Malt Whisky

Malt Whisky
Malt Whisky
It is perhaps strange that a small wet country on the far northwest fringe of Europe should produce a cult drink that has captured the world's imagination. For 'cult' is the only way to describe single malt Scotch these days. It has crossed boundaries of class, age and sex: cherished by tweedy colonels and hipper-than-thou urbanites, malt has never had it so good.

It wasn't always like this. As recently as the mid-1970s few people had ever tasted a single malt. Scotch meant blends, and malt distilleries were simply the suppliers of fillings for the big brands. That in itself was a far cry from malt's rural beginnings.

Distilling was part of the Highland way of life and there was a pleasing rhythm to it. 11 WM a way to use up surplus grain, the i .iltlc could be fed on the draff and the I'xceiS production could be sold or bartered. The first signs of the modern malt industry emerged after the failure of the 1745 rebellion, when draconian laws effectively outlawed Highland culture. By restricting i In; production and sale of Highland malt, I ho government forced people off the land. I Itose who stayed were soon criminalized, .is they were forced into illegal distillation ,md smuggling to make ends meet.

A change in the law in 1823 paved the way for tenant farmers, landowners and entrepreneurs to take over production. Larger plants were built and, when blended whisky appeared in the 1850s, malt became part of a new-look industry. It's only now, as blends have fallen from favour, that single malt is able to shine.

Today, most malt drinkers regard single malt much as they regard fine wine -distilleries make regional specialities through their unique terroir, don't they? Well, regionality is a starting point, but that's all; if there is a Speyside style it is born from production and not terroir. If Mr Grant realized that Mr Smith was selling lots of whisky, isn't it likely that Mr Grant would try and make his whisky taste vaguely the same? There are exceptions, such as Islay, where the peat is different and malts matured in the island's sea-lashed warehouses will absorb some of the spume-laden air. But the beauty of Islay is that it never behaves in the same way as the rest of Scotland.

So what makes each malt a distinct individual? Water has a slight effect, particularly if it has run over peat and picked up phenolics. The type of malt used may also have an impact, though only two distillers insist on using one strain for its flavours. Even malting is a fairly standardized - if highly skilled - process. Flavour can appear here if peat is used in the kilning, but most modern malt is unpeated.

In most malts, flavour begins in the washbacks. If you ferment for less than 48 hours the spirit will have a nutty-spicy character; any longer and you start introducing more complex flavour compounds. Ultimately, though, it's down to the shape and size of the stills, the speed at which they are run, the size of the middle cut and how the vapour is condensed. The shape directs how the vapour rises up the neck, tall stills should produce a lighter spirit, as the heavier alcohols fail to make it up the neck. Conversely, short and fat stills should give a heavier result. The length of the cut will then affect character; the wider the cut, more rich, powerful congeners are collected and this is where peatiness lurks; while worm tubs tend to produce a meatier spirit than condensers.

Finally, there's the forgotten element -wood. Up to 60 per cent of a malt's flavour comes from the barrel, and each type of cask interacts with the new make spirit in a different way. A clever distiller can play as many tunes by blending wood types as he can with the stills. This is not to dismiss malt distilling as coldly scientific; the more you delve into its mysteries the more bizarre it becomes. The spirit of the spirit remains enigmatic, elusive, magical. Long may it remain so.

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About The Author, Mario Oreilly