Saturday, June 05, 2010

How to make the best whisky in the world

A big part of the trip to Islay was to visit several of the island's distilleries and sample their products. I didn't know that much about whisky (note - 'whiskey' is the American spelling, usually referring to bourbon) before I went to Scotland. I liked it, had heard that Islay whiskies were special, but really went on the tour to see the island.

We visited five distilleries - Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Bowmore, although we didn't get a tour of Bowmore. We also passed Lagavulin, but they were closed on a Sunday.

Making Islay Scotch seems simple, but there are a surprising number of factors involved in making a complex flavour. The main ingredient in Scotch whisky is barley. Some is grown in Islay, but the island's climate means that supply can't be guaranteed, so the majority comes from the mainland.

The first step is to germinate the barley, which turns the starch in the grain to sugars, which are essential for fermentation.

The germination takes place in cool storehouses, well ventilated to ensure the barley doesn't heat up.

Once the barley has germinated, it's dried in kilns. Islay's Scotches get their famous smokey character from drying and smoking the barley with peat, which is an abundant form of fuel in the island. After drying, it's ground - the grinder here is at Ardbeg:

The ground barley is then mixed in a 'mash tun' with hot water, before being piped to fermentation vats called 'wash tuns'.

Some distilleries use wooden wash tuns, others more modern stainless steel. The wood doesn't contribute much to the flavour. If you're ever invited to stick your head in a wash tun and savour the yeasty smell of fermenting grain - don't! Some stages produce what can best be described as nasal napalm.

After fermentation, the solids and liquids are separated, and the alcohol goes through a two-stage distillation. At this point you can taste the grain and smoke, but it lacks the character imparted by ageing in barrels. Distilleries use bourbon and sherry barrels to impart woody, fruity flavours to the whisky, moving it from one barrel to another to add various layers to the taste. The 'age' of a whisky indicates how long it has been in barrels for - once it's in a bottle, the ageing process ceases. Younger whiskies generally have higher alcohol content, as it gradually evaporates through the wood (the Scots call this "the angels' share"). If the alcohol content drops below 40%, it cannot be sold as a single malt, and instead is used for blending.

The best thing about Scotch making is that it is a genuine art - the subtleties of timing and ingredients at the various stages have profound effects on the final product, and even the professionals are sometimes surprised by their results. Every once in a while a whisky master opens a barrel and finds something extraordinary. And in a world of mass-produced products, that's something to treasure and marvel at.


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