Liquid assets

Liquid assets

Malcolm Greenwood digs beneath the surface to discover how water works to make Scotch so special

Tastings | 16 Jun 2000 | Issue 10 | By Malcolm Greenwood

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I read recently that nine hundred billion litres of rain falls on Scotland every year and, from this, nine million litres of whisky is produced.The Scotch Whisky Association can of course verify the latter. The former, well anyone who has visited Scotland will confirm – the country is wet, wet, wet.Water drills down here like a power shower, sheets across the horizon in westerly gales, or saunters as in a misty drizzle. The Scots have the best word – dreich – to describe it, and is explained in the Concise Scottish Dictionary as ‘persistent, tiresome, hard to bear’.
Regardless however, of the amounts, or how it arrives, the overwhelming consensus is that this H20 is special. Not merely a “clear colourless, tasteless liquid that falls as rain and forms rivers etc” (Collins English Dictionary). But what actually makes water so special in Scotland, indeed so special it makes Scotch?The relationship between water and Scotch is hard to define, in fact often only lyrical metaphor will serve. So bear with me when I say that water is the vessel that conveys malts on their journey to greatness. It is the artist’s canvas without which no creative work can appear. Its purity is essential to the whisky-making process.By far the majority of distilleries are found in the countryside, away from large-scale manufacturing and intensive farming. Traditionalists will maintain that water is the key to whisky making because it features in all stages of production; malting, brewing, distilling, cooling, maturation and bottling. All processes need it. Water was even used to power some distilleries, by making use of water wheels to drive rummagers (chain stirrers in the first distillation of the wash-beer). And water is often a recommended addition to the final product on the grounds that it releases flavours. Although I must say here it still shocks me, how the years of craftsmanship, maturation and care can, in an instant, be ruined by the addition of indifferent water.Although I agree good water is essential, the consensus among distillery managers is that while water is vital, many other factors play hugely important roles in creating the final colour, nose and taste. Opinions on percentages of importance differ, but it is generally regarded that water rates 10 per cent; malted barley, the shape of stills and micro-climate matter 40 per cent, while the major factor is the casks at 50 per cent.That fine malt Glenmorangie defies the old adage ‘soft water, through peat, over granite’. Here the water source is hard, as it is absorbed through the rainfall and takes on mineral salts from the lime and red sandstone ‘sponge’ below. This mix later appears as springs and, as the distillery manager Graham Eunson explains, it is a process that can take up to a century to complete. The red sandstone is porous, which allows accumulated water to rise in the Tarlogie Springs, which is subsequently piped the 750 metres (almost a mile) to the distillery. Not a whiff of peat can be detected.
One winter night Graham was checking the springs as the temperature dipped to minus 12 degrees. He was astonished to discover that the grass shoots around the spring were frozen solid, but not the water. That is because the water comes from deep in the ground where the natural insulation has trapped the summer warmth beneath the stone. Yeast especially works very well with hard water – the breweries of northern England are testament to that – and indeed Glenmorangie prior to 1843 was also a brewery. The water ph is neutral 7.5 - 6.5 which helps the distillation and casking period to play a greater determining factor in creating the beautifully light caressing citrus fruits of Glenmorangie. The landscape changes quickly in these parts, for in nearby Balblair you come across very soft water, hardly touched by the impervious granite, and producing a brassy dram with a light sweetness. Hints of peat are there, but a lot of the water misses any fling at all with this ancient material. The diverse geology intensifies further south in Speyside, where the area takes its name from that celebrated salmon river, the Spey. It forms at 370 metres (1500 feet), south east of Creaga Chait, and west of Loch Lagan. This again is granite country with a layer of peat above, a combination that produces predominantly soft water. Peat turf, which appears abundantly across northern Europe, takes thousands of years to evolve and is the result of slowly decomposing heathers, grass and trees, which then forms a tight, spongy brown, wet block, when cut by hand. Depending on the geography, water can often have a long-lasting relationship with this material. Surprisingly only one distillery here actually draws water from the Spey. That is Tamdhu, which uses water directly from below the distillery, where it passes over gravel beds. Tamdhu is golden straw and floral in character without a hint of peat. Further down the glen, however, at Glenallachie, you will discover the first real hints of peat which in Speyside is raisin toffee in colour. The distillery is adjacent to Ben Rinnes, a mountain of granite with a peat carpet. The rain water seeps through deep peat becoming trapped when it reaches impermeable granite. Acting like an enormous sponge, the peat bog will retain millions of litres of water. In spring it acts like blotting paper sucking up the slowly melting snow. In summer the peat lets the water evaporate quickly. Given these conditions, dry winters and long hot summers are most unwelcome because they disrupt whisky production. By far the most water used by distilleries is used in cooling processes during distillation. The hotter the weather the more water is needed. If the peat bog dries out too much, the surface will turn to a leather consistency, meaning that short bursts of summer rainfall will simply bounce off the surface, having little contact with the peat itself. This will have the same effect on granite with little trace of contact with the natural environment. Depending therefore on the seasons, the water character will often change.Further down the valley at Aberlour distillery, the manager Alan Winchester described the type of water he uses. “Aberlour water had no peat tinge, was ph 7 neutral, crystal clear with no acidity.” This granite water, which was formerly used in Celtic times (around 618 AD) to baptize converts to Christianity, is considered some of the most delicious in Scotland and contributes to the gloriously light apple and pear notes in the whisky. Just across the waters of the nearby Spey lies the famous Macallan. The geology dramatically changes here as the river heads for the Morayshire coast. Sandstone is predominant, one only has to visit the 12th century cathedral in nearby Elgin to witness this. At The Macallan, I was told that the water, although essential for high quality production, was not the major factor here, that is attributed to the use of oloroso casks. The water is retrieved through bore holes with no contact with peat.But the real home of peaty whiskies is in the west, on Islay, where the good earth resembles a dark tarry treacle. The waters of Lagavulin and Bowmore languish in peaty basins and all the whiskies on the have a salty dog flavour where the tang of centuries old peat is unmistakable.Lagavulin draws water from lochs bedded in peat, Bowmore from the River Laggan, running through canals forged through peat bog. No wonder therefore that the water and the geography plays such a significant role.The distilleries of Laphroaig and Bowmore are the only Islays to continue the traditional floor malting process, a process which necessitates kiln drying of barley using the very material, peat, from which the water came. Little wonder that these gems have a smoky peaty reek in early life, that eventually calms down to evoke coconut, gorse, pears and sherry. Other distilleries get their malt from Port Ellen maltings.Back on the mainland, the distilleries thin out in the Lowlands of Scotland. Those of note include Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan. The weather is less severe here and less prone to dramatic changes, the landscape reflects this and so does the character of the malts. Refinement comes into play here with Glenkinchie drawing crystal clear water from Hopes Reservoir. The soils round about are well-drained, rich and clay-like, producing excellent barley. Lowland malts are delicately fresh, with hints of fruit, just right as a summer apéritif.Water is very important during the distilling process, but it also plays a crucial part at the moment of bottling when the final addition is made – except of course if the whisky is bottled at cask strength. For most malts and blends this will be de-mineralised water, ‘neutral’ in taste, in effect without minerals. It is added at the respective bottling halls, where it sets the strength according to the target markets. The world famous Glenfiddich, however, actually bottles on site, at the distillery, using the same source of water. Lastly, on enjoying that wondrous moment, when lips kiss crystal, make absolutely sure that your malt has been given its best send off – good water. This cannot be stressed enough. Most city waters will turn malts cloudy and drastically alter the nose and taste. Good bottled water is highly recommended, and Scottish waters perfectly complement Scotch. The water should not be too cold or warm. And don’t be shy about experimenting. Highland Spring sparkling water for example can bring a wonderful effervescence to the malty fruits of a dram. On a hot summer’s night it can go especially well with some of the lighter malts, plus a cube or two of ice. Slainte.
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