The editor was adamant, “Wright, keep it short and simple. No waffling. Do you hear me?”

“I know what you’re like,” he continued, “and definitely no flowery language! I don’t want tasting notes sounding like a perfumer’s convention.”

“Keep it simple,” he lamented.

“Yes sir,” I replied with my fingers firmly crossed, “I’ll keep it simple.”

So, keep it simple I shall. Sort of.

An abbreviated history of Scottish Whisky distilling

(in one or two sentences)

Some say the Chinese discovered the art of distilling. From there, the practice meandered through the Arab world where it was adored for the perfume it created.

The Europeans soon purloined it when the Spanish were introduced to its intoxicating aroma. However, the Spanish found drinking the perfume to be far more enjoyable than splashing it on their necks. The Irish perfected it. And past it over to the Scots.

The Scots instantly took a shine to it and promptly invaded England. The English, disgusted by their northern neighbours’ taste in liquor, swiftly invented soda water to wash it down and then even more promptly, invaded the world.

Blended whisky had arrived.

Distilling Whisky down under

The fame of Scottish whisky was spread far and wide. Even to Australia, where the fad for imbibing in this most excellent of mixed drinks grew so strong that local distilleries were established to copy the illustrious spirit.

Who could ever forget the joys of serving a Corio 5 Star Whisky, with that catchy slogan, “for that little bit of extra change in your pocket.” Or a Milne’s from Glenelg, or a Hamilton’s? I could forget. They were downright horrid.

We wanted the best. And we wanted Scottish.

Sadly, the era of scotch and soda, brandy and dry, and even sherry soon came to pass. Why? Because wine soon became the obsession.

But then, a curious thing happened. One day in the early 80’s,I and many of my drinking buddies across the globe, put down our glass of Rhine Riesling. And we began to take another look at whisky.

But this time we weren’t interested in the soft smelling, lightly flavoured blended whiskies that our fathers drank. No, we were after that rare beast, that building block of blended whisky that most flavoursome and utterly challenging spirit of all.

The single malt whisky.

The search for the single malt

Produced right across Scotland, the single malt was the unruly child that had to be tamed by the great Scottish blenders; Johnnie Walker, Matthew Gloag and his Famous Grouse, Andrew Usher, James Buchanan’s Black & White, William Grant, Berry Bros & Rudd’s Cutty Sark, and so on.

But we were after the wild and exciting. We searched for names like Laphroaig, Bowmore, The Macallan, the illusive Linkwood, Talisker, and Highland Park from the far away but exotic Orkney Islands.

They stung, they gripped and shook us apart, they cajoled and caressed. And they always slipped down a treat.

Who would have thought that pleasure could be derived from a drink that tasted of smoke, iodine, kelp, meat, rubber, and burnt matches?

Or that happiness could be obtained from a 62% spirit that was silky and svelte yet tasted of dry fruit, kitchen spice and Marveer furniture polish

We could.

However, that was a lifetime ago. And guess what? It’s got a whole lot better since!

That was then, this is now

Back then, there was only ever a handful of these special spirits available to us that we had to hunt out. But today there’s hundreds.

So, what makes these beasts so unique and special? And where exactly does this unique flavour come from?

Sometimes, we think of distilling as a very simple process. Take a weak beer that’s made from malted barley, gently boil it in a big kettle (alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water) and store it in old oak casks. Simple, you may think. So, what’s all the fuss about?

Well, the fuss is all about the myriad of permutations and combinations that can go on in any one distillery. And it’s these permutations that make each distillery’s spirit so different and exciting.

Let’s go and explore them.

How the nectar is made

At the beginning, when malted barley is fermented into a weak beer, the distiller has the choice to run their ferments hot and fast, or cool and slow. To ferment in oak, or in stainless steel. This all has an effect on flavour and texture.

Then we get to the stills. Shape, size, capacity, charge (how much you put in it) and how fast or slow you run them, also effects the resulting whisky’s character. In a nut shell, the way you run your still determines the texture and shape of your spirit and how much copper (a really good cleansing agent) your spirit comes into contact with.

And now we get to another important part, condensing the gaseous spirit in the still back into a liquid state. This is done through a combination of a funnel at the top of the still (called a swan’s neck or more correctly a Lyne Arm), a cooling water bath at the end of the neck (called a condenser) and a device called a sprits safe right at the end.

The spirits safe is vitally important. This is where you control how much good, clean spirit (known as hearts) and how much nasty, horrible spirit (heads and tails or foreshots and feints) goes into your waiting oak cask. Just remember, that a little bit of nastiness can add a whole lot of personality to a whisky!

Depending on the still’s size, its makeup, the way you run your stills, and how many times you put your spirit through the still, will influence how fat and oily, or light and delicate your spirit is going to be.

And then there’s peat. Would you like your malt smoked sir? Some like lots of smoke. Think Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Whereas others just like the pure taste of malt, think Glengoyne.

And just when you think that there are far too many decisions to be made in the still house, then comes some more. What type of oak shall I use and for how long? American oak, European oak, oak that’s had wine, sherry or another spirit in it, new oak, old oak, big oak (300L), or small oak (80L). Oak that’s had high toasting, or oak that hasn’t.

Then aging: 5 years, 10 years, 18 years, 25 years or 40 years?

Oak ageing is incredibly important because it’s where 75% of the flavour in your favourite single malt comes from.

Notice the way I haven’t mentioned water barley varieties, or location? They’re important ingredients, but they have little influence over the flavour.

And so, to conclude this missive on the joys of single malt whisky, I present to you…

The Big G’s Guide To 10 Most Excellent Whiskies…
That won’t break the bank!*