Wild yeast spontaneously cause fermentation of sugars, creating alcohol. This is how alcoholic drinks were empirically discovered. The fruits of warm lands gave up their sugars to make wine, and the grains of cooler regions yielded beer. In distilled form, these become brandy and whisky.
The art of distillation was used by ancient sailors (to render sea water drinkable), alchemists, makers of perfumes, and eventually in the production of medicines and alcoholic drinks. To distill is to boil the water, wine, or beer, collect the steam, and condense it back into liquid. This drives off certain substances (for example, the salt in water) and concentrates others (such as the alcohol in wine or beer).
Distilling may have entered Europe across the Straits of Gibraltar. There are unproven suggestions of the fiery art in Ireland at the beginning of the past millennium. The first indisputable reference in Scotland is from 1494.
The wine or beer is boiled to make steam – which, being wraith-like, may have given rise to the English word “spirit” or German Geist (ghost), especially since condensation brings it back to life in a restored (and restorative) form.
The “water of life”, they call it. (aquavit, in various spellings, in Nordic lands; eau-de-vie in French; usquebaugb, in various spellings, in Gaelic.) The last became usky, then whisky, in English. All of these terms at first simply indicated a distillate, made from whatever was local.
The four main Whisky Regions of Scotland are Campbeltown, Islay, Lowlands and the Highlands. Speyside and the Islands are generally accepted as sub-divisions of the Highlands region.
Each of these individual regional groups do to some extent produce many whiskies which are similar in their broad basic flavours, although there are certainly a few exceptions.
Whisky regional characteristics are not quite as clear cut as with wines. You will find that many whiskies from the same region have similar characteristics in taste and style, but this is more of a guideline rather than a set rule.
The final flavour of a whisky is determined more by the equipment used and the methods used to produce each whisky rather than by the geographical location of where the whisky is produced.
This term refers to the whisky being from just one (that is, a single) distillery. The term single is sometimes used to indicate that all the whisky in the bottling came from a single cask. More often, this is called a single cask bottling (Balvenie uses the term single barrel). Most bottlings of single malt contain whisky from several casks and batches. The combining of exclusively malt whisky from different casks is known as a vatting. Sometimes they are kept in wood for a further period to marry.
So long as it is all malt whisky, from the same distillery, it is a single malt.
Grain that has been steeped in water, partially sprouted, and dried to render it soluble. When the sprouting has reached an optimum point, it is arrested by the drying of the grain in a kiln. The grain used to make malt for whisky in Scotland and Ireland is always barley. In other countries producing malt whisky, this is also usually true.
The malt used in Scotch whisky was traditionally dried over peat, a local fuel, which imparts the characteristic smokiness. Most Scottish whisky malt is peated to some degree, albeit often very lightly. The place where these procedures happen is known as a maltings. Malt whiskies are often described simply as “malts”.
Scotland has internationally protected this term. A whisky may not be labelled Scotch unless it is made in that country. If it is to be called Scotch, it cannot be made in England, Wales, Ireland, or anywhere else. Bushmills makes fine malt whiskeys, but they are Irish, not Scotch. Excellent whiskies are made by similar methods in other countries, notably Japan, but they cannot be called Scotches. Nor do they taste the same. The best Scotch whiskies taste of the mountain heather, the peat, and the seaweed. They taste of Scotland!
A grain-based distillate in the Scottish and Irish tradition but also made elsewhere in the world – notably North America, where corn (maize) and rye are used to make different local styles. A defining characteristic in all whiskies is the flavour of the grain. While many vodkas and Schnapps are made from grain, they are distilled close to neutrality, or have flavours added, as does gin.
Johnnie Walker was such a shopkeeper; George Ballantine another; the Chivas brothers were partners in a shop. These merchants dealt with lack of consistency or volume by creating their own house vattings, and these became brands. John Dewar, who went into the business in 1806, was the first person to sell branded whisky in bottles. At first, two or three Highland whiskies might have been blended with a dash of Islay and a filler of Lowland malt, but today a dozen or 20 distillates might be used, perhaps even 30 or 40.
Grain whisky became a distinct element with its production in column stills. They were developed in the 1820s, and widely used by the 1850s. This faster, more industrial process made it possible to produce whisky in much larger quantities, by extending the “agricultural” malt with the “industrial” grain. The resultant blends were also lighter in body and flavour, and perhaps more acceptable to nations unfamiliar with whisky.
The producers of blends have, over the decades, protected their supplies of malt whisky by buying most of the distilleries. Fearing isolation, the handful of independents, most notably Glenfiddich, began seriously to market their whiskies as single malts in the late 1960s and 1970s. What seemed like a lone gamble became an inspiration to others. Blended Scotch is still dominant in volume, but single malts are gaining in sales and commanding far higher prices. The choice is between the orchestra and the soloist.