Whisky TalesBy Jeffrey Polet for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
As we emerge into adulthood, some of us develop a taste for whisky. The word originates from the Gaelic usquebaugh meaning “water of life.” Bourbon is the quintessential American whisky, while rye is the typical Canadian one. But most whisky lovers develop a taste for the golden elixir which comes from Scotland.
Scotch, or Whisky as it is known to Scots, has five main points of origin, each place producing whiskys with a distinctive profile. The Lowland Whiskys tend to be light and delicate with little smokiness. Conversely, the Islays tend to be deeply smoky and peaty, almost medicinal in smell and taste (The Laphraoig for example, has an antispectic quality to it). The Cambeltown whiskys have virtually disappeared. Like other island or peninsular whiskys, such as The Talisker, Cambeltowns have a saltiness to their flavor profile, a result of the water used in mashing and fermentation. Highland whiskys are known for their full flavors: smokier and richer, with bold overtones, and they are often sweeter and maltier than other whiskys.
Many connoisseurs have a preference for the Speyside malts, those gentle and flavorful drams that are distilled from the springs and waters of the bucolic river Spey, which cuts through the northeastern Highlands and out to the Moray firth. This region has more distilleries than any other, and also is home to one of the great treasures of the world of Scotch: The Whisky Castle.
Route A95 is the “major” East-West artery cutting across the northern section of the Cairngorms, Scotland’s idyllic mountain range. If you head southeast off A95 at Grantown-on-Spey, you will be driving narrow two-lane winding roads through some of the most picturesque hillside pastures eye has ever seen. About 15 miles down that road stands the little village of Tomintoul, which has a population of roughly 400 persons, two of whom are Mike and Cathy Drury, proprietors of The Castle.
Mike Drury knows whisky like a sailor knows the sea: it’s in his marrow, and he sees it and experiences it depths hidden to most of us. Because of this, he laments the direction the industry has taken, and he will be willing to spend a couple of hours telling you all about it.
The making of Scotch whisky has long been done by small, independent distillers whose Spiritus frumenti revealed the distinctive touches of place of origin as well as craftsmanship. The distiller worked in close tandem with the cooper to produce whiskys containing unique characteristics and flavor profiles. Coopers knew the wood they were working with. They would often taste the wood as they assembled the barrels; they could feel it in their hands, touching what they were making, and thus come to appreciate the core truth about whisky: it is the essence of wood.
A skilled cooper could see from which part of the tree a stave came, and could assemble the staves into a barrel understanding the unique properties of each stave with an appreciation for how they would fit together. A good distiller could then tailor his spirits to best fit the wood.
Malting was done by hand, the germinated barley dried carefully with peated heat, giving scotch its smoky flavor, and turned by workers who could eye the product for potential problems. After the casks were filled they were stored on the “Dunnage” (soil), keeping the whisky connected to the earth from which it came. With smaller casks and batches, the distillers had no need for concrete-floored warehouses where forklifts were required to move the barrels around (I saw one such warehouse at the Cragganmore distillery and was astonished by the number of barrels contained therein).
Skilled craftsmen monitored their whiskys by nose and tasting, their experience telling them when the right moment for bottling had arrived. Being able to label a dram as a 12-year old or an 18-year old was unimportant. What was important was the reputation of the distiller, who understood well Mr. Drury’s claim that oak “cannot be controlled, only loved” and that placing spirits into a barrel was “living on hope.”
All this changed, claims Mr. Drury, when Parliament passed a law requiring distilleries to produce a minimum of 70,000 litres per annum in order to avoid excise taxes. [Note: I have been unable to find any corroborative information about this regulation. There does seem to be a long-standing assumption of an 1800 litre minimum for excise purposes, dating back to 1823, but even this is less than ironclad. Whatever the legal issues, the subsequent facts remain largely the case. Mr. Drury asserted confidently the regulations were put into place to punish the Scots for the Battle of Culloden. The Acts of Union, The English Malt Tax of 1725, and the 1823 Excise Act did significantly affect distilling, but the details are less than clear to me. This part of our conversation remains a point of skepticism.] This insured success for large distillers and distributors, the two main ones being Diageo (think of the etymology of that name) and The Chivas Brothers. [I would recommend looking at both their websites to get a sense for how massive these companies are, and for how they are driven not by concerns about quality but only about growth and market shares.]
The approach to making whisky soon changed. Rather than thinking about scotch as the essence of wood, coaxed out of the recalcitrant oak by skilled craftsmen, the conglomerates emphasized standardization, replication, and efficiency. Instead of bottles being drawn from a single cask, the barrels were mixed together to produce a uniform, and largely middling, fare. Worse still, in order to satisfy the demands of largely unsophisticated buyers, scotches were “chill-filtered” and more often than not artificially colored, creating bottle appeal, but also insuring a truly unique and flavorful whisky would never hit anyone’s palate.
“Chill-filtering” is a technique whose benefits are cosmetic. When whisky, properly distilled and aged, gets below room temperature it will develop a milky haze. This has no effect on flavor, but some drinkers find it unappealing. Major distillers “chill-filter” their whiskys as a way of dropping the alcohol content as well. Most cask strength whiskys run at about 46% ABV, exactly the point at which clouding tends to take place. By lowering the temperature of the whisky to the freezing mark and then running it through a series of filters (one distiller informed me they used electro-magnetic filters), the distillers can remove the “impurities” that cause the haze. They claim it has no effect on taste.
Don’t you believe it. Chill-filtering removes some of the acids, proteins, esters – the oils, in short – that make a whisky blossom. Mr. Drury allowed me to sample side-by-side a chill-filtered and a non chill-filtered, and the differences were dramatic. One eye test Mr. Drury taught me is to take a new bottle, shake it, and tip it so the air runs to the point where the neck reaches the main bottle. The resultant air pocket should have a series of smaller bubbles running all the way around it, what Mr. Drury called whisky’s “pearl necklace.” This only happens when some of the essential oils have been retained in the dram. A chill-filtered whisky will produce no such bubbles.
Mr. Drury believes there is only one question to ask of a whisky: has love and care been put into it? The modern distillery, such as the one I toured at Cragganmore, is computerized. Indeed, it was run by one person who spent his days staring at computer screens making sure the temperatures and other markers stayed within acceptable tolerances. (For the record, I think Cragganmore is not a bad whisky, but after sampling some of the drams in Mr. Drury’s shop, I’m not as enamored with it as I had been.)
That love and care extends not only to the process, but to the ingredients as well. The whisky industry has had to deal with and inadequate supply of oak casks. A cask, as I’ve indicated, is a living thing. It needs to be treated with care, allowed to rest, and retired when it has given all it has to give.
The major distillers have refused to allow casks to go gently. Rather than operating with the assumption that a cask has a life of two or three maturations in it, and that it should be allowed to rest between fillings, Diageo and Chivas have taken to “charring” barrels to extend their life. The distiller will shave the inside of the barrel and then set fire to it. This charring is meant to deepen the taste and color of the malted beverage. While it increases the number of times a barrel can be used, it decreases the vibrancy of the wood in the barrel.
Mr. Drury is convinced this “oak problem” will ultimately revolutionize the whisky industry. Those distilleries run by Diageo and Chivas, he claims, will “mature” their spirits by using wood chips and osmosis. Smaller craft distilleries will continue to do things the old-fashioned way, but it will be increasingly difficult to get your hands on a bottle of whisky that wasn’t mass-produced on the cheap.
When you purchase a bottle, you typically have no knowledge of the cask, or even whether a combination of new and old casks were used in the bottling process. In short, you are no longer tasting an earthy and organic dram made by craftsmen who reveled in the pleasure of creating something, but instead you’re drinking a “product” – consistent and standard, created by algorithms, lacking in character and never achieving greatness.
Even the bottles have changed, Mr. Drury averred. Since he had plenty of old bottles in his shop he could effectively make the comparison. The bottles used to tell a story. The Glenmorangie talked about the “16 Men of Tain” who harvested, malted, distilled, coopered, and so forth. Small distilleries today will still give you the name of the cooper, the name of the distiller, the batch number, the cask number with information about the cask, and a pictorial history of the distillery. Their reputations were on the line, so they fixed their name to the label as a point of honor and pride.
New bottles provide nothing of the sort. They tell you who the distributor is, how old the youngest cask is, and little else. “You might as well put boobs on this one,” Mike said as he pointed out an hour-glass shaped bottle.
The proof of all this is in the tasting. Whisky is a multi-sensory experience. You examine the color, take measure of its nose, and finally taste, taking careful note of how long the flavor sits on the tongue. Mr. Drury shared with me a 42-year old non chill-filtered single-cask whisky whose butteriness with toffee and vanilla overtones I could still taste two hours later. It was an elixir unlike any I had tasted before. After sampling chill-filtered mega-scotches alongside non chill-filtered single cask whiskys I concluded that I had never really tasted scotch before.
If you sip a whisky and it causes puckering or shuddering or burning, there is something inherently wrong with it. A good dram will gently wash over your palate, engaging all your senses of taste. It will bloom in your mouth, not explode. In it you can taste the peculiarities of its place of origin: the quality of the water, the unique strains of barley, the smokiness of the peat, even the shape of the still will all work together to create a unique, often non-replicable, taste.
It is part of the human condition to want replication of things we love. We enjoy something, a good meal or a good whisky or a good date, and we try to reclaim it, to have it available to us ever again. But this is elusive and illusory. Time and things slip by us; “they can be [held] no more forever.” The flux of existence can’t be resolved by trying to fix the essence of something so that it never changes and is always ready-to-hand. A living thing can’t be grasped. We can’t sip the same dram twice. All we have available to us is to embrace the infinite variety of life with its triumphs and disappointments, cherishing the memories of those few and fleeting times when we have touched on the transcendent. In that sense, a full bottle does indeed contain the aspirations of mankind.