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An account of Whisky by Ray Pearson
Taken from the In the Soup web site with permission from the author.


Whisky 101
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 double malt.

Malt
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 barley.

“glen”
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”
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 malts:

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 expensive.

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.


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