In Britain, whisky without the ‘e’ is Scottish and whiskey with the ‘e’ is Irish. Our favourite can depend on which part of Britain we originate from, there being an understandable loyalty value. On the whole, I favour Scotch, but many whiskeys from Ireland can challenge the best.
Discovering whisky, the water of life
The word whisky has its origins in the Gaelic ‘usquebaugh’ meaning ‘water of life’. It is assumed that European Monks brought distilled wine into Scotland and Ireland about 1,000 years ago. There is much (mostly) light-hearted discussion about which country was first to establish whisky as we now know it.
Scotch whisky is aged in oak casks for at least three years. In fact, the law dictates that it cannot be called whisky if it isn’t at least three years old. The spelling (without the ‘e’) is also legally protected.
For all whiskies, the manufacturing process is fairly simple: all that is needed is grain, water and yeast. But of course, like with many things, the devil is in the detail. The grain is first warmed and turned to encourage germination and the appearance of the first tiny green shoots, then it is placed in a large mash tub along with the water and yeast which will start the fermentation process, then it is distilled in a large copper still.
The still is like a large kettle with a long spout at the top. The liquid is boiled in the still and the alcohol-containing steam evaporates in the spout and is then collected in the spirit safe, which is a secure bonding area as it is now a spirit and is subject to government excise duty.
Quality and subtleties of whisky
There are many subtle differences in this process between distilleries throughout the world, and often within the same distillery, but the basics are the same. If it is based on grain even if it’s called Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, Tennessee, Rye, Canadian or Japanese, then it is whisky or whiskey.
The quality and subtleties of each whisky are dictated by the purity of the water, the quality of the grain, the skill of the distiller, what type of barrel is available, what was in the barrel before it was used to store the whisky, how long it is stored and in what environment and conditions the barrel was stored in. All these and more dictate the taste, character and flavours.
Bolster Moor Malt Whisky Appreciation Society
I am one of the two remaining proud founder members of the Bolster Moor Malt Whisky Appreciation Society. We meet two to three times a year, each meeting being hosted by one of the dozen members, each member and their whisky-drinking guests bringing along a bottle of whisky for the gathered assembly to sample and then take it home at the end of the evening.
The photo above is a typical sample of whiskies that are enjoyed. Later in the evening, we have a blind tasting: one guest will be invited to leave the room and a glass of one of the assembled whiskies is poured and the guest returns to describe and point at their chosen bottle. This can, and usually does, result in much hilarity, as can be seen in the photos below. In the first, we have Graham – the society chair and a fine gentleman and a scholar (and the other remaining founder member). In the second image, another Graham and I are enjoying a whisky and welcoming its mild, soothing effects.
Descriptions of the taste of whiskies differ within the group. Some may describe the flavour as ‘a marshmallow on a razor blade’, or ‘red jelly babies’. However, it is the efforts of our chairperson Graham that leave the witnessing group spellbound with admiration.
He may claim that it’s the distillery that has the dinted still, or another that sits facing the prevailing southerly breeze blowing over the kelp beds, then chooses the wrong bottle, claiming he couldn’t remember which distillery uses the dinted still or sits near the kelp beds. His poetic excuses for getting it wrong can often match his earlier whisky description. I think he does it on purpose, but it is definitely one of the evening highlights.
How to enjoy a good whisky
There is a proper civilised way to enjoy good whisky, and chairman Graham is demonstrating part of the ritual. A good malt is not to be thrown back and gulped. A tulip grass is best for concentrating the nose (aroma) and flavours. A very small amount of water only is permitted and this can, in fact, release more of the flavours, particularly when sampling cast-strength whiskies, as these have been bottled straight from the barrel and not diluted to the distilleries’ normal strengths.
This whisky can be double the normal alcohol content and if water is not added to the glass, all that is experienced is power and many of the subtleties are lost. The nose is also an important sense in whisky appreciation.
Adding mixers or ice is for heathens, and anybody attempting to do so would be immediately forced to do the washing up and not invited back. An acceptable technique would be to hold the glass up to the light and swirl the contents around witnessing how it sticks to the glass. Several more swirls and sniffs are then to be expected, and then, and only then, can the whisky be sipped, accompanied by more sniffs and swirls followed by appreciative noises, and then like Graham, we get it wrong.
Time for a laugh
Jesus was sat across the breakfast table from God and asked, “Na-then Dad, I haven’t seen you for a few days, where have you been?”.
“I’ve been travelling around Yorkshire”, replied God.
“But there’s been a pandemic going on down there for years what was you doing?”.
“Just working from home son, just working from home.”