Ireland and Scotland have always been competing for inventing the whisky, however there are no official documents and we will not go over this century-old dispute, but we will base this guide on historical facts.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was invaded by the barbarian populations and Ireland became the refuge for all those Catholics who wanted to continue to profess their faith. It was precisely the Irish missionaries St. Patrick who, in 432 AD, wrote for the first time about a typical drink called Uisce beatha, a sort of Irish brandy, used mainly for medicinal purposes.
At the beginning of the 12th century, King Henry II of England invaded Ireland, so that the English also discovered the Uisce beatha, whose name, unpronounceable for the invaders, changed over time: uisce - fuisce - uiskie and finally whisky.
Once again, no truly reliable written source can confirm this thesis to prove the Irish origin of whisky. However, the whisky began to develop beyond the Irish borders thanks to missionary monks who continued to preach the divine word.
Over the years, the history of whisky has been characterized by some iconic figures that have strongly influenced its evolution, especially in the last century.
It starts with St. Patrick, an Irish bishop and missionary (of Scottish descent), unanimously considered as the father of whisky, then moving on to Magnus Eunson, first master distiller of Highland Park in 1798. Another representative figure is Elijah Craig, priest and educator of Kentucky considered by many, the inventor of bourbon whiskey, to which is immediately associated also Jack Daniel, who made his Tennessee whiskey a true symbol recognized throughout the world.
Different types of whiskies are produced all over the world, in culturally and socio-demographically distant countries, but joined by the passion to create an historic distillate.
The different production methods differ mainly in the nature and proportions of the cereals used as raw material, as well as barley malt and the types of stills used for distillation.
The main types of whisky are distinguished from each other by the characteristics of the places in which they are produced, which sometimes coincide with each other (as the climate of Scotland, surprisingly similar to some parts of Japan), while others constitute real rarities that make every sip a unique experience to taste.
Geographically speaking, we can divide the types of whisky into 6 different areas:
The word Scotch, in this definition, has a geographical meaning and not a generic one.
Irish whiskey (written with e, like the American Bourbon Whiskey) is a distinctive product of the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. Here, the definitions were issued by the Parliament in the Irish Whiskey Acts of 1950 and 1980.
The 1950 Act distinguished pot whisky from blends and claimed that the Irish Pot-Still Whiskey was reserved exclusively for spirits distilled in stills in the Republic from a blend of cereals normally grown in this country. The legislation of 1980 specified that the term "Irish Whiskey" applies only to "spirits distilled in the Republic or in Northern Ireland by a mixture of cereals saccharified by the malt diastase contained in them, with or without other natural diastases". This means that, differently from Scotch, Irish Whiskey can be produced with the use of microbial enzyme preparations in addition to malt. The 1980 law also specified that whiskey should be aged for at least three years in Ireland in wooden barrels. Moreover, in Ireland the distillation is not double, but triple, in order to give the distillate a stronger body and a more decisive taste.
The huge popularity of whisky produced in Scotland, Ireland, the United States and Canada has led many other countries to try its production, usually designed to resemble Scotch. Some countries, particularly Australia and Japan, produce surprisingly excellent whisky, able to be exported all over the world. Other countries, on the other hand, including the Netherlands and Spain, have distilleries which produce primarily, if not exclusively, for domestic consumption.
In accordance with the provisions of the instrument prescribed by law n. 2890 of 2009 also known as "The Scotch Whiskey Regulations 2009" or "Scotch Whiskey Act" (SWA), Scotch Whisky means that the whole production process must be in Scotland, including the complete ripening of the wheat and the origin of the necessary raw materials including water, peat and barley.
The SWA clearly establishes the necessary indications to ensure that the Scot-tish Whisky is clearly identifiable and that it presents all the useful information also from the distilleries, whose methods and traditions must be defended.
The technical specifications of each single type are also given, so as to avoid misinformation in this regard:
In addition to production methods, Scotch Whiskies are also classified according to the Scottish region of origin:
Whisky is a spirit obtained by distilling one or more grains and left to age in oak barrels, while cognac and armagnac are made from grapes, calvados from apples or pears and rum from sugar cane.
The main raw material, of which Scotland is rich, is barley. However, especially for blended and bourbon whiskies, they serve other types of cereals such as rye, corn and wheat.
Wheat, fruit and sugar cane cannot be distilled directly into a distiller. Therefore the sugar contained in the wheat or in the fruit must first be extracted (malting) and converted into alcohol with the help of the yeast (fermentation).
Gli ingredienti che entrano in un whisky appaiono semplici: grano, acqua e lievito, con l'impasto che viene posto in vari taniche e filtri prima di passare attraverso gli alambicchi e l’affinamento in botti di rovere. Bisogna, però, considerare che ogni singolo passaggio e ogni singolo ingrediente diventano fondamentali nella creazione degli aromi e della consistenza del whisky.
Among all the various cereals used, barley is the wheat that mostly contributes to the aromatic range of a whisky. For over three hundred years the distillers have paid particular attention to the barley they selected, as it represented the greatest expense for a distillery, but at the same time it was the heart of the Uisce beatha production process.
Starting in the 1970s, malting (the first step in converting wheat into alcohol) is no longer carried out within the same distilleries (only five distilleries, including The Balvenie, still make the malting process of up to 30% of their barley). This long and expensive process is now subcontracted to mechanized malting industries that save time and money, as well as they sell barley malts in line with the individual specifications of each distillery.
Often perceived as a one-step process, the malt actually involves three processes:
Often considered as an intermediate step in the alcohol production process, the contribution to the aromatic palette conferred by the malt is rarely recognized, especially thanks to the coal used to dry it.
When it is dried with hot air, the malt takes on toasted and toasted notes, while if peat fire is used, it develops roasted, smoky and medicinal notes.
After the malting process, the malt is stored and ground into a rough flour, called grist, thanks to al malt mill, a kind of millstone. The ground mixture includes 70% of grist, 20% of peel residue and 10% of flour. These proportions must be strictly applied to avoid obstructing the fermentation process.
The PeatPeat is the result of decomposed plants, heather, grass and moss, which after thousands of years gradually turn into a fuel made up of organic waste.
The yeast used during the fermentation process heavily affects the aromatic profile of a whisky.
Yeasts are unicellular microorganisms of the fungus family that feed on sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide in the process. The yeast varieties used by the distilleries are widely known, but each distillery jealously protects their nature as well as the proportions and blends. There are two main categories of yeast: wild yeast and cultured yeast.
Wild yeast is contained in the atmosphere and is sometimes still used to produce craft beers. This yeast is fragile and is activated only when the climatic conditions are right, something on which humans have no control. Despite its great aromatic potential, distillers consider this yeast too risky for their use.
Cultivated yeast, coming from breweries or distilleries, are the most used. They allow to predict the alcohol content in advance and the production of specific aromas that correspond to the aromatic profile of various types of whisky.
Yeast not only converts sugar into alcohol, but also imparts some specific aromas. During the fermentation process, esters begin to appear responsible for the fruity notes of many whiskies. These esters provide characteristic notes of apricot, apple, pear and tropical fruit (banana, pineapple). Other aromas also emerge from the fermentation process.
Key component in the whisky production process, yeast activates the conversion of a simple sweet must to malt beer. At the end of the fermentation process, a mixture of water and malt known as must is cooled until the yeast is activated (about 20 °C).
It is then moved on to fermentation tanks with sizes ranging from 1,000 to over 50,000 liters. Traditionally made of Oregon pine or larch wood, today these vats are often replaced with stainless steel washbacks that are easier to maintain.
When the washback is two-thirds full, the yeast is added to the mix. Once the yeast is activated, the sugar contained in the must is transformed into alcohol and carbonic gas. The resulting liquid is known as a wash. It begins to boil, with its temperature rising from 20 °C to 35 °C. The rotating arms continuously shake the wash to ensure that the temperatures do not increase too much, which would inhibit the yeast.
It takes from forty to sixty hours to convert all the sugar into alcohol.
Distillation is the second major phase in the whisky preparation process, very important for the distillers themselves, who put a lot of effort into it.
The absolute most important instrument is the still (or alembic) that is considered the real creator of every whisky. Jealously guarded by each distiller, the stills have different shapes and characteristics, based on the production capacity of each distillery and above all based on the preferences of each individual Master Blender.
Scottish single malts are distilled still using traditional pot stills (copper stills), which must be thoroughly cleaned after each use, but whose malleable material catalyzes and eliminates all unwanted sulfur substances.
The shape of the stills varies among the distilleries: the classic onion shape and the boiling sphere are the most common. Other types include the classic Lantern still that still remembers the old stills, the pear shape, the bell shape and the very rare Lomond still, used by Scapa and Dalmore yet.
A still can be used for twenty or thirty years.
Considering how important every single component is, some distilleries, which fear changes in the taste of their whisky, go so far as to reproduce the imperfections of their old stills, such as dents or bumps.
Appreciated for their solidity and impermeability, oak barrel has long been used as containers, regardless of their country of origin. Since the twentieth century, being obliged to age their whisky for a minimum of three years, the producers began to take an interest in the properties of the oak and its impact on the aromas and color of the distillate.
There are more than 50 varieties of oak in the world, but just a few contain the qualities necessary for the whisky aging. The white oak (quercus alba) is one of the most used due to its malleability and porosity. The European oaks (quercus robur, quercus sessilis or petrae), on the other hand, are particularly used in the aging of oloroso sherry, whose barrels are much sought after by Scottish distilleries because of their ability to extract more aromatic compounds than normal.
The several different production methods, together with the creativity of each Master Distiller, have led to the creation of new types of barrels like the Limousin one (quercus pedunculata), already used for the production of Cognac.
All these barrels can be used in their original state, or they can be subjected to various processes, such as the wine aging where the barrel is loaned to external distilleries that use it to age their spirits before being returned to the distilleries and used for the whisky aging.
Another widely used procedure is the cask carbonization: the inside of it is burned more or less intensely to concentrate and bring to the surface the aromatic compounds of the oak.
The life span of a barrel is estimated at around sixty years. More and more Scottish distilleries are experimenting with barrels containing Madeira, Porto, Sauternes, Bordeaux wines, Calvados, and many others in such a way as to broaden the aromatic range of every single whisky.
Going to the point, we can say that there are several factors influencing the aging of a barrel, in one word the aging environment. This environment is basically characterized by the characteristics of the warehouse as well as of the climate. The first influences the maturation of the whisky also based on the arrangement of the barrels, while the latter mainly affects the evaporation of the distillate: the estimated evaporation rate is on average 2% per year.
- The lower the temperature, the wetter the store and the more likely it is to evaporate the alcohol content (being more volatile than water). Thus, whisky loses its alcoholic strength but not its volume.
- Conversely, the higher the temperature, the drier the stock and the more likely it is the evaporation of the water. In these conditions, the volume of whisky decreases but the alcohol resistance remains stable.
And that is why whiskies aged in tropics are stronger than their peers aged in a continental climate, such as in Scotland. The surrounding air that filters through the pores of the wood also plays a major role. Those whiskies left to age near the sea, particularly those of the Campbeltown peninsula, the Isle of Islay and the Isle of Skye, are steeped in maritime aromas, often with very pronounced salty flavours.
In Scotland, single malt distillation is generally a two-step process. The beer, or wash, produced by fermentation, is first transferred to one or more large stills known as wash stills. They are equipped with holes allowing bubbling inside the still. The low wines obtained once the alcohol vapors have condensed have a strength of about 25 ° of alcohol. They run through the spirit safe which allows the distiller to accurately measure the density of the liquid.
The first distillation is finished when the liquid at the bottom of the wash does not reach even more than 1% of ABV. Known as the pot ale, this residue can represent over two-thirds of the initial wash and is used as feed for animals.
The low wines are then transferred to a small distiller, the spirit still, to undergo a second distillation. The first distillate obtained is moved to the spirit safe where it can be analyzed and monitored.
As the distillation process progresses, the level of alcohol content goes down: when the liquid is no longer turbid, the (almost) whisky remains with an average between 68 ° and 72 ° of alcohol content. The distillation tails (feints) with a resistance lower than 70% ABV, are rich in sulfur and heavy and powerful aromatic compounds.
The number of distillations, the size and shape of the stills, the speed with which the distillation is carried out, the heating process and the condenser angle (lyne arm) all contribute to the final character of a whisky. In Scotland, most distilleries carry out a double distillation process, however many of the Lowlands have embraced the Irish tradition of triple distillation.
Triple distilled single malts are lighter and boast elegant floral and fruity notes.
The still is heated until the alcohol reaches the boiling point (lower than the water). The lighter and much volatile vapors increase and are transported via the condenser. The heavier vapors sometimes fall into the bottom of the still to be redistilled. The higher the still, the lighter the whisky will be and vice versa, the lower is more full-bodied and the distillate will be decided.
The condenser angle (lyne arm) is as important as the size of the still.
A condenser with very little inclination allows the lighter vapor to travel to the condenser and vice versa.
There are two types of capacitors: traditional worms and the most modern U-shaped tube capacitors. Some distillers have recently opted for the return to worm capacitors, demonstrating that even at this late stage of the process, the character of a whiskey remains malleable.
6. BOTTLING & TASTING
At the end of the maturation period, before being bottled, the whisky is diluted to bring it from an alcohol content of about 60% to a more pleasant 40-45% (40% is the legal minimum for it to be officially considered a whisky). Some distilleries, including Glenfiddich, Springbank and Bruichladdich have proprietary bottling facilities, while others all the others send their malt to specialized plants.
The expression found on some labels, "chill filtered", means nothing less than cold filtration, which occurs through a small mash at 0 °C. This process serves to remove the last impurities present after the years of aging, giving brilliance at the expense of a slight loss of aroma, but removing, at the same time, some of the original part of the whisky, something about its real spirit.
As you can understand, the aromatic profile of whiskies, especially those extremely neat from Scotland, is the combination of factors that must perfectly balance each other. The raw materials, the shape of the stills used, but also the passion of the master distillers or the climate of that particular period, are all components that must be meticulously studied.
When it comes to tasting, it is appropriate to distinguish two categories of whisky: the first, including about 95% of the whiskies on the market, is called "daily whisky". They are those commonly tasted in pubs and that point their strategies on price and little on the brand.
On the contrary, the second category is called "tasting whisky" which foresee a long ritual and rigid environmental conditions including the choice of the glass, the tasting time and even the place where it must take place.
Tasting calls into question sight, smell, taste and even touch. Each phase is crucial for analyzing a whisky, through which it is possible to reveal all the various "hidden" components, such as its age, the aging method, the country and even the region in which it was produced.
The path in which we walk is full of images and aromatic memories that dig into the taster's memory. Not surprisingly, the end of the tasting (aftertaste), represents an extremely subjective passage, in which each taster remembers and maintains in the palate, different aromas according to what he likes more or less, but which basically reminds him of past experiences entirely personal.
The sensory analysis is finally completed by examining the empty glass. Once the alcohol has evaporated, the glass gives off the dry essence of whisky. The young whiskies leave a generally thin imprint, while on the contrary, aged whiskies are subject to slow oxidation which makes this essence very intense.