Human Interest Feature: The History and Making of Scotch Whisky

The History and Making of Scotch Whisky
Kira Greenlee, BABC Coordinator, Temple University

On Wednesday, December 11, 2013 the BABC hosted its Annual Holiday Luncheon, Celebrating British Arts & Culture and the Season to be Jolly. During the luncheon Charlie Whitfield, Brand Ambassador for the Edrington Group, led attendees through an educational and entertaining whisky tasting. The whiskies BABC members and friends enjoyed during the event were the Macallan Sherry Oak 12yr and the Macallan Fine Oak 15yr – both single malt Scotch whiskies aged to perfection. The BABC Scotch Whisky tasting was received with such applause we decided to include this special human interest feature on the topic. In the words of the Whisky Master himself, Charlie stated, “It was an honor to be part of the 2013 BABC Holiday Luncheon, to have the chance to talk a little about the fascinating history and processes of Scotch whisky, and to share some of the golden nectar!”

Scotch Whisky is whisky distilled in Scotland, specifically from malted barley. The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurred as long ago as 1494. The “Exchequer Rolls” (tax records) from this time include the following entry: “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae” (water of life). This amount was sufficient enough to produce almost 1,500 bottles, suggesting that the distilling process was already well established. Until advances in the practice were made between the 16th and 17th century, however, the spirits produced before then were extremely potent and occasionally harmful. Initially whisky was taken for its medicinal qualities, being prescribed for the preservation of health, the prolongation of life, and for the relief of colic, palsy and even smallpox.

Whisky eventually became an essential part of Scottish life – a stimulant during the long, cold winters, and a welcome drink to be offered to guests upon their arrival. Increasing popularity attracted the attention of the Scottish Parliament, which introduced the first taxes on malt and the end product in the 17th century. Ever increasing rates of taxation were applied following The Act of Union with England in 1707, which led to moves to tame rebellious Scottish clans and forced distillers underground. Eventually in 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a license fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. Smuggling died out almost completely after the Act.

In Scotland, “malt whisky,” such as Macallan 12 and Macallan 15, that which was sampled during the whisky tasting at the BABC Holiday Luncheon, must use a 100% malted barley mash and must be distilled in a pot “still” (the apparatus used for distilling alcohol,) whereas grain whisky is typically distilled in a continuous column still in a manner that results in a higher percentage of alcohol by volume (ABV), but less flavorful spirit. Most American and Canadian whiskies, such as Jack Daniels, are made of grains other than malted barley and go through a different distillation process. Malt Whisky is made by a simple, traditional batch process, from natural materials – malted barley, water and yeast. The first step in making the whisky includes malting the barley by steeping it in water and then spreading it out and allowing it to germinate. This process provides a source of starch which then can be converted into alcohol. During this week-long process, the barley starts to sprout so it is dried in a large oven which gives the whisky its distinctive, sometimes smoky flavor.

Once dried, the malt is grounded in a mill and the crushed grain (grist) is mixed with hot water in a “mash tun” (a vessel for mashing). Sugars from the malt dissolve and create a sugary liquid known as “wort” which can be turned into alcohol. The remaining solids are widely used as cattle feed. The wort then passes into large vessels during fermentation, known as “washbacks,” where it is fermented by adding yeast. The yeast converts the sugar in the wort, turning it into alcohol and creating the wash, a liquid of about 8% ABV. Next, the wash is distilled twice in copper pot stills, once in the “wash still” and once in the “spirit still,” which act like large kettles. As the liquid is heated, alcohol vapors rise and pass over the head of the wash still before being guided through condensers and returning to liquid. The resulting spirit, the low wines, is forwarded to the spirit still where the distillation is repeated. Only the “heart of the run,” high quality usable spirit liquid, is then collected in the “spirit safe.” A spirit safe is a large, padlocked, glass walled, usually brass bound container found at Scotch whisky distilleries which allows the distiller to analyze and manage the spirit coming out of the pot still without coming into contact with the spirit itself. Once these processes are complete, the “new-make spirit” (final spirit) is then filled into oak casks and matured. As the spirit matures in the cask, it will develop flavor characteristics and color. According to Scottish law, it cannot be labeled “Scotch Whisky” until it has matured in Scotland for at least three years.

Scotch Whisky has survived the US prohibition, wars and revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, and maintains its position today as the premier international spirit of choice, enjoyed in more than 200 countries throughout the world, and generating more than £4 billion in exports each year. As Charlie exclaimed, “No matter whether you are drinking Scotch whisky for the first time or are a seasoned connoisseur, there is a style, flavor and price point for everyone. At this time of year, my advice, sit back with some friends next to a roaring log fire, pour a wee dram of what we call ‘the water of life,’ and enjoy! Slàinte.”

Cheers to all BABC members and friends who enjoy the taste of a good Scotch Whisky!

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