busting
bartender, heard: “I don’t know Jack about Scotch, but the most
expensive and oldest must be the best.” Pete has just been handed a
golden opportunity to educate and earn a hefty tip.
In general, older means one thing: it’ll cost more than something
younger, but older says very little about quality. Most single malt
Scotches arrive at their optimum aroma and flavor somewhere between 12
and 21 years of aging, give or take a few years either way. Before and
after those ages, the liquid’s quality could be iffy. That’s why, when a
single malt aged 25, 30, 40 or more years is anointed by respected
judging panels, it is usually extraordinary, and generally worth the
price it commands. Myth: older is not better, but will probably be more
A man walks into another bar and says “Gimme a Scotch”. Says Glen,
another wise and myth-busting bartender, “Will that be a single malt or
blend?” The man asks Glen to pick a single malt. “How would you like
that” asks Glen, but our unwitting student hears: “What can I put in
your whisky to screw it up?” So naturally the response is “I never add
anything to my Scotch – it ruins it.”
Although there are no rules to enjoying a nice Scotch, a little magic
can happen in simple ways, like adding just a little water – about a
half teaspoonful or so to the whisky. Glen’s student, like most, but not
all people, experiences how this makes the aroma and flavor fuller, more
robust and softer. Myth: Adding anything to single malt will ruin it.
Ray is a nationally
recognized single malt Scotch expert. He recently retired after 16 years
within the spirits industry, including four as Glenfiddich U.S.
Ambassador. Ray currently presents educational whisky seminars and
tastings for corporate events, destination management companies, and
national whisky shows. He is a photographer and member of the
International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association.
You can read more about
what Ray has to say about whisky at the
intothesoup web site.