Whisky is, in its most basic sense, a spirit that is distilled from grain. Sometimes the grain has been malted, sometimes not. It is aged, often for long periods of time, in wooden barrels (usually oak). This barrel-aging smoothes the rough palate of the raw spirit and adds aromatic and flavoring nuances along and the base amber hue, all of which set whiskies apart from white grain spirits such as Vodka, Gin and Aquavit, which are distilled closer to neutrality in taste, and then generally not aged in wood.
The basis of Scotch whisky is the heather-flavored ales made from barley malt that the Picts and their prehistoric ancestors brewed. Archeologists have found evidence of such brewing dating back to at least 2000 B.C. This ale (which is still produced today by at least one Scottish microbrewer) was low in alcohol and not very stable.
Starting in the ninth century, Irish monks arrived in Scotland to Christianize their Celtic brethren. Along with the Word of the Lord they brought the first primitive stills, which they had picked up during their proselytizing visits to mainland Europe during the Dark Ages. The local Picts soon found that they could create a stable alcoholic beverage by distilling their heather ale. Simple stills came to be found in most rural homesteads, and homemade whisky became an integral part of Gaelic culture.
As long as Scottish kings ruled the country from Edinburgh the status quo of whisky as just another farm product was more or less maintained. But the Act of Union in 1707 that combined England, Wales, and Scotland into the United Kingdom altered the Scotch whisky scene forever. The London government soon levied excise taxes on Scottish-made whisky (while at the same time cutting the taxes on English gin). The result was a predictable boom in illicit distilling. In 1790s Edinburgh it was estimated that over 400 illegal stills competed with just eight licensed distilleries. A number of present-day Scottish distilleries, particularly in the Highlands, have their origins in such illicit operations.
The Excise Act of 1823 reduced taxes on Scotch whisky to a tolerable degree. This act coincided with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and entrepreneurs were soon building new, state-of-the-art distilleries. The local moonshiners (called smugglers) did not go quietly. Some of the first licensed distillers in rural locations were threatened by their illicit peers, but in the end production efficiencies and the rule of law won out. The whisky that came from these distilleries was made primarily from malted barley that had been kiln-dried over peat fires. The smoke from these peat fires gave the malt a distinctive tang that made the Scottish product instantly identifiable by whisky drinkers all over the world.
The 19th century brought a rush of changes to the Scotch whisky industry. The introduction of column stills early in the 1830s led to the creation of grain whisky, a bland spirit made primarily from unmalted grains such as corn. Grain whisky in turn led to the creation of blended Scotch whisky in the late 1860s. The smooth blandness of the grain whisky toned down the assertive smoky character of the malt whiskies.
The resulting blended whisky proved to be milder and more acceptable to foreign consumers, particularly the English, who turned to Scotch whisky in the 1870s when a phylloxera infestation in the vineyards of Europe disrupted supplies of Cognac and Port—two of the mainstays of civilized living. Malt whisky distilleries were bought up by blending companies and their output was blended with grain whiskies to create the great blended brands that have come to dominate the market. The malt whisky distilleries took a back seat to these brands and sold most or, in some cases, all of their production to the blenders. But the recent popular revival of malt whiskies has led most of the distilleries to come out with bottlings of their own products.
By the 1970s international liquor companies owned most of the malt whisky distilleries, a situation that continues to this day. Today, all Scotch malt whiskies are double or triple distilled in pot stills, whereas Scotch grain whiskies are made in column stills. Single Malt Scotch Whisky is malt whisky that has been produced at one distillery. It may be a mix of malt whiskies from different years (in which case the age statement on the bottle label gives the age of the youngest spirit in the mix). The barley malt for Scotch whisky is first dried over fires that have been stoked with dried peat (a form of compacted grass and heather compost that is harvested from the moors). The peat smoke adds a distinctive smoky tang to the taste of the malt whisky. Vatted Malt Scotch Whisky is a blend of malt whiskies from different Scottish distilleries. Scotch Grain Whisky (which is rarely bottled as such) is made primarily from wheat or corn with a small percentage of barley and barley malt (the latter not being dried over peat fires). Blended Scotch Whisky is a blend of grain whisky and malt whisky.
Why Blended Scotch Whisky Is A Good Thing, Even If You Prefer Single Malts
It is a truism of religion that converts frequently become the most zealous of believers. Among freshly minted modern-day enthusiasts of Scotch malt whiskies, it is a frequently heard refrain that malt whiskies are superior to the blended article, and that the latter are just not worth bothering with. Personal taste is ultimately subjective of course, but single-malt drinkers should raise their hats in salute whenever a Dewars or Johnnie Walker delivery truck drives by, because without these blended brands most of the remaining malt distilleries would not exist. Blended Scotch whiskies require a mix of dozens of different malt whiskies to be combined with grain whisky in order to create the desired blend. The individual percentages of each malt whisky may be small, but each contributes its unique character to the blend. A blender will thus need to buy or produce a large amount of different malt whiskies in order to maintain the consistency of the blend. Thus, for a malt whisky distillery, the single malt may get all of the glory, but the blends ultimately pay the bills.
Independent Merchant Bottlings
Before the present-day revival in popularity of single malt Scotch whiskies, a number of the 100 or so malt whisky distilleries did not bother to bottle their own product. Almost all of their production would be sold to blenders, directly or through brokers. The one exception to this rule was the relative handful of casks from each seasons production that would be sold to independent retail merchants or bottlers who would mature the whisky on their own, then at an age of their own choosing, bottle and sell them to the public. This commercial tradition was more prevalent before the rise of supermarket and discount liquor chains, but a handful of independent bottlers remain in Scotland. The best known of these are Cadenhead, Gordon & McPhail, and The Malt Whiskey Society. These merchant bottlings can offer interesting variations on official distillery bottlings, but that variance is not always a good thing. Caveat emptor.
The modern history of Scotch whisky has been a series of boom-and-bust cycles. In the late 1800s a large number of new distilleries were established, but at the turn of the century came a crash when financial hijinks among wholesale whisky merchants were brought to light. The industry revived, only to be disrupted by the advent of World War I and a prohibitionist mood in the government (it was at this same time that Britains famously odd hours of operation for pubs were established). National Prohibition in the United States disrupted sales to a major export market, but, oddly enough, far more whisky was shipped to Canada, the Bahamas and Mexico than had hitherto been the case (perhaps for transshipment to the United States?). World War II resulted in many distilleries turning to industrial alcohol production, but in the postwar years whisky production was boosted by substantial exports to the United States. All of these ups and downs have led to the phenomenon of distilleries being mothballed, reopened and mothballed again depending on the demands of the marketplace. In such cases, and also when plants are permanently closed down, their brands of single malt whiskies continue to live on in the marketplace for decades as the previously distilled whisky slowly finishes its aging time and is bottled. These “ghost” or “fossil” whiskies keep alive the proud names of distilleries that were torn down long ago and replaced by parking lots and housing developments.
Scotch Whisky Regions
The Highlands consist of the portion of Scotland north of a line from Dundee on the North Sea coast in the east to Greenock on the Irish Sea in the west, including all of the islands off the mainland except for Islay. Highland malt whiskies cover a broad spectrum of styles. They are generally aromatic, smooth and medium bodied, with palates that range from lushly complex to floral delicacy. The subregions of the Highlands include Speyside; the North, East and West Highlands; the Orkney Isles; and the Western Islands (Arran, Jura, Mull, and Skye).
The Lowlands encompass the entire Scottish mainland south of the Highlands except the Kintyre Peninsula where Campbeltown is located. Lowland malt whiskies are light bodied, relatively sweet, and delicate.
Islay is an island off the west coast. Traditional Islay malt whiskies are intensely smoky and pungent in character with a distinctive iodine or medicinal tang that is said to come from sea salt permeating the local peat that is used to dry the barley malt.
Campbeltown is a port located on the tip of the Kintyre Peninsula on the southwest coast that has its own distinctive spicy and salt-tinged malt whiskies.
Courtesy of Tastings.com