Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What Makes One Scotch Taste Different From Another?

What makes one scotch taste different from another?  All scotches use only barley so why does one scotch taste different from another?  As you might suspect there are many reasons.  Some of them are:  1. How many times is the spirit distilled?  2.  What type of cask is the spirit aged in?  3.  How many years has the spirit been allowed to age?  4.  How good was the water used in the distillation process?  5.  How was the barley dried (peat with lots of smoke, some smoke, no smoke, gas heat, other)?  6.  How good was the master distiller at their task of choosing and mixing the casks that will make the run?    Let us look at these items one at a time.  1: First how many times was the spirit distilled?  In each distilling the first alcohol to come down the pipe is not the ethyl alcohol that we are looking for.  The first little bit contains other alcohols that can and will give you a terrible headache.  So the distiller discards the first bit to come out of the still.  The remainder of the run is then mostly ethyl alcohol.  In each distilling a little more of the bad alcohols are eliminated and after three distillings we should find that our spirit is almost entirely the ethyl alcohol that we seek.  So look for a whisky that is distilled more than once if possible.  The bottom shelf stuff is mostly distilled only one time so it is cheaper to produce and is much more likely to give you a terrible headache than is the middle or top shelf selections.   2;&3:  Scotch usually starts its aging process in used oak barrels from bourbon distilleries in America although brand new oak barrels could be used.  Then after a few years the whisky can(or not) be transferred to other used barrels from sherry, port, sauterne, rum, or champagne producers and as you can imagine each different selection will impart a different taste to the final product.  Some distillers even employ a third type of barrel.  This might go like 6 years in oak barrels then 6 years in sherry barrels and finally 6 years in port barrels.  This method gives a lot of different and new flavors to a distiller’s product and has proven quite popular with the consuming public.  Remember these barrels are aged in Scotland and each summer the barrels get warm and the wood opens up allowing some of the spirit to flow into the wood.  This is followed by the colder winter when the barrels close up in the colder conditions forcing the whisky out of the wood and back into the barrel.  The more years this is repeated the more of the whisky that gets to be flavored by the wood.  There are scientists experimenting today (see Popular Science Magazine) with using pressure techniques to force the spirit into and out of the wood to make a whisky in just a few weeks  that (supposedly) is the equivalent of that same spirit spending 15 or 20 years resting in a cask.  If that technique is ever widely accepted, (and works as well as they say) then one might see excellent whisky produced in a few months instead of years.  We shall see.  4.  This one is just common sense.  If you use good clean pure water your whisky cannot help but taste better than if you had used nasty dirty water.  So we want a whisky that uses really good water not only in the distilling process but also in the bottling process because we must remember that water is always added to all whisky when it is bottled except for cask strength versions.  Glenfiddich advertises that they are the only distillery in Scotland to actually bottle their whisky on site although Balvinie is right next door to Glenfiddich (Speyside area) and they use the Glenfiddich bottling facility.  All others are trucked to the big cities in big tankers that look like gasoline tankers with no markings.   5.  This one too is fairly obvious.  If you use barley that was malted (heated) over peat fires that allow all the smoke to caress the grain then the whisky will taste smokier than if one uses barley that is malted over a non-peat fire or a peat fire that allows most of the smoke to go elsewhere.  This is just your own preference and somewhere on the bottle it should tell you if the whisky you are about to buy is smoky in nature or not.  I don’t care for a lot of smoke but a small bit is nice.  Highland Park has just the right amount for me but most of the Islay Whiskies are a bit too strong smoke wise for my preference. So just try several brands and choose the smoke level that is right for your tastes.  6.  The master distiller has a big say in what their product tastes like and in how consistently it is produced.  Even though scotch from one malting is called a single malt scotch, many barrels can be made out of one malting.  The master distiller and blender then has to take small samples from each cask and mix and match them until they come up with the combination that best fits their brand and their high standards of production.  Usually if a distiller produces a good single malt and a barrel is found wanting during the testing by the Master distiller/blender then that barrel that did not measure up will be sold off to a different distiller who specializes in blended whisky.  Once the lab work has been done and the barrels have been selected to be combined all the barrels from that batch are emptied into a mixing vat and after the mixing is done the batch can be loaded onto trucks and shipped to the bottler.  The only thing that remains then is to label it, box it, and ship it to your favorite store so you can make your purchase and begin to enjoy the fruits of their labors.  These are some of the things that make one scotch taste different from another one.  I hope you enjoy your favorite dram soon,
The Whiskey Warrior.


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