Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sláinte Mhath!

'We hae wandered far and wide, o’er Scotland’s hills, o’er firth and fell’. The lyrics of a Dougie Maclean song play in my head as I sip from a dram of Glenkinchie 12 year old, lowland single malt whisky. The sweet, light colored malt has the character of lemon, cut grass and a touch of peat. The taste lingers on my tongue and brings me back to one of the happiest times of my life, when I lived in Scotland.

When in Scotland, whether you live there or travel there on holiday, you have the distinct and memorable opportunity to tour one or more whisky (spelled without an ‘e’ in Scottish English) distilleries. Distilling whisky is something the Scots take great pride in and once you visit, you’ll understand why.

There are about 125 whisky distilleries (some active and some retired) throughout the different regions of the country, each with its own unique characteristics and beautiful landscape. Each whisky is different, too. Whisky from each region differs in aroma, color, and taste. There are four traditional Scotch whisky regions; the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, and Speyside.

Highland whiskies cover a broad spectrum of styles. They are generally aromatic, smooth and medium bodied, with palates that range from lush complexity to floral delicacy. The sub regions of the Highlands include Speyside; the North, East and West Highlands; the Orkney Isles; and the Western Islands (Arran, Jura, Mull, and Skye).

Highland whiskies are my favorite because they differ so greatly from one another. I love that the water, the climate, the shape of the still, the type of wood used for the storage barrel and number of other variables give each whisky different characteristics. I’ve had the privilege of visiting three Highland whisky distilleries; Arran, Talisker, and Glengoyne.

Arran Distillery is located on the small Isle of Arran, also known as ‘Scotland in Miniature’. If you listed the most attractive features of Scotland and then tried to squeeze them into a medium sized island, you’d end up with the Scottish Isle of Arran. The fourteen year-old single malt from Arran’s only whisky distillery tastes of toffee, apples, and hazelnuts. The finish is salty and rich. Visitors to Arran’s Distillery can enjoy a dram of the award winning single malt in the visitor centre bar. Don’t miss the Arran cheese platter that features oak smoked cheddar to accompany your whisky.

Arran Distillery
 Glengoyne is a distillery north Glasgow in the Highland village of Dumgoyne and is regularly regarded as ‘the most beautiful distillery in Scotland’. Glengoyne is unique because it produces Highland single malt whisky that is matured in the Lowlands. Located on the Highland Line, the division between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, Glengoyne’s stills are in the Highlands while the maturing casks of whisky rest across the road in the Lowlands. Unlike many malt whisky distilleries, Glengoyne does not use peat smoke to dry their barley, but instead uses warm air. Because of the lack of peat smoke, Glengoyne whisky is golden yellow, clear and bright. The characteristics are clean, clear, nutty, and the finish is sweet and warm.

Glengoyne Distillery
Talisker is one of my favorite whiskies. It is a premium whisky and the eighteen year old malt is widely regarded as the best whisky in the world. Talisker is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. Skye is renown for its natural beauty. The characteristics of the fresh spring water and misty salty sea air can be tasted in Talisker’s malts.

Talisker malts are peated which means the damp malt is dried over a peat heated fire and the smoke gets into the barley. The difference in the smokiness of the whisky depends on the time the barley is exposed to the peat smoke. If you pour a few drops of the whisky on the palm of your hand and then rub your hands together you can actually smell the peat smoke! Talisker malts are some of the smokiest outwith Islay... the smokey whisky region.
Talisker Distillery
Highland whiskeys vary greatly from one another; Islay malts are generally very smokey, Speyside malts are usually full-flavored and full-bodied, and lowland malts are characteristically triple distilled, sweet and light.
Glenkinchie Distillery
My favorite lowland distillery is Glenkinchie, located in the small, rural village of Pencaitland, twenty miles from Edinburgh. This is a fairly typical lowland whisky in that it is fresh and light in character, with notes of lemon and cut grass. A sweet nose and a hint of peat smoke make this a good introduction to the world of single malts. Glenkinchie, and most other distilleries, offer a visitor tour and explanation of the whisky making process.

Making whisky begins with barley which is made wet and left to germinate, spread across a malting floor. The trick to malting is stopping the germination before it gets too far along but letting is germinate long enough to convert the starch in the barley to sugar. This step takes a lot of attention as the barley must be turned over regularly and constant moisture and temperature must be maintained. The end of the germination period is marked by the drying of the barley over a fire, often heated by peat.

When the malt is dry it is ground into coarse flour called grist. The grist is added to hot water in a giant vat called a mash tun. The grist and the hot water produce a sugary liquid called wort which is then put in a wood or stainless steel vat called a wash back. Yeast is added in order to start the fermentation process. The yeast and sugar produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. At this stage the wort becomes a strong, flat beer.
Wash Backs at Glenkinchie
The next step is distillation which changes the liquid from a beer into a spirit. Distillation separates the alcohol from the water and other substances in the wash. The alcohol is transformed into a vapor before the water begins evaporating. The distillation happens in a copper still and the shape, height, length and the quality of the copper still each has a part to play in the final taste and characteristics of the whisky.

Stills at Glenkinchie
Scotch whisky is generally distilled two times and sometimes three times. The first distillation produces alcohol vapors called ‘low wine’, which is about 21% alcohol. It is distilled again in a smaller still called a spirit still. During the second distillation, only the alcohol that is between 63% and 72% will be casked in oak barrels. The cask also gives different characteristics to the whisky. Some malts are stored in bourbon or sherry casks which impart color and flavor.

The Spirit Still at Glenkinchie
To have the legal right to be called whisky, it must be stored in a cask for a minimum of three years. Over the course of storage, often much longer than three years, between 1% and 2% of the whisky evaporates. This is called the ‘Angels Share’.

After at least three years in a wooden cask the spirit is bottled. Generally the longer the whisky sits in the cask the more flavor and characteristics it possesses. Unlike wine, whisky doesn’t mature in the bottle so a twelve year whisky stays a twelve year whisky.

Scotland makes me excited and whisky, a big part of Scotland, also makes me excited. Whisky is the subject of song and poem, the heartbeat of many Scottish traditions, the muse to many and the catalyst to friendly gatherings. It warms people during the cold, dark winter nights and refreshes into the late, bright summer evenings.

Whether you enjoy whisky with a drop of water to release the natural oils, with a cube of ice to chill it, or if you even like it at all; distillation is a time-honored and culturally rich tradition in Scotland. A distillery tour is a must-do attraction when visiting the homeland. Sláinte Mhath! (pronounced 'slanzh-va', which means 'good health' or 'cheers’ in Gaelic)

Photos: Bethany Smith, Arran Distillery Ltd.,

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