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Archive for the ‘Scotch’ Category

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Peat, Smoke, and Spirit is a borrowed title from Andrew Jefford’s excellent book on the distilleries on Islay. It’s a must read for anyone remotely interested in Islay Scotches, and it does a fine job of weaving together the island’s long, bloody but fascinating history in between chapters on the different distilleries. I picked up the book in a tiny bookshop in the Isle of Skye, rationalizing that if I couldn’t visit the distilleries there, I could at least read about them. And it has turned out to be a delightful read. As I flipped through the pages, I couldn’t help but wish that I had a dram of Laphroaig in front of me, some Ardberg, some Bowmore…

Last Friday, I got a part of my wish. After climbing at the outdoor wall, we retired gratefully to my favorite Scottish pub, Duke of Perth, to warm our tummies and massage back to life our frozen fingers (it was that cold out). I ordered a dram of Bruichladdich, one of the Islay malts I’d just read about. Unlike most of the Islay malts that are famous for their distinct smoky peat character, Bruichladdich is a light, fruity and floral Scotch with an almost sweet aftertaste. It was delicious, smooth, and simply easy to drink – I didn’t even need to add a part of water to calm down the alcohol.

Last night, I got the chance to try more of the Islay scotches when a bunch of friends and I ventured into the South Loops’s Warehouse Liquors, where Evan Cattanach, Master Distiller Emeritus for The Classic Malt Selection, had been invited to conduct a tasting of whiskies from around the world. Ewan had set up a long table at the back of the shop, where a mini crowd of people were already gathered around when we arrived. Spread on the table were more than two dozen bottles of whiskies and Scotches, and I wasted no time in trying out the multitude of whiskies that Ewan pressed into my hands. I must have tried more than a dozen whiskies there, but in my excitement and haste in tasting, I did not stop to take detailed notes and so must now only rely on my already foggy memory:

Lagavulin: Considered the aristocrats of Islay scotches, and I knew why as soon as I lifted the glass to my nose: incredibly smoky, reminiscent of smoked bacon and haddock. The taste itself is dry; intense flavors; sweet sherry; went deliciously well with the square of dark chocolate proffered. Long, lingering finish. FYI – I left with a bottle of it; it’s now my new favorite scotch.

Caol Ila: Another Islay scotch – yay, that brings my total count up to 4/7. I very nearly bought this one instead of the Lagavulin; I think I’m just a sucker for peatiness. Faint tinge of saltiness to it too, but not nearly as overwhelming as the Lagavulin; off sweet and quite light. Colleen left with a bottle.

Oban: My third favorite of the night. Again, somewhat smoky, but sweet and smooth; some fruit on the nose, I didn’t quite get which. Figs maybe?

Singleton: Speyside malt with notes of honey, sherry, and just a whiff of smoke. Quite smooth, fourth favorite.

Dalwhinney: Ewan described this as his favorite breakfast scotch. Goes with cereal, he said, only you don’t have to eat the cereal. It’s quite distinct from the Island scotches; not a single hint of smokiness. Very light, floral and fruity – apricots, figs.

Cragganmore: Sweet nose (marshmallows) and body, with an oddly bitter finish.

Glenkinchie: I think this was the one with the medicinal/herbal nose; I can’t recall exactly now. Apparently, it’s one of the remaining three Lowland whiskies in production.

Talisker: I tried the distiller’s edition, aged in sherry port. Delicious; I could taste a tinge of sherry on the nose and at the end.

Crown Royale: Canadian whiskey – Wendy said this was the first whiskey she’d ever tasted. We were treated to the special reserve edition, a $300 bottle which came luxuriously packaged in a satin-lined box. It took me by surprise – how it slid so smoothly down my throat. A ghost of a whisky really, since it was gone so fast I could barely register the faint burn of alcohol on my tongue. Quite an experience!

Bullet Bourbon: I don’t think I’ve ever tried bourbon before this one… it was an interesting experience; packed quite a punch. It was a lot stronger and harsher than the scotches, could taste the corn, charred wood with notes of vanilla.

Bushmill: Irish whiskey; sweet chocolately nose, roasted marshmallows, very smooth.

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Scotch Tasting 3

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This is the third installment on my three-part series on Scotch tasting, as I research and prepare for my upcoming trip to Scotland. In the first piece, I looked into how Scotch is made, and how one should go about tasting it. In the second installment, I examine how whisky – and Scotch in particular – is made. In the third installment, I will detail my itinerary and planned stops at distilleries along the way.

As my trip draws closer, I grow all the more anxious: there are over a hundred distilleries in Scotland – which ones should I pick to visit? I guess, my task is made easier in that I have to follow the itinerary I have mapped out. This trip, we would have to stick to the distilleries in the Midlands north of Edinburgh, Speyside, and the Isle of Skye. Unfortunately, we’d have to bypass distilleries in the remote Orkney Islands, as well as my favorite distillery in the Isle of Islay, Laphroaig. I’ve tasted probably different 20 Scotches in my life, so while a good number of my favorites hail from those places, I figure I should be a lot more open to other labels.

Still, it’s taken me a while to narrow down the distilleries we might visit on the trip. I’ll be traveling with a friend who has never tasted Scotch before, so I can’t possibly drag her around to half a dozen distilleries. Moreover, we have quite a limited time in Scotland, and we intend to use the bulk of it touring castles and hiking, so drinking, this time at least, shall have to take a backseat.

After much poking around the Internet, I have thus finally decided on the following five distilleries. I figure we could decide which three to go to once we get on the road.

Glenturret Distillery
Founded in 1717, Glenturret is Scotland’s oldest distillery, and also one of the smallest.

Description from Scotland.com:

This distillery has been around through tumultuous times over the centuries. Glenturret has had a long and colorful history beginning with illicit stills and smugglers. It was successful right from the start till the depression of the late 1830. Many distilleries were forced to shut down at that time. In fact it was the sole survivor among the many small distilleries on either banks of the burn. The situation gradually improved for the Scotch whiskey business.

In 1870, Mr. Thomas Stewart the owner expanded the plant warehouses and machinery to cope with the increased demand for Scotch whiskey. It flourished in the worldwide boom in Scottish whiskey but was almost wiped out in 1920, during the US prohibition days and after. In fact the distillery closed down in 1921, leading to it falling into disrepair. It remained in this dilapidated condition till in1957.

The Glenturret distillery was purchased by James Fairlie in1957. He began its refurbishing and revival. By June 1960, the plant was producing whiskey once again. It was mainly used to supply blenders. It continued to make whiskey in the traditional way using the same methods and equipment and the cool, clear waters of the Turret Burn.

In 1981 Cointreau ET Cie who had been one of Glenturret’s faithful customers bought the distillery. They pumped in fresh investment and expanded the distillery to a great extent. The distillery was bought by Highland Distillers in 1990. Even today Glenturret whiskey is made using the Pot Still process with age old copper pots. The whiskey is matured in their traditional warehouses.

Glenturret is the most visited distillery in Scotland and its Famous Grouse experience describes its history, takes visitors on a tour and ends with a whiskey tasting session. The distillery produces an award winning single malt, Glenturret Single Highland Malt Scotch Whiskey, renowned for its glorious bouquet and natural golden hue. Besides this bottling of the single malt in the pure form, Glenturret whiskey is used in the blending of Famous Grouse. They have a new range of blended malts, available in various ages from 10 to 30 years. Personalized bottles and labels to mark l special occasions are also available.

Edradour Distillery
From Scotlandwhisky.com:

If you have been to the Edradour distillery it is easy to understand why it is so popular with visitors. Being the smallest and most picturesque distillery in Scotland it’s a must for visitors on the whisky trail, however it also offers a lot more.

It’s a charming and undisturbed niche of Scotland where the people are genuinely warm and hospitable, the landscape glorious and the lifestyle untouched by the perils of the twentieth century.

Situated in the heart of Tayside by the beautiful township of Pitlochry and surrounded by the wilds of the Grampians, Edradour is a wonderful diversion for hill walkers. If you’re en-route to Aviemore or Inverness it’s certainly worth dropping in.

I first tried Edradour at a Scotch tasting hosted by Sam’s Wine. My notes of the Edradour, S. Highland 10 Yr (86 proof) $53 bottle: thick, creamy, and sweet – due to the sherry barrel; interesting spice; made from water from spring flowing into peat; reminded me somewhat of Dettol, hospital, but a comforting scent; I like!

Macallan Distillery
Known as the “Rolls-Royce of single malts” – how can we not visit?

From Whisky-distilleries.com:

Situated near the village of Craigellachie, the Macallan distillery got its first distillation licence in 1824 thanks to Alexander Reid.

When he died in 1847, his namesake son managed the distillery until his own death in 1858. Then the distillery was controlled by James Shearer Priest and James Davidson until it was acquired by James Stuart (from the Glen Spey distillery). James Stuart rebuild the distillery.
In 1892, this old farm distillery become the property of Roderick Kemp.

From 1968, The Macallan is quoted on the stock exchange list and shares were purchased by great international groups as Suntory or Rémy-Cointreau, but also by the workers and the inhabitants of the village. That’s why the whisky from the distillery was nicknamed “Malt of the People”. The distillery remained in the Kemp family until 1996, when Highland Distilling Ltd bought the shares of Rémy-Cointreau, and later those from private individuals.
In 10 years time (between 1965 and 1975), The number of stills of the distillery grown from 6 to 21.

Maturation happens in sherry casks for 100% of the production, among which 75% sherry Oloroso casks. Macallan uses a traditional barley type, called Golden Promise.
The Highland Distillers group has been acquired by Edrington Group in November 1999 for £ 601m.

The whole production matured in sherry Oloroso casks is sold as single malt, the remaining being sold to blenders, among which Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark, J&B, Chivas Regal, Lang’s Supreme, Ballantine’s or Long John.

Glen Ord Northern Highlands Distillery
From Whisky-distilleries.com:

From the dozen distilleries which used to operate in the area of Black Isle on the East coast of Northern Highlands, Glen Ord is the only survivor. The Glen Ord distillery has been founded in 1838.

First owner were Robert Johnstone and Donald McLennan. The company which owned the distillery, “Ord Distillers Co” changed several times from owner until James Watson & Co purchased it in 1896. Watson was a blender from Dundee and he owned Pulteney and Parkmore.
Watson refurbished and enlarged the distillery by adding new stills and considerably enhancing the malting floors.

The distillery closed during World War I and was bankrupt in 1923, before John Dewar who recently entered the D.C.L. group belonging to SMD, acquired it.

World War II was synonym of a second closing period, because of a general lack of barley.

Important refurbishment works have been done in 1960 and the malting floors were replaced by a “saladin-box” in 1961, with the modernisation of the distillery.

A new malting was build in 1968 to supply the 7 other distilleries of the group, amongst others Talisker on Isle of Skye.

A new modernisation of the malting took place in 1996.

The whisky marketed by the distillery has had several different names during the last years: Glen Oran, Glen Ordie and Glen Ord.

About 10% of the production is marketed as single malt, the remaining being used in the blends Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s.

I also tried Glen Ord at the Sam’s Wine’s Scotch tasting. My notes of the 1998 Glen Ord N. Highland 8 Yr (86 proof) $65 bottle: “leafy, grassy”; leathery and nutty; whiff of barley at the end; aged in bourbon barrel; I like!

Talisker Distillery
Established in 1831, Talisker is set in Isle of Skye, on the exposed west coast of the island. In 1900, the distillery had expanded to the point where it had its own pier, tramway, cottages, and currency, denominated in days worked. Talisker is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye.

Good sources:
1. http://www.scotlandwhisky.com
2. http://scotchwhisky.net
3. http://www.dcs.ed.ac.uk/home/jhb/whisky/

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This is the second installment on my three-part series on Scotch tasting, as I research and prepare for my upcoming trip to Scotland. In the first piece, I looked into how Scotch is made, and how one should go about tasting it. In this second installment, I will examine how whiskey – and Scotch in particular – is made. In the third installment, I will detail my itinerary and planned stops at distilleries along the way.

In general, whisky distilled from fermented grain mash (some varieties include: barley, rye, wheat, and maize) and aged in wooden (usually oak) casks. The word whisky is derived from the Gaelic word, water, so you could reasonably trace its origins to Scotland/Ireland, though its actual point of origins is actually unknown. Some scholars contend that distilled spirits were first concocted in the 8th century AD in the Middle East, and brought over to the UK by Christian monks. Still others believe that St. Patrick introduced the drink to the UK in the 5th century AD. I won’t delve too much into the history of the drink here, but I believe that Tom Standage’s excellent book, History of World in Six Glasses, will provide more insight.

[Here, I want to deviate a little to point something out. You may have noticed that in my earlier post, I referred to whisky as “whiskey”. Technically, neither usage is wrong, but one generally uses whisky to describe Scotch whisky, and whiskey to describe Irish whiskey. I guess here in the U.S., either variation would work, so don't mind me if I jump from one word to the next.]

How to make whisky

Ingredients: The three basic ingredients are water, yeast, and grain.

The distillation process has roughly six stages:

Stage 1 – Preparing the grain

All grains are ground into meal. The meal is then mixed with water and cooked at boiling point to break down the cellulose walls that contain starch granules.

Stage 2 – Mashing

Mix the cooked grain with malted barley and warm water. To malt barley, soak it in water and keep it damp until it begins to sprout (after about a three-week period). At which time, the enzyme amylase is produced, and serves to convert the starch in the barley into sugars. After which, dry the barley with hot air from a kiln and then ground into meal (in Scotch, the fuel used in the kiln includes peat, which gives it its distinctive smoky flavor). Over the next several hours, the amylase from the malted barley will convert the starch in the other grains into sugars (only barley is used in scotch) as well, forming a sugary liquid known as mash/wort.

Stage 3 – Fermenting

Transfer the wort to a fermentation barrel – either stainless steel or wood. With the addition of yeast, fermentation begins; a process whereby the sugars in the mash/wort are converted into alcohol. After three of four days, the liquid in the barrel, known as wash, should contain about 10% alcohol.

Stage 4 – Distilling

Heat the wash to the boiling point of alcohol (78 degrees Celsius) to vaporize the alcohol and run the vapor through a water-cooled condenser. By running the distillation process twice, the new liquid should contain about 70% alcohol. Note that you don’t want to get too high an alcoholic content, as that would ruin the taste of the whisky.

Stage 5 – Aging

Add water to the mixture to bring the alcoholic content down to 50%-60% for the American whiskeys, and around 65% for the Scotches. Age the American whiskeys in warm, dry conditions so excess water will evaporate. Conversely, age the Scotch in cooler, wetter conditions so it absorbs more water. Age the whiskeys in wooden barrels – usually charred white oak, a preferred wood since it allows the water in the whiskey to absorb the flavors of the wood.

Stage 6 – Blending

Not all whiskeys are blended; for example, single malt Scotches are produced from single batches and bottled straight from the barrel. Mix different batches of whiskeys together; selectively add neutral grain spirits, caramel, and a small amount of sherry/port to add to the flavors.

There you go. The basic steps of whisky making. But how then, do you differentiate the different kinds of whiskeys? I guess, to put it simply, Scotches must be distilled (generally, they undergo distillation twice) in Scotland, and matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks. Irish whiskeys are generally distilled three times and they must be aged in wooden casks for a period of at least three years. Whiskeys from Kentucky, are known as bourbon if they have been aged in oak casks for at least two years, and are made up of between 51% and 79% of corn. Rye whiskies must consist of at least 51% rye. Most U.S. whiskeys also differ from the UK ones in that they have to be aged in new casks.

Source: Whisky.com

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