Everything About Our Nation's Drink
by Maurice Alexander
Burn’s Night is seen as the night of the year to celebrate about all there is to be Scottish. What drink is more Scottish than whisky? A precious liquid appearing as molten gold. In 1994, the whisky industry celebrated its 500th year in operation and last year the global exports of our national drink passed a total value of £2 billion. With half a millennium of popularity both here and aboard, I’ve put together this brief guide explaining the past, present, production and types of our treasured nation's drink.
Whisky Today and Yesterday
This beautiful drink is not only close to the hearts of Scottish people, but also necessary to the functioning of our nation’s economy, with the whisky industry itself contributing £5.5 billion to the domestic economy and being 75% of all the exported foodstuffs of Scotland and 21% for UK-wide food and drink exports in 2020. All this wealth has been generated by over 40 thousand people employed by this heritage industry, with almost a quarter of them serving as the economic lifeblood of rural highland and island communities. Aside from the production of ‘usage breagha’, the economic benefits of the whisky industry is compounded by the distilleries serving as prime locations for tourism, with the 133 sites hosting over 2 million visitors last year, rightfully possessing the bronze medal of the third most popular tourist attraction of Scotland.
Paired with great economic importance for our windswept land, the production of whisky is greatly important to our collective history. The first reference to this cultured beverage is a tax record from 1494, the document detailing an amount of malted barely to produce almost 2 thousand bottles of ‘aqua vitae’, water of life, the whisky’s early Latin title. The English word for the drink, whisky, originates from the first, similarly-sounding, word of whisky’s Gaelic name, ‘usige beatha’, meaning water of life.
The production of life’s water rose with the ages, being wholly illegal for much almost the entirety of its existence and being produced in hidden ‘illicit stills’ operated in secrecy. In 1785, Robert Burns himself even wrote a poem, ‘‘Scotch Drink’’, replete with love for the beverage detailing its importance as a catalyst for affection and ability to elicit happiness and foster unity amongst all. The law regarding whisky was eventually updated to legalise its production, allowing whisky to cascade into society, with many of the present-day distilleries operating from the very same formerly secret locations.
What Whisky Is
Whisky has been under legal definition since the 1930s which applies various conditions that must be met before it can be awarded with the ‘whisky’ classification. Summarised, a whisky is an alcohol produced in entirety within Scotland using purely water, yeast, barley and other cereals (such as wheat) which is then distilled below an alcohol percentage by volume (abv) of 94.8% which is then allowed to sit still and mature within the body of an oak cask for a minimum period of 3 years before being bottled with a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% abv.
You might have noted that I have used the term ‘whisky’. This is the name specific to the alcohol that meets the guidelines outlined in the previous paragraph. ‘Whiskey’ is the word used to label an alcohol produced under the same or similar guidelines outside of Scotland, commonly attributed to Ireland and the United States of America. Bourbon is an American variation of whisky using maize and rye.
Whisky comes in two types; malt and grain, both having very different methods of production, yet common to both are the stages of malting, fermenting, distilling, and maturing.
Malt whisky is made from exclusively from water, yeast and malted barley (from which it takes its name). The first step in its creation being the mass ‘malting’ of this crop, involving it being submerged in water and spread out in a thin later across a ‘malting floor’ to sit for a week to induce germination, when the kernels split and begin grow roots.
Following this, heaps of germinated barley are shovelled into large ovens, called ‘kilns’, to dry under the heat. Once totally dry, the dried kernels are ground into a fine powder by mills and funnelled into a ‘mash-tub’, an enormous container with a large centrally-positioned multi-segmented stirring instrument, to be mixed with hot water to form an the cloudy, pale, intermediary liquid, ‘wort’.
This is then poured into multiple ‘washbacks’, large vessels that hold the wort to during its fermentation period wherein it sits with added yeast. This is the pivotal moment in the whisky-making process. As yeast feasts upon the barley, alcohol is produced as a by-product and, over time, the volume of alcohol gradually rises with the length of yeast activity. The wort is transformed into ‘wash’, appearing sudsy with a dense, unbroken layer of bubbles upon its surface.
The wash is then distilled twice. Distillation involves the wash being heat to a temperature to vaporise the liquid alcohol into a gas, which then separates itself the from the rest of the wash liquid and rises up through the distillation vessel where it condenses and collects as a purified liquid in separate container. Regarding whisky production, these vessels are called ‘stills’, being formed with copper whose upper half takes on the look of hanging trumpet-flower. The wash is distilled twice, once in a wash still, whereupon the resulting liquid is termed ‘low wines’ which is distilled again in a ‘spirit still’.
This clear spirit is poured into oak barrels, the only wood permitted for this step for the resulting liquid to be awarded the whisky title, and is left to ‘mature’ for a minimum of three years, outlined by regulatory decree, however, the industry maturation standard goes well beyond this. During this period, the colourless spirit takes on its caramel appearance and fosters subtleties of flavour from the hidden notes within the water used during its creation to the hints of oak taken from the wood lining its resting place. The greater extent of maturation results in a darker whisky appearing as the darker glints of polished topaz, with potent flavours requiring a cultured palette.
Grain whisky is created through the ‘patent-still’ process, beginning with an amount of malted barley that has been augmented with other grains like wheat. These additional cereals will have been boiled prior to their inclusion so that the starch molecules contained within them have broken down, allowing them to be consumed by the yeast during fermentation. Following fermentation, the wash is distilled at higher temperatures in ‘coffee’ stills, before being matured in oak barrels for similar time periods like traditional malt whisky.
Malt, Grain, and Blended Whisky
Comparing the two, malt whiskies are darker, heavier with intense flavours. They also command a higher price tag and single male whisky, when only a single batch of malted barley from the one harvest, is coveted by collectors for its authentic production and flavours. Essentially, malt whisky is to grain whisky what champagne is to white wine.
However, this does not mean that grain whisky is to be wholly discarded. Grain whisky are the go-to option for the average person due to their subdued flavours. People who purchase whisky for seasonal events to enjoy as a novelty with family and friends should choose a grain whisky since this is much more palatable for people that are not regular whisky drinkers. This is reflected in the demand for exports of our national drink, where 22% of whisky exports were grain whiskies compared to only 10% of exports being for single malt whisky.
The largest export by far is for ‘blended’ whisky, produced from the mixing of malt and grain whisky. This is by no means a modern practice, as malt whisky has been historically considered to be too potent for the average person’s palette, akin to liquid fire. To remedy this, the gentle tones of grain whisky was added to malt varieties to produce a smooth, tamer drink that could be enjoyed by all.
Blending whisky is truly an art, requiring decades of experience in the industry as well as being in possession of a nuanced palette to pick up on the hidden notes of each individual whisky. It can be compared to the work of a master perfumer, someone capable of understanding the fine, complex character of these luxury substances.
This Burn’s Night, if you are all novices in the enjoyment of our golden, flavoursome drink, then you should purchase a grain whisky with a lower maturation period, before moving on to blended whisky before finally developing your palette to appreciate the vibrance of malt whisky.
Don’t be influenced by purists that say whisky should only be enjoyed straight from the bottle and into the glass. If you have experienced the pleasures of a distillery tour, you would know that it is common practice for whisky distilleries to be connected to a spring, to supply a splash of water to your dram of whisky to dull its edge.
A ‘dram’ is a 20ml measure of whisky and is the standard serving both drunken straight or mixed. Yes, mixing drinks with any type of whisky is not to be frowned upon either and there is a wealth of drink recipes available for you to experiment with.