Okay then, enough already about castles, battles, and dead people. Let’s get serious and learn about something important. Scotch! Where it came from, how it’s made, and of course, the proper method for consuming this nectar of the peat bogs.
The word whiskey comes from the Gaelic usquebaugh which means Water of Life. Over time the pronunciation evolved into usky then, with the influence of the English, whisky. Whether called Scotch Whisky, Scotch, or Whisky (as opposed to Whiskey) the water of life has found a market around the world.
Scotch is exclusively Scottish. The term is internationally protected by Scotland. For whisky to be called Scotch it MUST be made in Scotland. Scotch cannot be made anywhere else in the world but at home in Scotland. Other countries may produce what is called whiskey but not Scotch whisky.
An entry in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494: “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae” is the earliest found record of distilling in Scotland. The amount of malt listed was enough to produce 1,500 bottles of Scotch. Also there is the legend that St. Patrick brought distilling to Ireland
as early as the fifth century AD and it was taken from there to Scotland at around 500 AD.
Originally, distilling was used to manufacture perfume but in time was applied to wine as well. Finally the process was applied to mashes of grain cereals in areas where grapes did not readily grow. The resulting product was universally called Aqua Vitae (water of life) and was generally made in the monasteries. Its chief use was medicinal, prescribed to preserve health, lengthen life, and to relieve colic, palsy and even smallpox. Ireland boasted distilleries in many monasteries in the late twelfth century.
King James IV of Scotland had a taste for ‘ardent spirits.’ He visited Dundee in 1506 and according to the treasury accounts payment was made to a local barber for a supply of aqua vitae for the king’s pleasure. In 1505 the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh was granted a monopoly over manufacturing aqua vitae which adds to the history of strong spirits being for medicinal purposes.
Early Scotch making equipment was primitive which made for stronger whisky than the refined ambrosia that we enjoy today. It was potent and sometimes harmful to the human consumers. In the 15th century factors that contributed to the refinement of distilling included better design of the stills and, with the rise of Protestantism, the breaking up of the Catholic monasteries and the church’s domination of the distilling process. Many of the disenfranchised monks had no choice but to use what skills they had to earn a living. This led to the spread of distilling to the general population and the betterment
As the industry grew, it attracted the attention of Scottish Parliament, which jumped at the chance of new revenue and in the late 17th century implemented new taxes on malt the product produced through distilling, namely Scotch. These taxes increased until the Acts of Union in 1707 as England tried to tame the rebellious Scots. Distillation went underground. Sounds kind of like Prohibition and bootleggers in the US during the early mid 20th century. A battle ensued between the excisemen, or gaugers, and the outlaw distillers that were both violent and long. Outlaw stills were set up, hidden in the hills and away from prying eyes. (Can you say Moonshine, Elliott Ness, revenuers and Al Capone?) By the 1820s more than half of the whisky consumed in Scotland came from these stills without paying any duty at all.
As in America so in Scotland the solution to this criminal activity was to legalize the stills. In 1823 the Excise Act was passed whereby distilling whisky was allowed for a £10 license fee plus a payment per gallon. Illicit distilling and smuggling died out almost totally over the next decade. Many of the distilleries of today stand on the same sites as the smugglers of the 17th century. Today Scotch is popular around the world, but still it is made only in Scotland.
To make you own Scotch the first thing that you need to do is to move to Scotland. Unless of course you are lucky enough to already live there…
The first step in making Scotch is to soak barley until it germinates and sprouts. This is done to activate naturally occurring enzymes within the grain which in turn allows the conversion of starch into simple sugar or maltose. When the sprouts are about 3cm long the grain is dried in a peat fired furnace. The use of peat to dry the sprouts is important to the process because this is where Scotch’s smoky, old flavor comes from.
When the sprouted grain is completely dried it is ground into a course meal, then water is added - good clean Scottish spring water is preferable - and it is cooked, or sugared, in a large tank with a mechanical agitator to keep it stirred to prevent sticking. The cooking process is much like making a simple pot of oatmeal except that the recipe call for 3,500 gallons of mush instead of a couple of cups. The process takes 4 or 5 hours to complete.
After cooking, the wort (liquid) is separated from the grain by straining it through a coarse sieve at the bottom of the cooking tank into a fermentation tank where yeast is added. Fermentation takes only 2 or 3 days since the wort is kept at around 95 degrees F. When the fermentation part has been accomplished the product is basically beer. The frugal Scots don’t like to waste anything so the cooked barley is fed to livestock.
Next comes distilling which is done in two steps. The first distilling produces whisky that is only 40 proof alcohol (20% concentration). The second distillation takes the proof up to 80. Each step removes only a fraction of the water, an inefficient process but that’s how it’s been done for 400 years so why mess with it. We’ve all seen the stills that moonshiners use, heat the liquid to the point where the alcohol evaporates, rises through a coiled tube to cool then is collected for further processing.
After distillation the whisky is checked for proof, and poured into oak casks. The really good stuff is put into old brandy casks for an even better flavor. The first part of the runoff from the second distilling is discarded to eliminate esters (Naturally occurring fruity smelling compounds that occur in the distilling process.) The last part is discarded, too, because the proof level starts to drop below 80 proof. It takes skill to do this elimination, but it eliminates the necessity of carbon filtering which is not used in making Scotch whisky. Now comes the truly difficult part of the process: waiting. The whisky is put into the casks and has to age for 10 years or more. The oak cask aging mellows the taste and adds a bit of woody flavor and color.
The connoisseurs of Scotch drink single malt exclusively, but much of the Scotch produced is blended with Scotch from various distilleries, all Scotch. Blending is supposed to make for a uniform flavor but some folks believe it is so that a higher profit can be made. Single malt means simply that only one type of grain was used to make the whisky, barley is used exclusively for Scotch whisky.
Whatever your taste might be, enjoy, and please drink responsibly.