Better Living Through Chemistry

I spent Saturday at Whisky Live. Which means I got to try a lot of excellent booze. And I got to thinking.

I used to write quite a lot about comics. And then I realised that really, I didn’t give that much of toss any more. I still read ’em, I still enjoyed ’em, but they weren’t not the objects of passion they once were. So, I stoppped writing about them. I might start again, if I get really excited about them again.

But whisky, on the other hand, still is something I love. So, let’s talk about whisky, then. In previous years, my whisky live write up has more or less consisted of a list of what I tried, and what I thought of it. This year, though, I thought I’d do something more than that. I thought I’d attempt a few essays about the drink itself. I’ll get to what I like in due course. But I thought I’d use the first of them to make sure we’re all on the same page, and talk about the basics of making the stuff. Later on, I’ll talk in more depth about the taste, and about what I like. For now, let’s just make sure we all understand how it gets into the glass, and just what it is we’re drinking.

What is whisky, then? At the most basic definition, it’s any distilled grain spirit. Everything past that is getting into technique. But, of course, it’s the technique that makes the thing, and what I’m going to tell you a bit about. But still, that definition covers Scottish, Irish, Bourbon, Rye, and hell, even corn liquor, all of which were on offer yesterday. For the purposes of this write-up, and because there’s the greatest range available within it, let’s just agree that we’re only seriously interested in Scottish variant. (Which is why I’ve been spelling the word “whisky” instead of “whiskey”. The “e” is added when referring to Irish and American versions.)

So, we start with grain. In the case of Scottish and Irish spirits, that’s barley, and nothing but. (Bourbons, on the other hand have a 51%+ corn liquor content, the remaining being made up of a mix of rye and barley liquor or sometimes just one or the other). The grain is first left to steep in water for two or three days, to germinate. And then it’s dried out again. It’s dried out for a lot of reasons. Obviously, it’s to stop the seeds from sprouting, because it’d be weird, trying to make a drink out of half grown stalks. But more importantly, it’s because before they’re dried, the seeds contain starch, which doesn’t really lend itself to fermenting that well. The drying process converts the starches in the grain into sugars. Think about it: if you leave a spud, or a bag of pasta sitting about, they’re not likely to go off in the way that say, apples, do. More’s the pity. (I feel quite strongly that more things should turn themselves into alcohol, aided only by the passage of time.) And finally: it’s during the drying process that some of the eventual flavour is imparted.

Peaty. It’s a word that’s used to describe a lot of whiskies, and it’s the drying process that imparts much of this peaty flavour. In times gone by, the grains were left spread out on huge malting floors (that’s the name for this whole process of germinating and drying, by the way: malting) that were heated by peat fires (because coal was expensive, and let’s not forget that these people were Scottish), and some of the scent from the smoke would wind up in the barley. It used to be that every distillery had it’s own maltings, but these days, most of them simply buy in ready-malted grain from specialised maltings, specifying how peaty they want their grain.

So, having got the lovely, sugary, peaty barley, it’s then coarsely ground up (too fine, and you’d just get flour) into what’s called grist, to which hot water is added, and the mixture is left in a mash tun where it is stirred and sieved repeatedly. (I simplify, but only slightly.)

At this point, it might be appropriate to remind you that this is a big industry – we’re not talking about handfuls of the stuff, we’re talking about bags and bags of it, and processes that involve great huge bastard machines at every step that generally look like they might have an unwary person’s arm off, or like they might explode at any second. Visiting a distillery is great fun, and I recommend it. Mash tuns, though, generally hold thousands and thousands of litres. At the end of its time in the mash tun, what’s left is a sweet brown liquid called worts, and the now superfluous leftovers of the grist, which is generally turned into pellets and fed to cattle.

And from here, the sugary worts is cooled to about 20 degrees, and goes on into another bastard huge container – the washback, where yeast is added, and it’s left for a couple of days to ferment.

Hold on, you might be thinking. Sweet brown liquid, left to ferment with yeast. Won’t that make beer? And the answer is, well, yes. It won’t taste like much of anything you’d want to drink (and is apparently a fairly effective laxative, so even if it did taste good, you’d be advised to steer clear), but yes, it’s a kind of beer that’s produced in the washback. In fact, since the whole process of fermentation releases carbon dioxide, the whole mixture evens develops a head on it. So the washbacks are fitted with great revolving arms inside them, near the top, to keep knocking the head down to prevent them from overflowing. They’re actually strangely soothing to watch, for some reason. Anyway, the resulting liquid is about 8% abv, which is obviously some way off what you’d expect for, you know, a proper drink. And now we get to the distilling.

And here’s another big difference between the different types of whisky. Bourbon, for example, is only distiller once. In Scotland, though, that resulting spirit is called “low wines” and sent on to be distilled again in another still. (Because stills need to be cleaned out between uses, as the process leaves some pretty nasty residue that no-one would thank you for allowing ruin the next batch.) In Ireland and a few Scottish distilleries it’s in fact distilled a third time after that – it’s what gives Irish whiskey its characteristic smoothness.

Anyway, this is all very well, but we’re still left with a clear liquid, that mostly tastes of alcohol. If I wanted that, I’d drink vodka and go blind, like the Russians. No, this is where it starts to get interesting. And by interesting, I mean “slow and lengthy”. The resulting spirit is stuck into oak barrels, and left there for years, untouched, and it’s from these barrels that the whisky gets it’s flavour.

Traditionally, these barrels were sherry casks – that is, casks that had previously been used to mature sherry. (This incidentally, means that some whiskies may not be suitable for strict vegetarians – some sherries treat the inside of their barrels with a product made from fish scales.) These days, they’re generally matured in a mixture of sherry casks and bourbon casks (because sherry casks can cost about 250 quid a throw, and bourbon casks are about a fifth that price). Bourbon, by the way is matured in barrels made from new oak, which have then been charcoaled on the inside. By law, each barrel can only be used once to make bourbon. This has less to do with flavour, incidentally, and more to do with timber industry protectionism by the American government.

There are other things sometimes done involving the barrels – some distillers paint the insides with caramel, to impart flavour and colour – this is mostly for stuff that ends up in supermarket blends, but it is done. The Macallan are doing an interesting range at the moment where the barrels are new oak. And in recent years (well, the last decade or so) there’s been a trend toward what are called “finishes”. After the whisky has lain for the appropriate number of years in it’s sherry/bourbon cask, it then spends another couple of years in a cask that has had something else in it. Port and Rum are popular, but I’ve had all sorts – Bordeaux finishes, Madeira, Sauternes, all kinds of things.

You may be thinking: well, why hasn’t he said anything about age yet? Don’t people go on about older whiskies being better? Well, I suppose that’s broadly true, but honestly, it’s a matter of personal taste. For example, the Germans and Italians apparently like they whiskies young – five or six year old malts are popular over there, and I have to admit, I’ve had a couple of very young whiskies that I might seek out if I were in the mood. But still: yes, the older, the better isn’t a bad rule of thumb. (For those keeping score at home: the spirit has to rest in barrels for at least three years before it can legally be called whisky. Before that, it’s just “spirit”.)

So, that’s almost it. Just a couple more things to talk about: blends, vs. single malts vs. cask strength, and exactly how one should drink whisky.

So, I’ve said that all the flavour in whisky comes from the casks in which it is kept. And of course, every cask is going to be slightly different. So, if you’re buying cask strength, this is whisky bottled straight from one specific cask. The only bottles that will taste exactly like it are ones from the same cask. Cask strength is also generally rather higher that the standard 40% abv – anything to about 65% isn’t too surprising.

Single malts are the product of one distillery. They are generally, though not always, marked with an age, although personally, I think that the year of bottling is a better guide (and there are distilleries that do that) as the malts will vary year to year, although perhaps not wildly. What generally happens is that the casks for a particular year’s whatever year old are vatted together and diluted down to about 40% (more about that number in a minute), so that all the bottles taste the same across the range. It’s unusual for single malts to radically change taste from year to year – part of the blenders art is to make sure they don’t, but over time, the characteristics of a particular distillery’s range of standard ages many change.

So that just leaves blends. Blends are not always bad things, contrary to what you may think. True, I wouldn’t clean my toilet with Bells, the best selling blend, or even any other supermarket blends. But that’s because they’re boring and unsubtle. Understand: in order to hold their markets, these blended drinks have to taste the same, year in, year out, and it’s an art in itself getting them to do that, but the sort of whisky that will do that easily is like a fucking sledgehammer on the taste buds. But blending whisky is an art, and if one is willing to make small runs of a given blend, and to accept that even the taste of blends can and should change, then you can make some very interesting whiskies indeed, subtle and complex things that reward the palette, instead of stamping on it.

So, that’s how you make it. How should you drink it?

However you bloody like. Drink the drink you like, in the manner you enjoy, and don’t let anyone tell you that theirs is a superior method of drinking it. Drink it neat, with water, with ice, with coke, however you like. But if you’re seriously telling me that you can tell the difference between whisky and coke made with a single malt, as opposed to made with whatever cheap rubbish is on the optic behind the bar, then believe me, I am quite prepared to call you a pretentious liar. By all means, enjoy your scotch and coke. But don’t waste good single malt on it.

(As a side note, though: the flavour of some mass-market bourbons (I believe Jack Daniels is one) is specifically designed to go very well with both ice and/or coke.)

But what’s the deal with this adding water to whisky business?

Well, at strengths significantly above about 45% abv, the alcohol in the drink will numb the taste buds. So partly, it’s that. If you’ve got a very strong whisky, cutting it with water will reduce it to the point where it doesn’t numb the tongue, so you’ll get the full flavour. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that there are a number of malts in the 50-odd% range where a slight numbing of the tongue is part of the intended tasting experience.

There’s another reason, though. The great majority of readily available bottled whiskies go through a process of chill filtering. This removes certain oils from the drink. The reason this is done, by the way, is all the fault of the Americans. The reason these oils are removed is that if water, or ice is added to the drink, they react with it, causing the drink to go slightly cloudy, and change flavour a bit. This did not go down well in America, when the fashion for ice in whisky took hold; so chill filtering became part of the process.

Happily, many distilleries now don’t chill filter their premium malts at least, so a) we can get the full flavour of the undiluted drink, and b) we can experience the change in flavour for ourselves, when we add water. But as regards how much water one should add, well, it’s a matter of taste. My general rule of thumb is to keep the abv as close to 40% as I can manage, so if it’s a strong single cask, it’ll be 1 part water to 2 parts whisky. If it’s a standard non-chill filtered 40% malt, then I’ll add really not more than a couple of drops – just enough to change the flavour (if, indeed I prefer the changed flavour) but no more.

But you should do it how you like.

I hope you found that interesting. If you didn’t, then you’re obviously some kind of barbarian. Next time (when I get the time to write it) I’ll talk in more depth a bit about the characteristics of various different kinds of whisky.

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