About the Whisky
The term 'whisky' derives from the Gaelic language, one of the ancient tongues
of Scotland and Ireland. 'Usquebaugh', translated, means water of life.
'Whisky' is now used to describe distilled spirits that may be far removed
in nature and in method of production from the original, so it is perhaps
best to begin by explaining what we mean when we speak of malt whisky.
Scotch malt whisky is to be distinguished on the one hand, from blended
Scotch whiskies, and on the other, from whiskies produced outside of Scotland.
Scotland is a small, largely barren country occupying the top end of a group
of islands off the upper left hand side of Europe. The climate is cold and wet
and though this is tough on the natives, the natives are a tough lot,
traditionally given to strong drink, dancing, music, literature, science,
religion, philosophy, warfare, strenuous sports, houghmagandie and annoying
their southern neighbours. Many of these things are interchangeable and all
the others are facilitated by the strong drink. Fortunately the cold,
wet climate is suited to the growing of barley, a cereal whose virtues
have been exploited, as follows.
Malt whisky is the ancient hard liquor of Scotland. It is produced from an ale
made of malted barley (which is often dried over peat) and water, fermented by
the addition of yeast. The ale is distilled in a copper pot-still, a process
that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. (There was no need for
change, given the quality of the product, and modern malt distillers often go
to great lengths to avoid change in their stills, for fear that any alteration
may affect the quality of the spirit.)
The distillate is matured in oak casks for anything from five to fifty years,
though most malt is bottled at around ten years old. There is general agreement
that malt whisky is at its best at about that age, though it can continue to
improve thereafter. Most however, does not, and there comes a point at which
the whisky in cask begins to deteriorate. Once the whisky is bottled,
it does not change, provided the bottle is kept sealed.
Most malt whisky is used in the production of blended whisky. The latter is a
mixture of malt whisky and grain whisky, the quality of the blend usually
depending on the proportion of malt used. Grain whisky is made in a patent
still in a continuous process, from a mash which contains some barley,
but mostly other grains. Maize and wheat are much used: it doesn't seem
to matter much which, provided that some malted barley is mixed with it.
Blended whisky tastes quite unlike malt whisky and is usually taken over ice.
Malt whisky ought, in the opinion of most knowledgeable drinkers, to be taken
by itself or (preferably) with the addition of a little still water.
More of this anon.
Until the patent still was introduced in the 1840s, all Scotch whisky was
pot-still whisky, though by no means all of it was malt whisky as we know it today.
Whisky was drunk by the lower classes until the 19th Century,
when it rose rapidly in social status.
The whisky which became popular in the later 19th century was blended whisky,
which was usually taken with ice and soda, a custom which has continued until
the present day. Because of this, the glass favoured by whisky drinkers was
the open-sided, cut-crystal tumbler, which is what is usually referred to as a
whisky glass. It is fine for its intended purpose, but unsuited to the subtlety
of malt whisky, for which a sherry copita or small brandy glass is much more
appropriate. (It is not as unsuitable as the quaich, a shallow cup with lugs
which tends to decant its contents down the drinker's neck as well as his throat.)
The Scotch whisky industry grew prodigiously in the later 19th and early 20th centuries,
mainly through production and marketing of blended whiskies. Malt whisky virtually
disappeared from public view until the late 1960s, when it underwent a remarkable renaissance.
Malt whiskies are now recognized as the very finest of whiskies and in their prime they
compare favourably with the best of Cognac and Armagnac.
Malt whiskies in proprietary bottlings are readily available in the United Kingdom,
and are becoming more so in other countries. Demand for single malts is growing rapidly,
as drinkers around the world discover malt's qualities of nose and taste.
There are about 100 malt whisky distilleries; about half of their whiskies are bottled
as single malts. 'Single malt' refers to malt whiskies which are the product of a
single distillery. 'Vatted malt' is used for malt whiskies which are mixtures of malt
from two or more malt whisky distilleries.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has its origins in a group of Edinburgh whisky drinkers
who had access to malts of the very highest quality. They purchased for their own use
unusually fine casks which they then bottled without any intervening process of filtration
or dilution (as usually happens with the bottled spirit). Because the contents of each
cask were bottled separately, the individuality of the cask became apparent in the taste
of the whisky.
After years as a purely private association, in 1983 the group decided to open membership
to the general public, so that lovers of fine liquor everywhere could benefit from their
expertise and experience. The result is The Society, membership of which gives access to
the very finest of Scotch malt whiskies.
The Society bottles the contents of malt whisky casks and makes the bottled product available
for purchase by Society members. Each cask yields only a limited number of bottles: a hogshead
gives about 250 bottles and a butt about twice that number.