“Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae”
This command from James IV in 1494 comes from the official Exchequer Rolls (the tax records of the day). Enough malt to produce around 1500 bottles of whisky, this is the first known reference to whisky in Scottish history. The volume of malt sent off for distillation suggests that the whisky industry was already in full swing and that the Scottish people had already developed a strong taste for sipping on a dram or two of ‘uisge beatha’….
The earliest record of distilling in Scotland, 1494. Image Credit: Source
The ‘water of life’, produced in the 15th century, would share little in common to the amber nectar that we know as whisky today but it does highlight how imbedded whisky is with the history of Scotland.
Whisk(e)y today is made in all corners of the globe from Japan to New Zealand, and Australia to the USA. In 2009, in light of this increased competition (and an increase in fraudulent bottles finding their way to market), the Scottish Whisky Regulations act was brought in to protect the image and reputation of Scotch worldwide and aims to ensure that when you pop the top off your bottle of Scotch, you are getting the real deal: a bottle of Scotch - born, bred and bottled in Scotland.
To Blend or not to blend…that is the question
A number of grains are used to produce different whisky styles (barley, rye, corn, wheat) with the local crop often having the biggest influence on what grain is used to produce the local golden drop. Once harvested, the grain is transformed into a fermentable liquid before being sent off for distillation into a clear, neutral spirit which will then rest away for a number of years in wooden barrels; during that time morphing itself into the devilishly enticing drop we know as whisky.
Single Malt Whisky
Single malt Scotch whisky is the product of one single distillery and will be produced from malted barley and is typically double-distilled in copper pot stills before being sent off for maturation. A minimum 3 years maturation is required for a spirit to be legally sold as Scotch, however most single malts will rest away undisturbed for many years (The age stated on the label must legally be the youngest whisky used in the final blend) so that the spirit and the wood come together in harmony, with the result being a hugely complex and intense whisky full of character.
“Ultimately, whisky is made to be enjoyed and savoured, so drink it how you like to drink it.”
These days, the vast majority of Scottish whisky sold across the globe is blended. These complex blends are made up of whisky made from different grains, from different distilleries and different distillation techniques. These carefully crafted drops are blended to produce (mostly) an easier, more approachable style of drinking whisky that whilst not as intense as their more illustrious single malt cousins, still tantalise the senses with their complex array of aromas and flavours.
the high road and you'll take the low road…
Over the centuries distinct whisky styles have become attached to particular areas. But be careful, all is not what it seems and the best way to find your preferred style is to experiment with a dram or two to make sure you’re not missing out on a producers’ take on what the water of life should taste like!
Speyside is the smallest of the defined Scottish whisky regions yet it boasts the most distilleries and is home to some of the most famous names in whisky (Glenlivet and Glenfiddich to name but a few). Sitting on the banks of the river Spey, which provides ample supply of crystal clear water, Speyside whiskies can come in a vast array of styles from fresh, grassy and clean to more robust and honeyed and rich.
Speyside Whisky – home to some of the most popular Whisky brands in the world. Image Credit: Source
The glorious wilderness of the Highlands of Scotland is a stunning sight and remains mostly untouched by the hand of man. The Highlands encompasses a vast area of land stretching from east to west coast and as such produces a large variety of styles from the salty peaty styles on the west coast (Oban) to sweeter fruitier styles in the centre (Glenmorangie).
The island of Isla lies off the West coast and is home to some of the most polarising and unique styles of
whisky. The high Peat content on the island (which is utilised when malting the barley) underpins the flavour of the whiskies; characterised by an intense, peaty-aroma - often combined with strong smoky and iodine flavours. Anybody who has poured themselves a dram of Ardbeg will testify to the headiness of what Islay whiskies can achieve.
Lowland whiskies are drops distilled in the south of Scotland, from the central belt down to the English border, and tend to produce the lightest, prettiest style of Scottish whiskies. With only a handful of distilleries still active in the area they can be tricky to source but can be home to some lovely elegant whiskies. (Tip: Glenkinchie 12Y.O delivers beautiful ‘mealy’ flavours with lovely floral spice)
Scotland’s Celtic cousins across the water in Ireland have equally as long a history of distillation as the Scots. Traditionally, the main differences between Irish Whiskey and Scottish Whisky is during the distillation process with many Irish distillers preferring to distil their spirit 3 times (rather than the twice in Scotland) aiming to produce a softer, more elegant style of whiskey.
I’ll have mine neat, please bartender…
Much is made of how whisky should be served. A little water tends to help coax out some of the lovely volatile aromas that have been evolving over many years. Some whisky can be quite aggressive when first poured with the alcohol standing out a touch. A small splash of water, or a lump or two of ice, will help mellow out the spirit and allow you to enjoy all the complex flavours that the distiller has aimed to capture in their whisky.
Ultimately, whisky is made to be enjoyed and savoured, so drink it how you like to drink it. Personal preference is as important as what the experts say, and as long as you avoid drowning your 21 year old Balvenie with Cola you should be fine!