Whisky has never been more complicated. Stripped back bare, it is cereal grain brewed into a beer which is distilled into a high-proof, raw alcohol and then banged into a barrel to take the edge off.
But are you after barley or wheat? Double or triple distilled? Natural strength or cut down into something more palatable? And shouldn’t you really only be buying single cask bottlings to appreciate the individuality of each barrel?
That brings us to wood types. American and European oak are the mainstays but what if you’re swayed by those bottlings matured in Brazilian amburana or Japanese mizunara? But what has been in that wood before? That’ll affect the whisky. Has another distillery used it first? How long for? And with what spirit type? Or has it been seasoned to order with luxurious Spanish sherries to impart Christmassy flavours and colours to the end spirit?
Oh, and that’ll be at least a hundred quid, thanks.
This is all rather frustrating. This stuff started as a farmer’s drink. Irish and Scots country folk would have ramshackled stills nestled in the corner of their steading. They’d distil leftover grains into something a bit warmer for the bleak winter months. Standards were low and techniques were primitive. If they bothered maturing at all, they may have carved out the core of fallen trees nearby and left the new-make spirit there to age. Untreated and uncharred, this wood would have poured ghastly natural impurities into the spirit, which wouldn’t have been the most balanced cut of hooch to begin with.
The end dram would have been grim. But it would have been authentic. It would have been a brutal, honest reflection of the land which birthed it and the folk who drunk it. It was also simple. And cheap.
So, how did we end up here? Sheer demand plays a part. When Scots travelled the British Empire and beyond, they took Scotch with them. And always ones for a shrewd deal, they took their order books, too. That meant new distilleries. Scotland now has more than 140. Many of these are unheard of outside of the trade and exist solely to supply the household blended Scotches which still dominate Scotch: Johnnie, Dewars, Chivas, and so on.
Increasingly, even older distilleries are weaning themselves off long-standing blending contracts and are releasing their own spirit as a single malt. The newer operations don’t even bother with blending deals at all; their entire chance of commercial success turns on their ability to launch a single malt that sells.
In a well-intended effort to instil a bit of structure, the trade and lawmakers gave us the legally defined “regions” of Scotch whisky: Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, and so on.
The theory is sound; historically, these parts of Scotland often distilled in certain ways with local grains and fuel sources. There was thus a bit of regionality - or terroir if we don’t mind invoking the French - about whisky. Lowland drams were light and grassy. Islay distilleries dried their barley with local peat so their whiskies were coastal, smoke-driven monsters. Highland malts were heathy and honeyed etc.
Commercially, this was spot on. Anyone can get their head around that. And, handily, they can buy a bottle from each region. Or do a tasting which covers all six. They can lay claim to one of them and profess that they’re “more of a Speyside chap”.
Whisky is an industrial product. Yes, it is a craft. But, if you have enough water, yeast and barley, you can make as much of the stuff as you want. And you can make it in most places. You can set up shop on a remote Scottish island and ship in the grain and peat from the mainland. You can borrow production styles from across the land and then mature it wherever you want in the country. But you’ll only market it using a single region’s name? Really?
This is all rather unnecessary. The more rewarding endeavour is to go distillery by distillery. Find out how they’re making their malt and why. Who farms the barley? And where? Why do they intentionally smoke it with peat from the mainland instead of locally? Is it because it burns differently and thus imparts the spirit with an altogether novel character? Where does the wood come from and why does it suit this spirit type but not others?
This is all much more work than picking up a five-quid map of the regions and buying a bottle from each. But it is worth it. And you’ll drink and learn more.
Whisky production has always been a bit of a beautiful mess. And a story of experimenting and maturing with whatever materials and barrels the distiller can get their hands on.
Glen Moray Distillery in Speyside, comes to mind. This is distillery country; there are more than 50 in this agrarian wonderland in the bucolic north-east of the country.
Glen Moray started off as a brewery, crafting local ales from about 1830 under the “Elgin West” name. Surviving records of these early days are scarce. I did find, though, some court transcripts from when the then owner, Mr Sinclair, was charged with breaching his liquor licence. The case report is all rather convoluted and wordy but from what I can work out, the brewers had a Sunday lock-in. Friends and family were brought round, the doors locked and barrels popped open. All good fun. Some rather dull judge took umbrage and reported them. Fortunately, Mr Sinclair got off on a technicality; his licence only restricted when he could sell his wares. He’d never have the audacity to charge family and friends. The charges were dropped and the chaos continued.
They only began distilling whisky in 1897. Stillman’s books surviving from the time shows that ex-marsala and sherry-seasoned casks were among the first to be filled with the new-spirit. This was an eclectic cask mix for the time. That said, though, orders were generally smaller and distilleries were able to sell entire casks at a time to local grocers for bottling.
The real test of Glen Moray’s early creativity would be time and expansion. Ever popular blends which it supplied called for consistency in the spirit. That usually means standardised still runs and set cask types. All but a death knell for experimental distillation.
Alas, Glen Moray is a bit of a misnomer in that sense. It is owned by a French corporate and still supplies many of their well-selling blends. It has also cemented itself as a respectable single malt. It is rather difficult to do both. But Glen Moray has made it work.
More impressive still, it has remained experimental. Indeed, the spread of cask types here is probably the best on Speyside. It is worth seeing Warehouse 1, one of their old dunnage-style warehouses; earthen floors, casks stacked on their belly at no more than three high. It is packed full of all sorts of re-fill casks. Hungarian tokaji, Spanish manzanilla, and barolo wine barriques all impart the maturing spirit with colour and character.
Some will work. Some will not and will have to be re-racked and matured another way. Or they’ll be married with other casks until the whisky is right. And that’s fine. That is really what distilling and whisky-making has always been about. And it is easier said than done. These exotic cask types are immaturely expensive. They’re hard to get a hold of and there’s a lot of paperwork to get them here.
They’ve also started to lay down some peated spirit here. That’s even more of a production nightmare. One has to deep clean all the pipes and gear etc once having done a run of smoky spirit. Otherwise, the soft, unpeated whisky they’re trying to make here will feature an unwanted ashy, barbecue-esque note.
Playing around with peated barley has its risks. It doesn’t suit every distillation style and it makes a mockery of any attempts of having a “house style”. That doesn’t seem to bother Glen Moray. Quite right, too. I spent Christmas Eve with a few drams of its small-batch peated bottling, which was matured in ex-Rioja wine barrels. Beautiful stuff. It was also proof if you ever needed it that the very concept of a “classic Speyside” style of whisky is nonsense.
In one warehouse at Glen Moray I found over a dozen maturing whiskies which cover the whole spectrum of flavour profiles. They were all cracking Speyside drams, but none of them are easily type-cast with a cookie-cutter “regional style”.
And why would we even bother to try? If one wants to learn how this stuff is made and why one cask somehow matures wildly different from another, pay a visit. Ask the lads and lassies who make it.
Drink a lot and ask them silly questions.
They might even invite you to a Sunday lock-in.
For more information, see glenmoray.com