Monday, 6 May 2013

What Makes A Great Scotch Whisky?

One of the enduring images, legends -- or perhaps myths-- surrounding Scotch whisky, especially single malt whiskies, is the mystique of location. Whisky connoisseurs pride themselves on their collection of whiskies from beautiful and obscure distilleries in glens of the highlands, the  lowlands, the wind-swept islands and other regions of Scotland.

The source of the water – streams from pristine hillsides or through peat bogs – the very air or the unique barley and malt are all supposed to create distinctions that marketers love to talk about. Make no mistake! Distinctions among the wide variety of single malt whiskies do in fact exist. But whether they stem from a distillery’s precise location, what French wine makers refer to as terroir,  is another matter altogether.

To study this question more closely I joined a friend recently to visit distilleries on the island of Islay just off the west coast of Scotland. Despite the logistics problems of producing anything on an island, Islay is home to eight distilleries that together account for a good portion of Scotch whisky exports. These distilleries include well known names like Laphroaig, LagavulinBowmore, and some like Bruichladdich that have been rejuvenated in the last decade.

The Bruichladdich distillery in Port Charlotte on Islay

Islay, about the size of Martha’s Vineyard in the United States, is wind-swept, filled with rich peat bogs and often buffeted by storms rolling across the North Atlantic. Jim McEwan, an Islay native and production manager of Bruichladdich, swears by the importance of location in the taste of a malt whisky.

We learned that the vast majority of barley used in making Scotch whisky comes, in fact, from England. Very few distilleries even make their own malt. Most buy the malt that has been prepared to their specifications. For example, some distilleries prefer using malt with a heavy peat flavour while others use malt that is only lightly flavoured.

Whatever the pluses or minuses of the argument about location influencing flavour, there is no doubt whatsoever that the very nature of the distilling process, from the fermentation to the bottling, varies from place to place and goes a long way to explain each whisky’s distinctive taste. Fermentation times, shape of the stills ,amount put into the stills, make-up of the condensers, preferences when to extract the spirit, alcoholic strength of the spirit that goes into the casks, and then the all-important character of the casks themselves play major roles in determining the final taste of a whisky. Many types of wood can be used, but the distilleries we visited seemed to favour oak that had previously been filled with American bourbon or Spanish sherry.

The all-important stills
 While bourbon manufacturers have to dispense with their casks after a year or two Scotch whisky manufacturers can use those same casks for 30 or even 40 years. These casks are usually filled at 63.5% alcohol (Bruichladdich fills at a higher percentage), and often stored for 10 or more years before being put into bottles at an alcoholic percentage of 40% - 46%. Many distillers will keep the spirit initially in a bourbon cask and then finish it with several months in a sherry cask.

Most of the whisky produced on scenic Islay is shipped off to some distinctly less scenic warehouses in central Scotland to be aged and ultimately bottled. Bruichladdich is almost unique on storing and bottling on Islay. Does it make a difference to the final taste? That question can stir up vigorous debate, and the answer is best left to the palate of the consumer.

Whisky isn't the only thing produced on Islay
What has been proven beyond doubt is that Scotch whisky production (blended and single malt) can be a very good business. Even in these tight economic times the value of Scotch whisky exports increased to £4.3 billion in 2012, up 87% over the last 10 years, according to the Scotch Whisky Association. The top market for all this whiskey was the United States, which accounted for £758 million of the exports. Exports of single malt whisky in 2013 increased to £778 million, up 190% in the last decade. France is by far the largest consumer of blended whisky, while the United States is the largest consumer of single malt.

The demand for premium whisky is nicely illustrated by Bruichladdich. A group of investors bought this decommissioned Islay distillery in 2001 for £7 million. They kept the original, ancient equipment – indeed, made a virtue of it -- persuaded Jim McEwan to join them from the Bowmore  distillery across Loch Indaal, and added a line of gin using many herbs local to Islay. They were so successful that in 2012 they were able to sell Bruichladdich to Remy Cointreau for an eye-popping £58 million.

The large global drinks companies that dominate production (Diageo alone owns 28 distilleries) have worked hard to broaden the customer base and spread the appeal of Scotch whisky around the world. The numbers alone would indicate a success that their counterparts in the French wine industry can only envy.