I was in Dundee, Scotland and seized the opportunity to taste some fine single malts. While imbibing, the question came up – is Scotland the place where whisky originated? Turns out that the credit for discovering whiskey goes to the Irish, and Irish priests brought the brew to Scotland (thank you Irish priests!!!). But now Scotland is the home of whisky, with a population of about 5 million Scotsmen and approximately 18 million barrels of whisky being aged at any given time! One can imagine that the drink quickly took hold and no doubt made the Scottish weather, particularly in the long winter months, more bearable. Ask a Scotsman about the weather and he will say it is “fresh” – that translates to cold and windy; if he says “quite fresh” then the temperature has dropped quite a bit and it is blowing like anything; and when he upgrades it to “verra fresh” expect gale force winds and heavy rain!
From Scotland the drink traveled to England around the mid 1700s when the authorities there decided to take care of GIN consumption, rampant drunkenness and crime by taxing GIN! This encouraged whisky influx and rampant drunkenness and crime. Whisky was in turn taxed and hidden under altars in churches, and among cattle fodder in barns! Thinks were a bit dicey there for the Scottish whisky operations until an accidental introduction of Phylloxera from North America decimated nearly one third of the grapevine in France. This introduced whisky to the region as an alternative! With Irish and British immigrants in the USA, a local distilling industry flourished until Prohibition. The 8+ years of prohibition ruined the distillling operations of most Scottish and Irish immigrants and left Scotland (and Ireland to some extent) as the lone bastion of whisky production. Strangely enough India is the largest consumer of whiskey but none of it is Scotch or Irish, rather locally distilled products are drunk.
Three predominant kinds of whisky come from the fermenting and distilling of barley, other grain, and blends of grain and barley products. Grain distilled whisky is much despised and mostly used as the base for the blending operations where some barley product is used for the flavor, and the other grain stuff provides the bulk. Blended whisky is not as highly values as the whisky from any one distillery – the Single Malt. There are four main areas of Single Malt production in Scotland – the Lowlands, the Highlands, Speyside and Islay.
There are really only three ingredients in whisky – water, barley and yeast! So what makes each whisky unique? Each distillery has its own characteristics that depend on the source of water. Most Scotch is double distilled and shape of distillation vat important for taste as it determines what kinds of volatiles escape and what condense back into the distiller barrel. Some of these distillation stills are works of art!
After distillation the whisky is aged in casks. These were traditionally oak – but now some aging happens in old sherry casks – this gives a deep color and some sweetness to the whisky.
And I am not being schizophrenic in my spelling – it is whisky in Scotland and whiskey in Ireland!
Credit for some of the pictures to Wikipedia! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whisky
Much valuable information on single malts can be had from http://www.scotchwhisky.net/distilleries/