Liquid education

Liquid education

Charles Cowdery discovers what the Scots taught the world.

Production | 31 Oct 2008 | Issue 75 | By Charles Cowdery

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The Scots and Irish like to argue about who invented whisky. Chances are it was neither and some other beermaking culture was first to the mark, but those earlier guys didn’t keep making whisky and they certainly didn’t call it whisky. What is without doubt and dispute is who invented what most of the world calls whisky today: the Scots. But that’s not the half of it. What the Scots did with blended Scotch whisky taught the rest of the world how to make their own native spirits more attractive to international consumers.It all began with the column still, invented in Scotland in the 1820s. That technology made the production of light grain whiskies possible. By the 1850s, whisky merchants were blending grain and malt whiskies together to create the first blends. The final step toward the current style came with the nearly universal adoption of used American whiskey barrels for aging. That style of whisky, modern blended Scotch whisky, is far and away the most popular type of whisky sold throughout the world and is, in fact, what most people in the world mean when they say whisky.Even in the United States, home of bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey and other locally-made types, if you request simply “whisky” you will, in most bars and private homes, receive a blended Scotch in response.But the technology and philosophy developed by the Scots, the technology and philosophy that gave us blended Scotch whisky, has given us so much more. It has given us Japanese blended whisky, Canadian blended whisky, American blended whiskey, Mixto Tequila, Indian “whisky,” and some of the world’s best rums. What do I mean by philosophy? The Scots did not invent blending. The French were blending brandies before the 1850s, and wines have been blended for millennia. Even what Andrew Usher did in 1853 was on the Cognac model.He created what today we call a vatted malt.The real innovation, of using very light grain whisky to lighten and highlight the several malts in a blend, came a little later, and that is what has spread far and wide. As the column still was refined and became more widely used in Scotland, it was adopted in North America as well. Distillers in both Canada and the United States began to rely more and more on column stills and on blending flavourful low-proof whisky made in pot stills with high-proof whisky made in column stills.Then things in the United States went a little nuts. People started to blend whiskey with neutral spirits. They added flavouring and colouring and reduced the whiskey content even more. Then they eliminated the whiskey altogether, but kept calling it whiskey, sometimes even putting a fictitious age statement on the label. At one point, experts estimated that up to 90 per cent of what was being sold in the United States as whiskey contained little or no actual whiskey.Meanwhile, the proud, hereditary whiskey makers of Western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee had adopted their own innovations, like the exclusive use of new, deeply charred white oak barrels. They were making what the Scots would call a grain whisky mash from flavourful combinations of maize, wheat, rye, and barley – but predominantly maize – and they were using the column still mainly for its ability to handle that mash, solids and all, and not so much for its ability to distill out at a high proof. The Canadians, always better behaved, simply continued to emulate the Scots, except they too found cheap and abundant North American maize the best grain to distill for the body of their spirit. For the flavour, they preferred rye to malt, but other than that they were British all the way.Not to rub it in, but the Irish pretty much imitated the Scots in every respect too.The Americans began to sort things out toward the very end of the 19th century, deciding on two types of whiskey. Straight whiskey would have to be distilled at less than 80% ABV and aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. The other type, blended whiskey, would have to be at least 20 per cent straight whiskey and the rest could be green whiskey or neutral grain spirits.Of the two, blended American whiskey more closely resembles Scotch, but Americans preferred straights and most American whiskeys today are straights, with Seagram’s Seven Crown being the only wellknown exception. No other country has followed the Scottish plan more closely than the Japanese, who unlike the Canadians market both their blends and flavouring whiskies, which are almost exclusively malts.The Indians have gone a couple of different ways, but for most of the world’s whisky drinkers, you can’t say “Indian whisky” without finger quotes. That’s because most Indian whisky is distilled from sugar cane, flavoured and coloured to vaguely resemble Scotch, and sold in bottles with Scottishsounding names and Scottish imagery.There are exceptions, such as Amrut Indian Single Malt Whisky, which is made from malted barley, but it represents a tiny fraction of the “Indian whisky” market.By American and European standards, most “Indian whisky” should be called rum, and many of the best rums are made like blended Scotch. The rums made in Jamaica and sold under the Appleton name are a good example. They ferment several different grades of molasses, distil in both pot and column stills, at both low and high proof, and age everything in used American wood.Then they blend different rums together. The blends vary in quality and price, with the more expensive expressions containing a greater percentage of older and richer spirit.In Mexico, distillers in the Tequila region, seeking an international market for their spirits, began to adopt and adapt Scottish practices too. They liked the column still.They also liked the idea of blending a nearlyflavourless spirit, made from grain or cane, with their flavourful Agave juice. They also decided, only about 30 years ago, to start aging their spirit in oak barrels, but instead of emulating the United States and using new barrels, they emulated the Scots, Canadians, and Jamaicans and began to import used barrels from Kentucky and Tennessee.As the global market for spirits grows and identity standards are rationalised, chances are good that regardless of what a spirit is called, the fundamental way it is made will be stamped “Product of Scotland.”
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