A Bluffer's Guide to Whisky:
Sure you're Confident when it comes to wine, but how about whisky? Remember these basic facts about the water of life and you'll sound like an expert in no time:
- Scotland, like its whisky has no 'e' in it, as opposed to whiskey from America and Ireland, which do. Real aficionados concern themselves with whisky - and they NEVER call it scotch!
- Making malt whisky is a fairly simple process. Barley is soaked in water to start the see growing and then spread on malting floor and turned regularly until it sprouts. The growth is stopped by heat from kilns, which dries the barley - now called malt - and it is then ground and mixed with hot water in a mash tun to extract the sugar. The sugary liquid, wort, is drawn off into vats called washbacks where it ferments into wash, an ale-like liquid (about 12%abv). This moves into the large wash stills where the liquid is distilled into low wines (about 30%abv) and again into the smaller spirit stills which produce British Plain Spirits (70%abv). The spirit is then aged for at least three years in ex-Bourbon or Sherry oak casks when it can then be called whisky.
- Many whisky lovers are peat freaks. Peat is compressed, decayed vegetable matter and can be added to distillery kilns, where the distinctive smoke it gives off flavours the barley and, consequently, the whisky. The more peat added, the greater the pungency, which is measured in phenols. Most (but not all) Islay whiskys are known for their peatiness: Ardbeg has the highest malt phenol content at 54 parts per million, followed by Lagavulin (43ppm) and Laphroaig (35ppm). The norm for Speysiders is just 2ppm. If you're keen on a peaty monster, look out for Bruichladdich's Octomore at 160ppm.
- Most whisky is sold as a blend: a mix of malt whisky and grain whisky (which is distilled to a high degree of purity from mainly unmalted grains). Standard Blends, like Bells of Famous Grouse are made up of about 30% malt whisky from more than a dozen distilleries, and 70% grain whisky from just one or two distilleries. The blends are usually labelled at between five and eight years old, but this refers to the youngest spirit in the blend (normally the grain whisky). Premium Blends, such as Black Bottle or BNJ, have an older minimum age, often 12 or 15years, mainly due to the greater proportion of malt - up to 50% from perhaps 30 different distilleries. This makes them much more complex.
- Vatted Malts, such as Compass Box (often labelled as pure malt) are a blend of malt whiskys from more than one distillery and are often a minimum of 12 years old. They are more affordable alternatives to single malts and offer greater complexity than blended whiskys. Many are regional vatted malts, such as the Pride of Islay or Bennachie (Speyside), which highlight the distinctive flavour characteristics of their region.
- Single Malts, such as Glenmorangie, Talisker or Lagavulin, are the product of one distillery, where the unique terroir (location, water, still) of that distillery shines through. Most single malt bottlings are blends of different casks and ages so the distiller can maintain consistency of taste. An exclusive sub-category is single cask single malts, where all the bottles are taken from the one cask, such as the Balvenie 15 Year Old Single Barrel.
- There are about 100 active distilleries in Scotland and each has its own personality, though the country can be divided into four main districts which typify a distinct style. Highlands and Islands: Most distilleries are found in this region, north of an invisible line stretching between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Whiskys, such as Glenfarclas, Glenmorangie, Dalwhinnie, Tobermory and Jura are rich malty fruity and spicy, often with a sweet orange zestiness. Lowlands: South of the Glasgow-Edinburgh line. These are often triple distilled, so are the quickest maturing and lightest malts, mainly used in blends. The grassy, spring flower flavours are typical of distilleries like Glenkinchie. Speyside: Half of all whisky is produced in this tiny pocket of the Highlands which has now been recognised as an official region. The 15m-wide area around the River Spey produces some of the world's most famous drams such as Glenfiddich with characterful sweet floral notes. Islay: Most malts from this island off the west coast of Glasgow are recognisable by their trademark iodine, tar and smokey flavours, such as Ardbeg, though Bunnahabain and Bruichladdich should please non-peat freaks.
- Personal preferences aside, there are a few rules tha make sipping a dram much more enjoyable. First, don't add ice - it kills the bouquet and ruins the spirit's structure. Diluting whisky does erlease more of the aromas but is not always great for the palate, particularly if it's only 40%abv or so. Sniff and sip first and then, if you need, add a few drops of still mineral water at room temperature. A whisky bottled at 60%abv or higher may need a bit more. And when it comes to glassware, forget tumblers and choose a glass that focuses the aromas upward, such as a Cognac bowl or tulip-shaped wine glass. Finally, a little goes a long way: a 20ml dram can happily be savoured over half an hour soyou can see how it develops.
An eye on Islay:
Whisky lovers can't afford to miss the Feis Ile - Islay's annual malt and music festival, happening next year from May 26th to June 3rd. Distillery open days, tastings with master blenders and ceilidhs until the wee hours draw thousands of international visitors to this magical little island. And the whiskys aren't bad either! Here are a few of the 2006 releases to try: if you want to purchase any of these limited release whiskys let us know and we will check price and availability.
Still Young The follow on from Very Young, 2004's 6 Year Old heavily peated vatted malt, this unchill-filtered cask-strength (56.2%) 8 Year Old is from the same 1998 distillate.
40 Year Old For those with deep pockets, just 100 hand-blown glass bottles of this 1965 (41.3%) were released for the UK market. 261 bottles worldwide, approx £2000 - let us know if you are interested!
12 Year Old Ex-Sherry cask finished for two years in Pedro Ximenez casks and bottled at natural strength (52.6%). Each bottle is hand-signed by distillery manager John McLellan and on of the 11 distillery staff. 761 bottles, approx. £70.
35 Year Old Four casks of 1971 will go into 750 hand-numbered and signed crystal bottles, packaged with a commemorative book detailing the distillery's 125-year history. Released Christmas '06.
30 Year Old A natural strength 53.5% spirit taken from a dozen mainly bourbon casks from the distillery's sea-influenced warehouse. 2340 bottles, £210
7 Year Old The distillery's first-ever heavily peated dram - at 38ppm. The cask-strength (58.4%) 1999 distillate matured for six year in bourbon butts and was finished in old Matusalem Sherry casks. 600 bottles approx £50 each.
TINA GELLIE is a freelance wine and food journalist and former deputy editor of Wine International Magazine. She won the 2006 Worshipful Company of Distillers Scholarship for top marks in the spirits section of the WSET diploma and travelled to Islay for her bursary.