raditional scotches are blends of malt whiskies (made from barley) and grain whisky (made from cereals such as corn, wheat, or barley). The proportion of each can range from 20 to 40 percent malts from all over Scotland and 60 to 80 percent grain whisky. These are not what we're talking about here. We're talking the pure and natural stuff of Scotland - Single-Malts.
A (very) Brief History
Whiskey was traditionally made by turning barley into malt, infusing it in water, fermenting it into a form of beer (or "wine"), and then distilling it in a copper vessel shaped like a kettle or cooking pot. Malt whisky is still made this way. In the mid-1800s, the blends of malt whiskies began to be leavened with a lighter style, made less expensively, from a variety of grains in a continuous process using a column-shaped "patent" still. These unspecified grains may include unmalted barley, wheat or maize.
Although some of the sites are surely earlier, the oldest of today's Scottish distilleries date from the 1700s. Many were once illegal stills. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, production was small and irregular and the notion of trademarks was unknown. Whisky was sold by the cask to country grocers and wine merchants. Johnnie Walker was such a shopkeeper; George Ballantine another; the Chivas brothers were partners in a shop. These merchants dealt with lack of consistency and volume by creating their own house vattings by blending their stock; these vattings became their brands. John Dewar, who went into the business in 1806, was the first person to sell branded whisky in bottles.
Scotland is still the world's biggest exporter of spirit drinks, but the success of blends, owned by a handful of large corporations, made the few independent distillers of malt whisky nervous. In the postwar period, Glenfiddich began to export its whisky as a single malt, first to England, and then, in the late 1960s and 1970s, to the rest of the world. What seemed like a gamble became an inspiration to others. Blended Scotch is still dominant in volume, but single malts like Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, The Macallan and Laphroaig have established themselves internationally.
Single Malt Defined
The term single malt has a very precise meaning: it indicates that all the whisky in the bottle is the product of a single distillery and has not been blended with whisky from any other distillery. The whisky is made exclusively from malted barley and no other grain, sugar or fermentable material. It is infused with water, fermented with yeast and distilled in a pot-still. Only whiskey made in one of the 100-odd malt distilleries in Scotland and matured for three years in that country may rightly be called scotch.
Why Single Malts Differ
While spirits such as gin and vodka can be made anywhere without influence on flavor and require no costly aging, single-malt whisky is one of those drinks that is formed by its environment, from the local water to the shape of the stills and even the climate during maturation.
Barley has to be partially germinated before it can release its fermentable sugars. It's soaked in water until it begins to sprout, then the grains are dried over heat. This process is called "malting". Traditionally, the Scots dried their malt over a peat fire, which gives Scotch its characteristic smokiness. A proportion of peat is usually still burned during malting.
To complete the conversion of starch into fermentable sugars, the malt (which has been milled after malting) is mixed with warm water in a vessel called a mash tun. The liquid drained off is known as "wort".
The sugars in the wort are now turned into alcohol during fermentation, which takes place with the addition of yeast, in a fermentation vessel.
This is the boiling of the fermented wort, in a pot-still. Because alcohol boils more rapidly than water, the spirit is separated as a vapor and collected as it condenses back to alcohol. Germinating malt must be turned to aerate the grains. In the mash tun, rotating blades churn the malt.
Single malt is distilled in traditional vessels that resemble a copper kettle, or pot, with a chimney-like spout. These are known as pot-stills. Most other types of whisky are made in a more modern system: a continuous still, shaped like a column, known as a column-still. Much of the flavor of the malt is retained in pot distillation because this old-fashioned system is inherently inefficient.
Influences on Flavor
The Shape of the Pot-still:
Consider a still that is especially tall. Vapor condenses in the upper reaches of the still before it can escape, falls back, and is re-distilled. This results in a more refined, lighter spirit. A shorter still produces a richer, creamier, oilier spirit. Every aspect of size, shape, and surface area seems to have some sort of effect.
The water used is very significant than in single-malt Scotch production. The character of the water is influenced not only by the rock from which it rises, but also by the land over which it flows. Water from a mountain stream that flows over rocks may pick up minerals, adding firmness and crispness to the finished whisky. Some distilleries have water that flows over peaty, mossy, reedy, ferny or (most often) heathery moorland. This may impart grassy or herbal characteristics. Heather recognizably adds floral and honeyish notes. Some water flows over peat, and whiskies may gain their peatiness from this; other whiskies have a peaty flavor from the use of the fuel in malting and some from both sources. Water is used to steep the grains in the handful of distilleries that have their own maltings and then again in the infusion that precedes fermentation and distillation. Some of the waters are believed to take several hundred years to filter through the mountains before emerging.
The soil affects not only the water but also the character of the peat. If malting is done at the distillery, local peat is used in the kilning. The age of the peat deposits and their degree of grass-root or heather character all influence flavor.
Scotland grows some of the world's best barley for malting, much of it cultivated in whisky-producing areas. For many years, the local Golden Promise barley was favored by malters and distillers. Its short straw stands up to the wind; it ripens early (in August), and it produces nutty, rich flavors. As the industry grew, farmers moved to varieties that give them more grain per acre and distillers to varieties that yield more fermentable sugars. Unfortunately these don't necessarily produce such delicious flavors. When Macallan experimentally made one batch with Golden Promise and another with a higher-yield barley, the difference was startling. The lesser variety produced a whisky that was clearly thinner-tasting, "dusty" and almost metallic. Most of the traditional malters stick with the "tried-and-true" barely for their malting.
A cold location makes for cold spring waters. When very cold water is available for use in the coils that condense the spirit and the ambient temperature is low, an especially rich, clean, whisky is produced. Also, the oak casks used during the maturation of the whisky expand and contract according to the temperature. This, too can influence the final flavor of the spirit.
As the casks expand and contract according to temperature changes, they "inhale" the local air. The more traditional type of maturation warehouse has an earthen floor and a damp atmosphere. The influence of this is especially noticeable in distilleries that are close to the sea. Some single malts, especially those from rocky coasts, have a distinctly briny or seaweedy character.
Specific Regions of Scotland
The divisions of the distillery regions are those between the Lowlands, the Highlands and the Islands.
The Lowlands -
this area tends to produce whiskies in which the softness of the malt itself is evident, untempered by Highland peatiness or coastal brine and seaweed.
The Highlands -
by far the biggest region, the Highlands inevitably embraces wide variations. The western part has only a few, scattered, distilleries. If they have anything in common, it is a rounded, firm, dry character, with some peatiness. The far north of the Highlands has several whiskies with a notably heathery, spicy character. The more sheltered East Highlands and the Midlands of Scotland have a number of notably fruity whiskies. Acknowledged as a heartland of whisky production, the Speyside region of the Highlands is home to no fewer than half of Scotland's malt distilleries. This area sweeps from granite mountains down to fertile countryside, where barley is among the crops. The Speyside single malts are noted in general for their elegance and complexity, and often a refined smokiness. On the peninsula called the Mull of Kintyre, on the west coast of Scotland, Campbeltown once had about 30 distilleries. Today, it has only two. One of these, Springbank, produces two different single malts. This apparent contradiction is achieved by the use of a lightly peated malt in one and a smokier kilning in the other. The Campbeltown single malts are very distinctive, with a briny character. Although there are only three of them, they are still considered by serious malt lovers to represent a region in their own right.
The Islands -
the peaty soil and Islay's position on the west coast of Scotland make it the producer of the boldest malts. The sea air permeates the soil and warehouses, imparting a singular tang. Islay Pronounced "eye-luh", this is the greatest of whisky islands: much of it deep with peat, lashed by the wind, rain and sea. Its single malts are noted for their seaweedy, iodine-like, phenolic character. A dash of Islay malt gives the unmistakable tang of Scotland to many blended whiskies.
Choice of Cask Wood:
Oak is the most widely favored for cask production. Oak staves are steamed and shaped into Bourbon casks. These are briefly charred before being hand-finished. Scotland is a mountainous country with plenty of pines but few oaks. In the early days, wood from England was used. Then the Scots began to take advantage of the English taste for sherry. Empty casks could be found in great quantity in the English port of Bristol, where merchants bottled sherry from Spain. Not only were the casks inexpensive, they were found to impart a delicious richness and roundness to the whisky. When sherry casks became hard to find, many distilleries moved to Bourbon barrels. The definition of "Bourbon whiskey" requires that it be aged in a new cask; as a robust, sweet, corn-based whiskey, it gains some of its typical character from the caramel flavors, vanillins and tannins in the wood. After one fill of Bourbon, such a cask imparts much more delicate flavors to a Scotch malt whisky.
While the new distillate may have some harsh, "spirity" flavors, these can be lost by evaporation. With the expansion and contraction of the cask caused by changes in temperatures, spirit flavors may be exhaled and the natural aromas of the environment taken into the cask: piney, seaweedy and salty "sea-air" characteristics can all be acquired in this way. Flavor is also imparted by the cask: sherry wood may add the nutty note of the wine and Bourbon barrels can impart caramel flavors, vanillins and tannins. Perhaps the most important influence on the flavor is that of a very slow, gentle, oxidation of the whisky. Oxidation increases the complexity and intensity of flavor in whisky, especially fragrant, fruity, spicy and minty notes. Traces of copper from the stills are the catalyst. They convert oxygen to hydrogen peroxide, which attacks the wood, releasing vanillin. This promotes oxidation and pulls together the various flavors present.
Malt whisky comes off the still at an average proof between the mid or lower 70s and upper 60s. During aging, it loses some of its alcohol content each year due to evaporation. It will emerge from maturation at around 60 or in the upper 50s, depending upon the duration of aging.
As your experience and taste in cigars grows, so to will your personal preferences for what goes hand in hand with a good smoke. Don't be afraid to experiment, and don't be afraid to come back to those experiences that are tried and true. A good cigar and a good drink are about tradition and taste. Ultimately, it's up to you to define your own.