The essentials of whisky

An often confusing navigation. PATRICK LECLEZIO cuts through the clutter

First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared – p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

“We distill our whisky more slowly than any other distillery in Scotland”. This snippet is courtesy of Glengoyne. How about this one? (I bet you know it). “Triple distilled, twice as smooth, one great taste”. These are just two of innumerable promotional shots in an incessant barrage. The whisky industry monologue, as its brands clamour for your attention and, more importantly, for your hard earned lucre, is peppered with all sorts of often confounding claims. Buying whisky can be akin to taking an exam for which you haven’t studied, like trying to appreciate a tune that you like in a cacophony of noise. What matters and what doesn’t? A how-long-is –a-ball-of-string question for the ages really – one about which voluminous tracts can be written (I won’t, not here). It’s worth though taking the time to dip our feet.

So, why should you buy one whisky rather than another of the many available? There are a multitude of reasons, some of which are central to the product, and some not. The latter group, whilst ìt can be significant to enjoyment, featuring influences like branding, is not relevant for our purposes here, which is to focus on a few tangible and factual observations related to the liquid itself – the flavour, the texture, and even the colour – and thereby to objectively guide purchase. A whisky, in order to win you over, needs to resolve the question in its favour; and to do so it ideally needs to demonstrate meaningful differences from which the basis for preference might be inspired. You on the other hand need to interrupt the monologue – with a firm put up or shut up. Here’s how.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the beginning there was the grain, and the grain was with whisky, and the grain was whisky. The type of grain, usually barley, malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye, is significant, and will manifest differently, but it’s rarely a critical variable unless you’re deciding between styles of whisky, in which case many other factors encroach. There are exceptions though. Bourbon for instance must be comprised of minimum 51% corn, but can include either rye or wheat as a secondary grain (often called the flavour grain). Rye will typically give a spicy flavour, wheat a cereal biscuit flavour. More pertinently you’ll be entreated to believe that a variant of a particular grain sets a whisky apart. Optic barley, the original Golden Promise, organic, exclusively Scottish-grown barley, Islay-grown…whatever. In reality, whilst it impacts on issues like yield and raw material cost, too distant to be of any concern to us the apprehensive receptacles at the far end of the line, it makes little or no difference to flavour. The exception perhaps is peat smoke, which transmits itself impressively into the resultant whisky through malting (or specifically kilning). Consequently, the constitution of that smoke, the peat from which it emanates – be it coastal, in its many varieties, or inland – makes a mark, albeit subtle.

The grain then gets milled, mashed, and fermented, but there aren’t really enough differences between distilleries for these processes to have any kind of a pronounced impact. Wooden or metal washbacks? It’s nice of them to point it out on a visitors’ tour but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Bourbon and Japanese producers tend to make a lot of noise about their individual yeasts. I’m still in dreamland, although maybe because it has never been specifically demonstrated to me. Some whisky experts disagree, I’m still not sure that the average whisky lover would notice or should care.

The culmination of production, like a shining copper beacon in the night announcing its importance, is the distillation itself. And here’s where it’s time to wake up. Woodford Reserve is the only mainstream bourbon to be distilled in copper pots – affording its distillate a “conversation” that resonates in the final product. Glenmorangie has the tallest stills in Scotland – the height of an adult giraffe. How do I know? They’ve ensured that I’ve absorbed this fact by repeatedly disseminating it to me. And it is indeed important. The type of still, the size of the still, the copper, and the shape of the still, are all critical to the individual taste of a whisky. Glenmorangie’s long slender stills foster a light, delicate spirit, Macallan’s short, rotund stills a richer, heavier spirit. I swear that I can almost taste their shape when I drink a Macallan. That may be a stretch but there can be no doubting that it sets the liquid apart. Every distiller will tell you that when they replace a still it’s copied to the last detail – if the original was dented, well then a near-as-damn-it identical dent is administered to its successor. As to differences (actual real differences) in length of distillation, and the number of distillations…apologies to Glengoyne and Jameson – as much as I enjoy both of their creations, I remain to be convinced.
Moving on. Whisky may be the water of life, but the role of the water used in its production and its reduction is pretty much equivalent regardless of the source. The former is distilled – I’ve yet to taste distilled water that distinguishable one from another. The latter is demineralised – rendering it as generic as generic gets. Yet whiskies often talk up their water, talk best digested with a liberal pinch of salt.

I’ve saved the most important for last. It’s generally acknowledged that up to 70% of the flavour of a whisky comes from the wood in which it’s aged. It follows then that maturation is a critical point of difference. Spanish, American or Japanese oak? Seasoned with sherry, bourbon, or something more exotic? First-fill, or refill? Duration of maturation? Double maturation or extra maturation (otherwise known as finishing)? As promised I’m sparing you the detail, save to say that there’s nothing that exerts more sway. Take careful note, and drink it all in.

There’s lots more, lots. But this brief guide hopefully should map out the areas that warrant exploration, and those that don’t. These are the questions on the exam paper, the noise-cancelling earphones to sift out the sweet music of whisky. Good luck, and may the dram be with you.

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