Adventures in Scotch Land
In the wide world of Scotch whisky, the rules of terroir don't always apply
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Back in the still house, the first run creates what are called low wines, bringing the alcohol content to about 20 percent before the second finishes the job, resulting in a spirit of between 60 and 75 percent alcohol. In the Lowlands region, as with Irish whiskey, a triple distillation employing a middle still has been traditional, but is now only used at Auchentoshan.
The point at which the spirit is kept for aging and, later, to be bottled, affects the final product quite profoundly and each distillery has philosophy for when to do this. Some amount of impurities are actually desirable because when aged they contribute to a whisky's character. If the desire was to eliminate impurities completely, they would use industrial column stills, like vodka makers do, instead of old-fashioned pot stills.
The fresh spirit is now ready for aging: the longest and arguably most important part of whisky making. As Cardhu's Duncan Tait, an operations manager, points out, his part of the process is to create new-make spirit, which takes only about 95 hours. The next leg of the journey will last 12 years and that it is when single malts truly become whiskies.
As romantic as it to think of maturation as an integral part of Scotch terroir, enthusiasts may be surprised to learn that aging doesn't necessarily take place where the spirit was created. Often the space and complex cask management requirements for large scale whisky-making make the efficiencies of aging elsewhere more compelling than the charm of aging on site at the distillery. First of all, not every location confers the same local flavor on an aging cask as will Islay with its wind-and-saltwater-whipped shores.
Second, the vast majority of single malt is destined to become part of a blend. The management of the several million required casks is sometimes better done at a series of warehouses. Some are designed to handle whisky for blends, others are traditional single malt facilities.
Aging undoubtedly has the most influence on a whisky, but as well as the "where at," it is the "what in" and the "how long" that makes the difference. Nowadays Scotch whiskies are distinguishing themselves foremost through the quality and of types of wooden casks used for maturation. That process begins outside of Scotland, usually in the United States.
Because by law Bourbon makers can use their new oak barrels only once, Kentucky and Tennessee are steady sources of relatively inexpensive casks as they sell off used stock. Disassembled barrels are shipped to Scotland, where they are reassembled and used again, sometimes over and over. The first-fill casks confer the most flavor on Scotch. At certain point the casks are spent and either discarded or used for neutral storage, as in marrying whiskies in a blends. Some Scotch makers, such as Balvenie, employ their own coopers to work on the wood. Much is done at places like Carsebridge Cooperage, where barrels are piled in small hills destined to be shipped to Scotch warehouses.
Inside there is a faint smell of Bourbon from all of the wrapped staves.
Reconstruction not only means assembly of barrels, but sometimes cutting staves to create casks of different sizes to fit the needs of the distillers they are destined for. The cooperage also rejuvenates barrels that have already been used in Scotch making, scraping the insides to get to fresh layers of wood and then charring them so the whisky can more easily take the flavor from the wood.
Some 80 percent of Scotch whisky is matured in American wood. Sherry and Port vessels make up most of the rest, and Scotch makers have long-mixed whisky aged in different wood types. The Glenlivet has brought together whiskies aged in American oak as well as French Limousin oak. Even the Macallan, which once exclusively used Sherry wood, now has a program to admix whisky aged in American-oak.
Novel ways to store whisky are appearing all the time. A development of recent decades is called finishing, in which a Bourbon-aged whiskey spends several months in another cask. This is a particular specialty of Glenmorangie, which has finished whiskies in various Sherry and Port casks, even Sauternes vessels. Recently, Balvenie, a distillery known for lightly peated malts, released a whisky that enjoys a finish in barrels once used to age heavily peated whiskey. Compass Box, a whisky negotiant, has a blended malt that it finishes in barrels made of both American and French oak.
Super age is another important direction as exemplified by the record prices that malts of 35 years and older, especially The Macallan, The Dalmore, Glenfiddich and Bowmore, continue to garner in the auction market. Two years ago, New York State allowed the first auctions of spirits since Prohibition and that avenue for purchasing whisky has burgeoned ever since. Great age is not limited to special releases, however, and brands like The Dalmore, Glenfiddich and Macallan have 50- and 60-year-old malts in their permanent offerings. Even blends like Famous Grouse 30-Year-Old and Royal Salute 38-year-old Stone of Destiny are expanding the age envelope.
The Glenrothes and The Glenlivet have vintage programs that stretch back four and five decades, with malts that were distilled in specific years. With wine a vintage generally shows off the quality of a grape crop that's been grown in a specific year. Whisky's grain doesn't change much from year to year, and vintage is more about the subsequent years spent in casks. (Bottle time does not contribute to age.) A vintage Scotch would be a sort of record of casks that had shared the same climatic conditions over their maturation. (When you buy a bottle identified by age—say 12 years old—it doesn't mean that all the whisky is from the same vintage, just that it is a minimum of that age. Casks of 13 years or more may have been, and probably were, used to make the vat it is bottled from.)
And yet, it is likewise too convenient to lay Scotch whiskies taste to aging or stills or barley or water, all the things you can easily tabulate. With Scotland, there are always mysteries. Back in Cardhu, a distiller who has just reintroduced its whisky to the American market after years of not having enough product to meet a surging demand, Tait says of the problem: "We can't make anymore here and we can't do it somewhere else. If we could we would. Marketers are eternal optimists and if we were to produce to what they want we would have lakes of whisky."
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