Monday, August 24, 2009

On Malts

On Malts

I'll be back in the United States for five days in the beginning of September. With only a few weeks left before this auspicious sojourn on my native soil, I've found myself contemplating some activities to mark the occasion. A list of diversions of sorts, in a nation founded with the explicit intention of providing its inhabitants the freedom for such pursuits (a stroll through central park, alma mater, etc.). And in these thoughtless meanderings, I've invariably criss-crossed over one immutable, irrefutable, undeniably convenient and salient advantage which Brother Jonathan holds tauntingly high over Israel's splendorous crown.

Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

Each word requires an effort to enunciate, and indeed must be spoken to convey the full and exact meaning of the phrase.

Now admittedly, if people over-work their livers through binge drinking, then I've given mine the equivalent of a cushy government job. Indeed, I didn't even partake of libations until well after they were legally permitted to me. But in my humble and limited jaunts into the wine-dark seas, I have hit upon this bottomless treasure chest which continues to reveal glorious aspects of itself measure by 25-ml. measure.

Now it certainly isn't impossible to purchase Single Malts in Israel. However, for a college graduate earning effectively zero income, the prospect of paying two to four times the bottle value simply leaves me wilting like an aging southern belle of antebellum temperament .

So I've resolved to write the following short and simple treatise. I want to crystallize in writing my yearning and anticipation for the reunion with this most choice kindred spirit. I want to shine a small light on a world rich in complexity, beauty, and history that is largely hidden from one's normal purview. I want to provide an easy-to-understand introduction on the definition, history, process, science, and art of Single Malts. I want to give the reader an appreciation for single malts. What started in an august barley field of the Scottish lowlands several decades ago to the regal amber-hued potation should not be impudently guzzled, but contemplated, savored and enjoyed. I want to write this all down now, as I sit in a state set to expire. This is a lover's ode, my Song of Solomon, my swan song.

A caveat before we begin. As with most young loves, passion often betrays naiveté. Rest assured, as with any subject which passes under my lens, I strive for the utmost factual accuracy from reliable sources (or wikipedia if I'm feeling lazy). Translation: feel free to pass off any of this valuable trivia over drinks as though you've known it for years, and feel confident that you will not suffer the deep social embarrassment of being corrected by a more knowledgeable colleague.

So let us begin.

Etymology and History

What is Whisky? Better yet, let's start with the etymology. What is “Whisky”? The term's origins are found in the Gaelic term “usquebaugh” which means “Water of Life”. Go figure. Over the centuries, people neglected the -baugh, leaving the “usque” free to phonetically finagle itself to our modern “Whisky”.

“Whisky” or “Whiskey”? Scotland has an international protection on the word “Scotch”. There are many countries which produce whiskey, but only whisky from Scotland is called Scotch. These can be tasty and unique, but they are generally not called Whisky (emphasis on generally, for there is a fierce debate on the slippery 'e'). There are other qualifications a Whisky must satisfy to earn its proper title, which we'll touch upon as we continue our journey.

Alright, so what is it? Whisky is a broad classification of alcoholic beverages which are distilled from fermented grains. These grains include rye, wheat, corn, and barley. SMSWs are distilled from barley exclusively (although there exist single malt rye whiskies).

To historically pin down when the Scots began distilling their Whisky is up for debate. The earliest written record (an entry in the Exchequer Rolls to be precise; a sort of financial account record for the Kingdom of Scotland) dates back to 1494, just 2 years after the Jews were exiled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella. Early distilleries operated almost exclusively within Monasteries. Monks primarily prescribed whiskey in medicinal capacity, as the drink was well-reputed as a good cure for the small pox. Perhaps there is a historical basis for the naiveté I mentioned earlier.

In modern times there are five main regions known for their distinct styles of Single malts. The Highlands which contains the Island and Speyside malts, Islay, Campbeltown and Lowlands all contain active producing distilleries. The lion's share goes to the Highlands which boasts several scores of distilleries.

A book could be devoted to Whisky's history, and has (many times over), but we must press onward.

The Process

Taking a leaf from Michael Pollan's The Omnivore Dilemma, I'd like to follow a bottle of Single Malt Scotch Whisky from its humble beginning as a thatch of barley field to the day that it finds a good home where it will be cherished to its final drops. At each stage we will see how such a specific drink can have so many colorful and distinguished variations. For indeed, in the 19th century there existed more than 300 distilleries in the Highlands alone.

Our story can start either in England or Scotland. If the season is Spring, then a slim majority of the barley comes from Scotland, and in the winter, the vast majority comes from England. There are certain features which are sought for from the barley, but these characteristics would only be of interest to biochemists. The barley is usually harvested by professional “maltsters” according to the exacting conditions and specifications of the Distillery.

What do we mean when we say malting exactly? After the barley has been harvested, it soaks in water for 2 days, stimulating germination. Through germination, the barley produces many of the necessary enzymes which will transform long starch chains stored int the grain into simple sugars.

This process is brought to a halt, and the germinating barley is next dried. The method of drying is one of the first ripe opportunities to influence the eventual taste of the whisky. Different distilleries employ different methods to dry the germinating barley (electric, oil, kiln, etc.). The barley is placed in a dry sauna and flushed with heat from coal, oil or electricity. Most distilleries add a certain amount of peat smoke to give the final product a smokey flavor (if you've ever tried Laphroaig, pronounced: La-froig, then you know just how much phenols can affect the ultimate flavor).

The next stage is to mash up the barley into a coarse flour and add hot water. This catalyzes the enzymes released in the germination stage to break down the long starch chains into familiar sugars like glucose and maltose. Everyone's favorite unicellular fungus, yeast, is added to the mix (called the 'wort') to convert those sugars into alcohol and carbon-dioxide, making for a grainy, sweet, alcoholic liquid known as the “wash”. For those of you familiar with how beer is produced, you'll have undoubtedly noticed the similarities between the two processes at this point (in fact the ABV (alcohol by volume) is anywhere from 4-7 %). Speculation: In fact, I see no reason why the highly ambitious amongst us could not actually produce their own whisky from beer they purchased so long as they follow the steps outlined below.

I emphasis highly ambitious because up until now, most of the steps in our stairway to Whisky could be replicated in a suitably outfitted kitchen. What separates distilleries from kitchens is the next step. Not so shockingly, a distillery now begins the process of "distilling" the wash. The object goal of distilling a wash is to extract the alcohol from the wash from the yeast, water and remaining sugars. To do this, the wash is placed in a giant copper pot which is heated to a temperature that evaporates the alcohol, but also leaves the water behind. This concentrate is really what we're after. All distilleries put the wash through several phases of distillation, most do two cycles, and a few do three. At the end of the distillation stage, the ABV is around 60-75 %.

The giant copper pots, known as “stills” are essential to the development of the scotch's final feel and flavor. The geometry, size, and hull thickness all play roles in shaping the future of the whisky. Distilleries will go to great lengths to replicate older stills with utmost precision so to preserve its unique taste, body (how the whisky feels in the mouth), and bouquet.

This “new make spirit” is now ready set to be barreled. Most distilleries age their whiskys in used oak casks which they buy from American whiskey and bourbon distilleries (a small fraction are sherry casks; sherry an anglicization of the Spanish town, Jerez from where they were originally taken). The barrel influences our whisky in several dimensions transforming the body, flavor and color.

To be called “Scotch”, the whisky must sit in the barrel for at least 3 years by Scottish law. So the nature of the barrel has a long time to slowly chemically transform the whisky adding hints of vanilla and woody notes, darkening the spirit, and texturizing the body and viscosity while also filtering some of the coarser elements of the spirit. The great majority of whiskys are aged much longer than this, sometimes sitting in the barrel for several decades. As the whisky matures in the cask, its ABV decreases. The alcohol shed each year in the barrel is known as the “angel's share”.

The last step for our whisky is to be bottled. Unlike wine, once our whisky is bottled the aging process ends. So purchasing a 15-year Glenfiddich and letting it sit for a few years in your liquor cabinet will not make it an 18-year Glenfiddich. For consistency, most distilleries will blend from several different age barrels to deliver a more consistent drink. The age-label on the bottle is the youngest in the mix. If all the liquor in the bottle comes from the same cask, then the bottle will be labelled “single-cask”.

The only remaining steps after export and import is driving to ye old local purveyor of drink, and making your purchase.

Drinking and Philosophy

Humphrey Bogart's dying words: “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”

That's a big admission from a big man. Bogey hails from a bygone class of man which esteemed wit, and action. SMSW isn't a drink for a fraternity party, and is not to be used as a mixer. It's a drink for genuine celebration and good company. A good night (or day) will find its way to scotch in a discreet way, evolving naturally from the occasion's upward trajectory.

In order to do the experience right there are some ideas that are fairly necessary to keep in mind. Drinking scotch isn't an opportunity to improve your swilling skills. You need a glass with some curve and convexity to it. Once the scotch is poured into the glass the bouquet immediately start to collect within the bowl of the glass and the more curved the glass, the better you can detect the different aromas (Because smell plays such a large role in taste, drinking scotch while sick or stuffed-up is not recommended),

Despite the temptation to do otherwise, one must let the scotch sit for several minutes. There's more than one way to smell too. Alternate between light wafts and deep breaths. Just try to capture and isolate the aromas; learn and appreciate them. To really begin a quest into scotch means trying different ones and figuring out what you like, and what you like is hidden in the aromas. You can roll the glass in your hand. A wide bottom to the glass lets your hand warm the whisky to slightly above room temperature. One can even add some water (never so much that the glass is more than 1/3 full since it will throw off your smelling). All these techniques serve to coax hidden aromas from the whisky and bring the bouquet into bloom.

The professionals will spend anywhere from 15 minutes to a half hour engaging in this “waltz” before tasting. I don't go this far, and if you are new to malts I don't recommend it either unless you happen to have a guide who can turn it into a learning experience.

At this point you're probably ready to just drink already. Good, the anticipation is a big part of it. I like to take a small swig and let it wash all over my tongue to get a feeling for the flavor. Then a big long taste to get a feel for the body and texture. Continue smelling intermittently and refill when appropriate or necessary.

Not every scotch will thrill you, some might not even agree with you. It's important to remember there is a veritable universe of choices. I'm a strong believer in self-exploration but this guide just wouldn't be complete without some basic recommendations.
  • Speyside 10yo
  • Glenlivet 18yo
  • Dalwhinnie 15yo
  • Aberlour 10yo

Note that older age does not mean better value, or even better taste. And whatever you do, do not let your mind equate a steep price tag with a superior malt.


We've scratched upon many topics in this short guide while generally eschewing the depth. There is much more to learn and enjoy than the simple contents of this guide. Learning more is not hard and recommended. There is a wealth of information on the internet and in the book store. Most Liquor stores carry enough handles to whet your appetite. The door is open.

As much as I enjoy whisky, it's special status, it's holiness comes keeping saving it for the right moment in time. The Hebrew word, “Kadosh” means “holy” but also means “separate”. Those things which we ordinarily deny ourselves achieve a special status in our mind's eye. We're creatures which toil from day to day. It's what brings us the most and realest satisfaction. And nestled between the long day's toing and froing are times where we can relax and reflect in good company. For these holy moments, there's a quaint Yiddish phrase I've been warming up to:

Baineh le-Baineh iz a trink bronfn oykh git.

In the meantime, a shot of whisky is also all right.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like I'm picking up a bottle for your visit. Any preferences, or is a trip to Sabo's Shabbat morning Kiddus in order?