The only thing I knew about Scotch whisky was that, well, it was alcohol.
That’s really about it.
I had no idea whisky made in Scotland was such a special thing.
When we arrived in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland (above), last week, one of the things my husband wanted to do was check out a whisky distillery.
To be honest, that wasn’t on my Top 5 list of things to do in Edinburgh. I’m not a whisky drinker, much less an aficionado, but I figured this was a good opportunity to learn a little something about Scotland’s national drink. So I booked a tour to nearby Glenkinchie Distillery, located about 15 miles from Edinburgh in a picturesque part of the country, to see first-hand what makes Scotch whisky so unique.
We got on a bus near Princes Street with a group of French high school students. It took about 30 minutes to get to the distillery, where we toured the malting floors, production area and cask room. (We couldn’t take photos during the tour, since Glenkinchie is still a working distillery.)
This is a classic and historic distillery, started in 1837 during the time when distilling became legal. (In 1777 Edinburgh houses maybe 400 illicit distilleries.)
Blended Scotch whisky constitutes about 90 percent of the whisky produced in Scotland. These blends contain both malt whisky and grain whisky. Producers combine the various malts and grain whiskies to produce a consistent brand style. Think Bells, Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker, Whyte and Mackay, Cutty Sark, J&B, The Famous Grouse, Ballantine’s and Chivas Regal.
Glenkinchie, though, became well-known for its single malt whisky. (It’s one of six distilleries in the Lowland region of Scotland.)
OK, so all that was interesting. But here’s what I didn’t know. Scotch whisky is like champagne in France: there are rules to it. Meaning, you have to adhere to a certain set of standards before you can call the whisky you brew Scotch.
As defined by law, Scotch whisky has to be:
• Produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been:
• Processed at that distillery into a mash
• Converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems
• Fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast
• Distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8 percent (190 US proof)
• Wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres (185 US gal; 154 imp gal) for at least three years
• Retaining the color, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation
• Containing no added substances, other than water and plain (E150A) caramel coloring
• Comprising a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40 percent (80 US proof)
“The whole process has to be done in Scotland,” said our tour guide.
And did you know this? Only Scotch whisky uses this spelling; all others are spelled “whiskey.”
“You know what ‘E’ stands for?” she asked us, a twinkle in her eyes. “We say it stands for ‘effort.'”
After sampling four different kinds of whiskies produced by Glenkinchie, we had the fortunate luck of staying with a guy in Edinburgh who is incredibly knowledgeable about Scotch whisky — and a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Founded in 1983, SMWS is the world’s foremost malt whisky club — with a location in Leith (above) where you can sample the best single cask, single malt whisky it has for its members only.
Here, you can taste whatever the society has available — all rare whiskies from single casks. (Remember, most whiskies are blended.) That means whatever each bottle comes from an individual aging barrel, instead of being created by blending together the contents of various barrels to provide uniformity of color and taste. Even whiskeys that are not blends may be combined from more than one batch.
So these single cask whiskies are very special, very rare Scotch whiskies — and we were privileged to sample them.
Even though I’m not a fan of whisky — with or without the “e” — I can totally appreciate the process, the subtleties, the effort put into each bottle, and the passion aficionados like Andrew have for Scotch whisky.
I think I feel that way about ice cream.