Whisky or whiskey? Some of you may think it’s just a matter of orthography, but there is a distinct difference between these two drinks. The controversy will be brought up surely during the Saint Patrick’s Day – when both Scotch whisky and Irish whisk(e)y will be amongst the top beverages throughout the world.
Saint Patrick’s Day’s origins are blurred, but the celebration is mainly associated with Ireland, as Patrick is their patron saint. There is actually a whole narrative about him becoming a Christian and a priest, which can be found in The Declaration – a document believed to have been written by St Patrick himself, describing the way he became the man who evangelised Northern Ireland. The other customs associated with the celebration also refer to legendary events from the saint’s life – wearing green clothes and shamrocks is associated with a legend in which Patrick used the shamrock to describe the notion of the Holy Trinity to the Irish Pagans.
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The celebrations are held on 17th March because that was the day when Patrick died. The biggest festivities are organised in Downpatrick, where the saint is allegedly buried. The drinking custom is said to be connected with another legend. Patrick bought a measure of whiskey from an innkeeper – but it certainly wasn’t full, and Patrick took the opportunity to teach the man a lesson that would make him more generous. St. Patrick said that there was a demon in the inn’s cellar that could not be banished because it fed on the innkeeper’s greed and lack of generosity. The man was horrified and changed his attitude – after some time, Patrick returned to find that the man now filled the glasses fairly and was good and honest. So Patrick took the inn-keeper to the cellar, where they found the devil skinny and starving – Patrick banished the demon away and said that everyone should have a sip of alcohol during his feast day to commemorate this. Whatever the origins were – the tradition of beer and whiskey drinking stays strong. So, which whisk(e)y orthography is correct, what are you actually drinking and what is the difference anyway?
Read something about the Picts – you may be in the 10%!
Whiskey is generally the name for a liquor most commonly of Irish or American origin. Whisky is a term associated mostly with the Scottish version and the liquors produced in Japan (although the word Scotch belongs only to the liquor produced in Scotland). What is more, the Scottish version is distilled twice, while the other ones are distilled three times, which results in a smoother taste. Much of the confusion arises from the fact that the spelling ‘whisky’ is the only one accepted by the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits in the USA. On the other hand, The New York Times names everything ‘whiskey’ – whatever the origin of the drink. The confusion becomes even bigger if we count in the misspellings such as ‘wisky’ or ‘wiskey’, and the fact that the Japanese and Indian versions are, like Scotch whisky, spelled without an ‘e’. But the deeper into the production process we look, the more differences can be spotted between the Scotch and other whisk(e)ys, however spelled or pronounced. The shape of the still used for production in Scotland vary much more than in the distilleries in America or Ireland, so the Scotch scents and flavours are more diverse. Secondly, the Scots use peat to dry the malted barley – which gives a stronger and smokier flavour than the one achieved in the US and Ireland, where wood and other fuels are used. Thirdly, Scotch is made only with malted barley, while other whisk(e)ys may be made with the addition of some other types of grains. In fact, history and economics decided this; barley is quite an expensive grain, so cheaper and more readily available ones are mixed together with it in many non-Scotch whisk(e)ys. What is more, the American climate and soil is different from that found in the British Isles, so settlers had to use different methods to grow their grains and distill the liquors – hence the difference in taste and general character of the finished drinks.
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The differences, similarities, types and distillery characteristics are all quite confusing. Whatever the actual spelling is, we recommend checking what suits your tastes best. Whisk(e)y isn’t about the spelling – the national Scottish drink is a big part of the British history, and now it has become a trademark for both Scots and Irish people worldwide. Wherever you are – we hope you’ll have a sip of nice, genuine Scotch on 17th March!
After a great Bank Holiday, we’re back with more great Scottish lore and knowledge for you – today we take a closer look at the Scotch whisky industry! Last year, we examined some of Scotland’s finest whiskies and gave you our top picks for each of the regional malts – this time we aim to look a little deeper and give a small glimpse into the process by which Scotch whisky is made.
Firstly of course, the ingredients and water used are of paramount importance. With only three parts to the recipe; barley, water and yeast, each of these must be perfect to obtain the correct flavour and bouquet that the distillery will be aiming for. Most distilleries are built on or very near to a source of clean water, such as a spring or borehole. Scotland has some of the world’s purest fresh water and the region the water originates from may affect the final taste of the whisky, for example water in the Highlands will travel through peat earth, giving it a higher mineral content (also known as hard water) which can result in a richer character to the finished whisky. Local water is used at every stage of the distillery process, so it is important for brewers to ensure that the same source of water and type of water processing (uncommon, but may be used to remove unwanted mineral build-up in the Islay region where water can be very hard for example).
Barley is also very important to whisky makers, though nowadays there is less emphasis on it being sourced locally in comparison to local pure water which is still very much an important asset for any distillery. Barley used for whisky making is generally very hardy, and variants with a high sugar content are preferred. Some distilleries, like Bruichladdich on Islay, have returned to their local and organic roots and are experimenting with ancient strains of barley, like those used by the first humans to develop agriculture, but many others import barley from large scale farmers instead of growing their own. The final ingredient for making Scotch whisky is brewer’s yeast. This gives the whisky its alcohol content via fermentation so is undoubtedly essential!
The process of turning these simple ingredients into the fabled Scottish Water of Life begins with malting the barley. In this stage, barley is steeped in water for 2-3 days then spread on a stone floor to germinate for a minimum of one week. It will be turned from time to time, to prevent a build up of heat from the developing grain using a traditional Shiel – a specially designed wooden shovel, or by a variety of more modern methods. Once the barley has germinated it is dried in a kiln using peat or coke as a fuel; peat is favoured by many as it gives the final product a smoky and earthy flavour. The final step of the malting is to dress the barley, where the stalks are removed. Malting used to all be done within the distillery, and still is in some cases, but most Scottish distilleries now outsource this part of the process to experienced maltsters who can ensure the barley is treated and developed perfectly.
After malting, the barley is ground up into a flour-like substance known as grist then mixed with hot water and poured into a mash tun where it is mixed to encourage the enzymes developed during the malting process to convert starch into sugars. The resulting sugary run-off is called wort and is captured for use in the next stage, while the leftover barley is called draff and is sold as feed for farm animals. The wort is allowed to cool then has yeast added to convert the sugars into ethanol and give the whisky its alcoholic content. This process takes around 2 days and the result is a malt beer with an alcohol content of around 10%.
The next part is the distillation proper, and is quite complicated! The malt beer is introduced to a copper still known as a wash where the temperature will be raised so the alcohol boils off, leaving the “pot ale” behind, which again is used as animal feed. The alcohol vapour is siphoned off and plunged into cold water to allow it to revert back to a liquid form, now called “low wines”. This process is repeated again, in a spirit still instead of wash still the second time. The resulting liquid is divided into three portions, the second of these is the only one used immediately; this is called the “new make” and has an alcohol content of around 60-75%. The first portion, “the foreshot”, and the last portion, “the feints” are undesirable and are returned to the wash still to begin the process again.
The “new make” spirit is now ready for casking. This is the method by which all Scotch whiskies are matured to go from the raw, colourless condition they are in at this stage, to the smooth, smoky golden drink beloved worldwide. The type of cask is very important and could be considered the fourth ingredient in making real Scottish malt whisky, as age of the wood and previous contents of the cask will affect the final flavour. All casks are oak, some will be new while the majority will have been previously used to mature American whiskey (as the producers of this must use new casks for each batch), or Spanish sherry. The spirit will be matured for a minimum of three years and up to an amazing 40 years! Each year a small amount of evaporation will occur, reducing the amount of whisky in the barrel, and lowering the alcohol content of what remains. This is known as the “angels share” and very tight casks are much sought after as they can help to reduce this issue. Finally, after the prescribed maturation time, the spirit is bottled, either straight from the cask at full-strength, or after dilution with de-mineralised water, and another in the line of millions of bottles of true Scotch whisky is born!
We hope you have enjoyed this look into the procedures behind the creation of Scotch whisky; as a process developed over hundreds of years, it is a product that Scotland distilleries are understandably proud and protective of. The methods used to make Scotch whisky are enshrined in Scots law, though of course there is room for innovation whether that be distilleries such as Bruichladdich who wish to return to their traditional roots, or others such as Balvenie who have experimented with the last few years of maturation being done in old rum barrels to impart an exotic flavour to their product. As always we’d love to hear from you in the comments – what was your best ever Scotch experience?!
As November begins the Christmas atmosphere takes hold for good and buying gifts comes to the forefront of everyone’s minds; rich Christmas trees in town squares, decorations in shopping centres (hopefully with some featuring Scottish tartans!) and lots of festively themed slogans on the storefronts calling to us to make our holiday purchases. With every merchant out there claiming their goods as “the best” for friends and family alike, let’s try to find the truth and look at this year’s top Scottish trends for festive gifts.
Electronic devices are still popular, as they have been for several years now. These devices are becoming more and more a part of everyday life for many segments of the population, from young children playing games, to teenagers communicating with friends, businessmen working during their commute, or even retirees staying in touch with a global family! But when the person you have in mind already has all the gadgets one could wish for, what’s left? One wonderful idea is a high-quality protective case, perfect to ensure that no harm comes to the delicate and important device within – and to add a touch of Scottish culture, it must of course be tartan! As tartan is a popular fashion trend as well this season, nothing could be more fitting – and personal too since the range of tartans available nowadays makes it possible to find any family or commemorative tartan one could wish for.
However, while electronic devices, and their cases, are carried by people almost all day, there is a gift which has a special role to play while relaxing in the evenings. A fine pair (or more) of whisky glasses is an essential item for any true Scotsman’s liquor cabinet, and for full throttle whisky enthusiasts only a bottle of the Water of Life itself would rival the gift’s popularity! Beautiful crystal glasses can be engraved with clan crests and other meaningful symbols or messages as well, making this present even more special in linking together the Scottish sensibilities of appreciating their culture and family as much as a fine dram.
Another item to ensure a pleasant winter’s night (though warming in a different way than the whisky will be!), is a tartan rug. Now available in a range of luxurious wools, including cashmere, and a huge range of tartans, this makes a universally popular Christmas gift. Just imagine curling up cosily under the thick, soft blanket, with a hot cup of tea, watching Christmas trees lights blinking merrily while outside all is cold and snowy. Who wouldn’t enjoy this? Therefore, you can be sure this type of gift will be pleasing to almost anyone, except perhaps the very young – who would rather be outside building snowmen – but at least everyone else can watch them in comfort!
But if the blanket seems to be too excessive for someone, try instead a tried and true present idea – socks! Many people avoid these as a gift now, since they have such a reputation for being an over-used and boring gift, but no one will expect tartan socks under the tree or in their stocking on Christmas morning! Another great present fitting in with this category would be kilt hose for the Scotsman in your life. Perhaps a colour they haven’t tried before such as lovat blue, ancient green or a soft charcoal grey – or go for the superiorly luxurious hand knitted Clansman style? But if you’re intimidated by these choices, the usual black or cream hose are always a popular choice; they go with every kilt and no Scotsman can ever have too many pairs of these!
This Christmas season is sure to bring lots of joy and happiness to you all, at least in part through the gifts exchanged between well-loved family and friends as we celebrate together. As you anticipate what you will find under the Christmas tree on this December 25th remember to hold the Scottish spirit of Christmas dear, and think of how you can impart this to your loved ones as well. With the tartan trends rising high again this winter the beloved pattern won’t be difficult to find and incorporate into your own special festive celebrations!
Whisky is the quintessential Scottish tipple, only Irn Bru is as strongly associated with land of kilts! Although whiskies are produced worldwide – much in the same way that true Champagne refers only to sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France, Scotch whisky can only be named as such if it has been genuinely produced in Scotland. With a thriving industry of traditional and innovative distilleries, Scotland is justifiably revered for it’s delicious and intoxicating whisky elixirs.
Evidence suggests that the whisky industry has been established in Scotland since at least the 15th century – and the naming process that led to its eventual moniker is almost as complicated as the process of distillation itself! Fermented drinks made using cereal were generally known as “aqua vitae”, Latin for “Water of life”. The Gaelic term for this same phrase is “usquebaugh”, and over time this became anglicised to the word whisky which is so familiar today!
There are several different types of Scotch whisky, the best known of course being the classic single malt Scotch and that will be our focus back today. Scotland is divided into roughly four main whisky producing regions, the Islands, Highlands, Lowlands and Speyside areas. Each region produces whiskies with properties unique to that area, due to differences in the type of grain and the water available. We shall now examine each of these in a little more detail – with a focus on some of the best single malts each region has to offer!
Beginning in the rolling hills of the Lowlands, these single malts are generally lighter and fresher than some of their more northerly counterparts. Cereal and floral flavours come to the front due to the absence of peat used when drying the barley, and the preferred triple distillation process in this region. These are often an ideal introduction to the world of whisky to the uninitiated, as the tastes tend not be as complicated or challenging to contemporary tastes as some whiskies can be. The Glenkinchie distillery operates from only around 20 miles outside of Edinburgh’s city centre, and is a recent award winner for its 12 year old single malt, which is known for its sweet and creamy palate.
Moving to Speyside, a region once considered part of the Highlands area, but now given its own regional tag thanks to the high concentration of distilleries in this small area – over half of all those found in the whole of Scotland! With such a profusion of distilleries, there are of course huge variances in flavours, but generally the Speyside whiskies are known for their delicate and fruity taste, and are especially famed for their sherry-casked malts. These are created when the whisky is allowed to mature in a cask previously used for making fortified wine, giving the resulting single malt Scotch a more full-bodied flavour and interesting palate. Speyside is home to the famous MacAllan, widely described as one of the most perfect of all Scottish whiskies.
The Highland region comes next, and immediately invokes wonderful images of warrior clansmen in kilts and plaid, quaichs filled to the brim with glowing golden whisky, and thistle and heather covered hills– and rightly so! The romantic image of the Highlands isn’t just a dream, definitely not when it comes to whisky at least! As geographically this is by far the largest region, many different micro-climates prevail, which can affect the taste of the barley used in whisky-making. As such it is difficult to pin down a characteristic flavour for this area; with maritime influences giving a tendency towards salty, smoky flavours on the West coast, and sweet heathery tastes further North. The Dalwhinnie is the only whisky in Scotland which uses water from Lochan an Doire Uaine, in the Drumochter Hills, and their result is a honeyed and smooth single malt, with just enough spice to keep it interesting for a more well-seasoned whisky drinker. Alternatively, the Oban is a great example of a West Highland single malt Scotch, with spicy and peaty flavours along with a drier finish to show off its coastal influences.
And as we finally reach the coast, it’s only a short hop over the water to our final region, the Scottish Islands, which for the purposes of whisky making mainly concentrates on Islay. Islay malts are particularly revered among Scotch whisky connoisseurs for their complex qualities, combining peat, smoke and brine into densely flavoured whiskies that the uninitiated may find harsh or even medicinal to the tongue. Bruichladdich is a good introduction to these “peat monsters” as the flavour is much lighter than in many other examples, while retaining the characteristic taste of a true Islay whisky. For the more adventurous tippler, Bunnahabhain is an excellent choice – with a glass of this in your hand, a kilt round your waist, and the gorgeous rugged landscape of the Scottish isles before you, there’s no doubt you’ll feel truly at home in this ancient and historic land!
As such an important part of the Scottish economy over the centuries, whiskey also holds an important place in Scottish culture too. The quaich mentioned earlier is a special type of two-handled drinking bowl used to serve whisky on special occasions. Nowadays this is commonly given as a christening gift for a little boy, or a larger version as a wedding gift to symbolise that it will be a shared cup in the same way that the happy couple will share their lives. The methods of serving whisky day-to-day are also all-important; the generally accepted ways are to drink your single malt straight, or mixed with distilled water. Drinking your Scotch with ice-cubes or with a soft drink mixer is usually frowned upon, but not completely unknown. Each method will result in a different drinking experience of the same whisky, as the scents and flavours are changed by temperature and dilution rating so this is of course a highly personal choice. A good, Scottish whiskey is of course essential to take with you when “first-footing” at the New Year, and never goes wrong most other days of the year as well! In the end however, the most important thing to remember when drinking a single malt whisky, is to raise your glass, catch your companion’s eye and wish them good health in true Gaelic style – “Slainte Mhath”!
Do you have particular favourite single malt? Or perhaps you prefer a grain or blended whisky? Let us know in the comments!