Divining for the water of life in Islay whisky distilleries
BY Charles Magill
9th Nov 2023 Drinks
7 min read
A Scotch whisky may take 50 years to make, but the golden-amber liquid is worth the wait, says Scotland's brewers and connoisseurs of the single malt
"Here, try your hand," says Willie MacNeill, handing me a spade with a narrow, flanged blade. I dig into the peat, and MacNeill forks the slab on to the pile he is building near the roadside.
A fine rain falls as we stand in the middle of the extensive peat bog that forms the centre of Islay, southernmost island of Scotland's Inner Hebrides.
There is enough peat here to fuel the island's chimneys and distilleries for hundreds of years. I cut a few more chunks, then hand over to MacNeill, a warehouse keeper and jack-of-all-trades at the nearby Bowmore distillery, and under his practised hand the pile grows rapidly.
As MacNeill digs, Jim McEwan, the distillery's general manager, and I walk up the road to the rushing Laggan River. It is the Laggan's clean, peat-flavoured waters that McEwan uses to make the single malt whisky for which Bowmore is famous.
"Now you've seen two of the four key ingredients needed to make fine Scotch whisky—peat and pure water," he says. "The other two are barley and people."
A very Scottish industry
With a population of only 4,000, Islay has seven working distilleries. Its whiskies—smoky-flavoured, peated and redolent of the sea that surrounds them as they mature—are not only the most distinctive of the single malts (whiskies from a single distillery, made from malted barley) but an integral part of most blends.
"Ah, Islay," muses Richard Fresson, a veteran blender and former distillery manager with United Distillers, whose numerous blends include Johnnie Walker Red, the world's top-selling whisky. "Islay is the jewel in the crown."
If Islay malts are special among Scotch whiskies, the industry as a whole is a jewel among Britain's exports. In 1992 some 826 million bottles of Scotch worth £2 billion were exported to 190 countries, which makes it the world's top-selling spirit.
"Islay is the jewel in the crown"
About 100 distilleries are in operation across Scotland. All but eight are malt distilleries, and almost half of these can be found within a few miles of the Spey, the famed salmon river that runs through soft, rolling country from the Cairngorm Mountains of the north-eastern Highlands to the sea.
The heart of Speyside is the Glen of Livet, which alone gives its name to some 20 distilleries. Only one whisky, however, has the right to call itself The Glenlivet, and its pale gold colour and delicate dryness have earned it a wide following.
Though single malts have recently caught the fancy of connoisseurs and become more widely available, 95 per cent of all Scotch whisky sold is blended from as many as 50 different whiskies, of which about a third might be malt; the rest is mass-produced grain whisky, made from both malted and unmalted barley, together with other cereals.
Whisky lovers reach deep to describe the flavours they detect. "Scotch", writes Michael Jackson in his book The World Guide to Whisky, "is the most complex of whiskies, enigmatic in its interlocking sweetness and dryness."
"Professor David Daiches, an Edinburgh authority, managed to taste a bottle of Gilbey's Spey Royal salvaged from the 1941 wreck of a cargo ship"
Connoisseurs in Decanter magazine, found in Longrow, a Campbeltown single malt, the aroma of "wet sheep", the attack of "tiger's claws".
The discriminating go to great lengths to indulge their fancies. Claive Vidiz, president of the Brazilian Whisky Collectors' Association, has 2,235 different brands and ages of Scotch in his specially built museum. A bar owner from Osaka paid £6,375 at a Glasgow auction for a bottle of 1926 The Macallan, a prized Speyside malt.
In search of the ultimate dram, Professor David Daiches, an Edinburgh authority, managed to taste a bottle of Gilbey's Spey Royal salvaged from the 1941 wreck of a cargo ship. He found the spirit's quality undiminished by its long stay under water.
The art of the perfect Scotch
By law, Scotch whisky must be distilled in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which other wholegrain cereals may be added), contain no additives other than water and spirit caramel, and be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years.
In fact, it may lie in bonded warehouses for up to 50 years, sometimes bearing signs saying "Quiet, Please, Whisky Sleeping".
Though the range of malt whiskies is diverse, the basic distillation processes are common to all. The first stage is the malting of the barley. Traditionally, after soaking for two or three days in tanks of water, it is spread out on a malting floor to germinate, thus producing soluble starches to be converted into sugar.
At Bowmore, Jim McEwan fires up the malting kiln, and the peat smoke drifts up through the floor to cure and flavour the barley. Two men have turned and raked the barley every four hours for seven days to control germination.
"It may lie in bonded warehouses for up to 50 years, sometimes bearing signs saying 'Quiet, Please, Whisky Sleeping'"
"We have very sophisticated temperature controls," says McEwan. "When it gets too hot, we open the windows. When it's too cold, we close them."
The malted barley is ground and mixed with hot water to finish converting the starch to sugar. Later, yeast is added to cause fermentation and turn the sugars into alcohol.
Malt whisky is distilled twice in copper stills, then reduced by the addition of water to about 65 per cent alcohol and poured into oak bourbon or sherry casks to add colour and flavour.
Though intensive research has been done to determine the reactions that take place within the cask, the process still holds many mysteries—one reason why attempts to duplicate Scotch in Japan and elsewhere have failed.
"So complex are those changes", writes Russell Sharp, formerly chief chemist at Chivas Brothers Ltd, "that, for the foreseeable future, it seems the most economical and convenient way of ensuring that whisky matures to perfection will be the simple one our forebears discovered. You make a good malt spirit, you fill it in a good oak cask and you wait for ten or 20 years."
From a Scottish dram to the real McCoy
It is an art that has been perfected over more than 500 years. While the origins of distillation are obscure, some believe it was brought to Ireland, thence to Scotland by Christian monks.
One story has it that the Irish invented whisky as an embrocation for sick mules, and the Scots adopted it for human consumption.
The first written mention is in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls of 1494, where provision was made for "eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae" (water of life).
Whisky became a staple of Scottish life, a stimulant and revitaliser during the cold, dank winters.
"Everyone drank it, even children," writes enthusiast Gordon Brown. "A matron once asked a child who had just eagerly swallowed some, 'Does it not bite, my dear?' Aye,' replied the youngster, 'but I like the bite."
"The grain whiskies are the concert hall, with its marvellous acoustics, and the malt whiskies are the instruments"
It took the phylloxera epidemic of the 1870s and 1880s, which decimated the vineyards of France, to bring whisky to the upper classes. Deprived of brandy, the British aristocracy turned to whisky and made it fashionable throughout the Empire.
When Prohibition closed the American market, smugglers used Caribbean islands as a base to break the embargo. And when it was lifted, the Scotch-whisky industry was poised to take advantage of the newfound desire for good Scotch—the real McCoy, as it was called after one of the most notorious Caribbean smugglers.
Today master blenders carefully adapt the recipes of their predecessors to arrive at a quality, standard product. In an Edinburgh blending room lined with plain sample bottles, Richard Fresson likens the blender's art to that of an orchestra conductor.
"The grain whiskies are the concert hall, with its marvellous acoustics, and the malt whiskies are the instruments, each playing its part. The end result is the symphony—something very complex and very beautiful—in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
Discovering the single malt
Together we sniff eight different whiskies, swirling new and mature spirit in a glass resembling a brandy balloon.
"Put the nose right in," Fresson says firmly, "and take a small sniff. That conditions the mind to what it's getting. Then return for more to confirm your findings."
And as we nose a 12-year-old Cardhu single malt, foundation for the Johnnie Walker blends: "There, can you smell the heather's sweetness coming through?"
Until the 1960s almost all malt whisky was used in blending, and its existence as a distinctive drink was a well-kept secret.
"The industry didn't want to sell single malt and were slow to perceive a market for it," says Phillip Hills, founder of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. "There was no motive. Their profits from blended whisky were enormous."
An Edinburgh tax accountant, Hills discovered single malt through a farmer friend who kept a cask of Glenfarclas by his fireside.
"Once in one-hundred-and-eighth place, The Macallan is now among the top five single malts"
Intrigued, Hills formed a syndicate with a dozen friends, bought a 20-gallon cask for £2,500 and divided it up in the course of a bibulous evening. The syndicate grew by word of mouth, and today it supplies nearly 20,000 members worldwide with selected malt whiskies at up to 65 per cent alcohol, half as strong again as standard brands.
As consumer interest grew, distillers began to wake up to the potential of single malts. In 1963 William Grant & Sons Ltd became the first actively to market single malt outside Scotland, and its Glenfiddich brand is still among the best known.
Five years later Macallan took the plunge, invested heavily in new capacity and laid down large stocks of whisky to mature as single malt. It was a considerable gamble. Macallan chairman Allan Shiach likens it to "someone opening a restaurant, hiring staff, putting linen and crockery on the table, and saying no clients can come in for ten years".
The gamble paid off. Once in one-hundred-and-eighth place, The Macallan is now among the top five single malts.
Nosing the world's best Scotch whisky
Before I leave Bowmore, Jim McEwan leads me into the distillery's 200-year-old warehouse, ten feet below sea level.
When a gale is blowing, sea-water seeps in through the windows, and the damp and briny air penetrates the serried ranks of whisky casks, contributing a unique and essential element to the maturation of Bowmore single malt.
Willie MacNeill taps along the row of barrels, checking for faults or rusted hoops. He stops at a hogshead that makes a slightly hollow sound. One of only five of its kind, it has been gently maturing since 1957, 23 years longer than the Queen's private cask, which sits just a few yards away.
"When a gale is blowing, sea-water seeps in through the windows, and the damp and briny air penetrates the serried ranks of whisky casks"
And though it once contained some 55 gallons, as much as half of this may now have evaporated—the "angels' share", in industry parlance.
In a lounge overlooking the Atlantic, McEwan hands me a glass of 21-year-old Bowmore. It is a lovely, rich amber, and there is a reverent silence as I nose, then sip the wonderful fluid, its smoky Islay flavours mellowed but still unmistakable.
"That," says McEwan, "just may be the finest Scotch whisky in the world."
And, while others may make rival claims, sitting beside a glowing peat fire on this magical isle, with the Celtic tunes of a 21-year-old single malt playing on my senses, I see no reason to disagree.
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