Famous the world over and a Scottish invention to boot, Scotch whisky is as popular as ever. Mature, single malt whiskies are now viewed as an investment in the same way as wine and some very old, rare bottles sell for thousands of pounds. Whisky tasting can be taught in much the same way as wine tasting and the subtlety and variety of flavours created by the different distilleries is astounding.
So, how is whisky made and what should you look for when tasting?
Barley & Water
Whisky starts with barley grains spread out on the floor of the malting house, steeped in water. The sprouting grains are turned with paddles as starch turns to sugar in the barley. At just the right moment the barley is placed into a hot, peat fired kiln to stop germination.
Grist, Mash & Wort
The dry barley is milled to produce grist and then mixed with hot water to produce the mash. The mash, is stirred in a mash tun and the wort drawn off and placed in huge wooden pails made of Oregon pine or cypress. Fermentation starts in the wooden washbacks and the wort becomes alcoholic, turning into the wash.
Wash & Distillate
The wash is distilled twice in copper pot stills, first to produce low wines and then again in the spirit stills to produce the final product. Only the middle of the distillate produced is taken to make whisky. The foreshot or first part is too strong and the last part, the feints, is too weak. After testing, the spirit is matured in casks previously used for bourbon, sherry, rum or port.
Cask & Bottle
The casks are stored in a bonded warehouse often being held for many years. Each year 2% of the whisky will evaporate in the angel’s share, one reason why a whisky which has matured for longer is more valuable. Whisky only matures in the cask and not in the bottle, unlike wine, so once the whisky is bottled it can safely be kept for many years and won’t change in character.
The art of tasting
When tasting a whisky there are some key things to try. First of all swirl the whisky in your glass, take a look at the colour and note how the whisky flows down from the rim of the glass from the tears that form. How slowly the tears form and flow into the legs and how far apart the legs, are indicates the age of the whisky. Mouthfeel also indicates age with a mellow feeling in the mouth indicating a more mature whisky. Like wine, the aroma from a whisky can take a while to open up and much of the pleasure is in the nose so take your time and see what you can smell. You should first nose the whisky neat then add water, if liked, as this can open the whisky and release more complex flavours and aromas. Swirling the whisky over your palate when you take a sip will enhance the flavours you can pick out in the whisky. And finally, the finish. Swallowing the whisky is approved of fully and will give you the finale to your tasting experience.