Although it pains me to say it sometimes I’m wrong, sometimes I make false assumptions. I was recently given the opportunity to attained a Scotch tasting, I was quite excited and even changed a shift at work so I could attend. It was not my first industry tasting, I’ve been to a few, maybe 5 or so. I learned that having experienced 5 of anything is not sufficient data collection to hypothesize about experience number 6. I assumed that like all previous tastings I had been to this one would be an open event with a lot of people milling around going table to table sampling various libations. I learned at roughly 2:20 pm that if an invitation says the event starts at 2 you should hedge your bets and show up at 2. Luckily things had just gotten under way and I managed to quietly sneak a seat at the far end of the table, the opposite end from the presenter, with only the smallest of disturbances to those in my immediate vicinity.
Aside from my embarrassing entry the tasting was quite interesting. Scotch is whiskey, specifically whiskey from Scotland, there are other rules set out to ensure quality amongst bottles branding themselves as scotch but for all intents and purposes scotch is simply Scottish Whiskey*. While most drinkers probably realize this, I was a bit slower to learn, this tid bit of knowledge is something I only arrived upon about a year or two ago.
What is often distinctive about Scotch whiskey is it’s a noticeable smokey flavour and aroma, this is especially true of scotch from the island of Islay (pronounced with a silent s). The smokeyness is derived from the manner in which the barley is malted.
What is malting? I’m glad you asked. In order to create alcohol sugar is needed. As anyone who has eaten raw barley will tell you it doesn’t taste terribly sweet, and that’s because it isn’t. Barley is starchy, the starch is meant as a stored reserve of energy for when the grain has to start growing into a stalk. When barley is soaked in water, telling it’s little barley brain to start germinating, then left to dry, a small green shoot starts to develop. This is the barely starting to use up its reserve of energy providing starch. Luckily for early Scandinavians** humans are smarter than grains and can use and interrupt this process to create sugar and then alcohol.
The grain mustn’t be allowed to keep growing, it is baked/malted to stop the process of growth. Once the malting is complete the grain is thrown into hot water. This part is what makes barley so magical, when the partially developed, starchy, cooked malt is thrown into hot water naturally present enzymes start converting the starches to sugars. The reason barley is so awesome is that it has enough of these enzymes to convert the starches into sugars all on it’s own, all it needs is warm water, most grains are somewhat deficient in the helpful enzyme department. This leaves the brewer with sweet wort (pronounced wert) which can then be transformed into beer (sorry Aaron) or whiskey.
Thankfully there are lazy and sleepy people in the world, if you know one thank him/her, their laze may help mankind one day. The smokey flavour in Islay scotch is accredited to a sleepy malter. Whilst malting up a batch of barley, using peat as a heat source, the man fell asleep on the job. The barely got super cooked, burned one could say. Being both cheap and lazy, he decided to try making some scotch from it anyway. The result: delicious smokey flavours! The style caught on and is now a very sought after flavour in both scotch and beer to some extent.
If you are rich and lucky you may be able to pick up one (or two if you’re really rich) of my favorite, very smokey scotches from the tasting…
Producer: Bruichladdich (pronounced Brook laddie, I don't quite understand it either)
Scotch: Port Charlotte 7
Region: Islay, Scotland
Notes: The malt is peated to 40 ppm of peatyness, this takes a full day. Not chill filtered, meaning it may be hazy if you dilute it to under 46% but it will still taste awesome, also there is no colour adjustment the colour is all natural, I feel like this is a good choice of scotch for wealthy yet rustic hippies. I found it to be very peaty(smokey) with some mineral stoneyness and oddly enough a slight hamburger flavour, with a nice long finish to tied you over. This is an Awesome scotch. Limited Release so get one if you can!
Producer: Bruichladdich (it was a Bruichladdich tasting)
Scotch: Octomore 3/152
Region: Islay, Scotland
Alc: Not sure I didn't write it down, but a minimum of 46%
Notes: This one is really peaty with a peatyness content of 152 ppm and malted for 5 days. I actually preferred this scotch but both were awesome and I have no higher ranking, just thought I'd point that out. The best way to describe the experience is roundness in the mouth with floral, caramel, smoke, and dried fig flavours. My note from the tasting reads "The finish literally never ends!" and it's true I still taste it and the tasting was 4 days ago! Truly Awesome! Unfortunately also limited release.
After listening to the presentation I was very impressed with Bruichladdich, both because I like their scotch and because I like the way they do things. None of their scotches are chill filtered, this means they retain more oil which adds to the mouth feel but also means the scotch can go slightly cloudy in certain conditions which is why most companies do chill filter. They seems to be very socially responsible and concerned with the environment, I was won over as you may be able to tell. I think what I liked most was their devil may care attitude about marketing, they want to make a good product without bending to marketing pressures to manipulate their product to create a standard (bland) taste that everyone will be able to palate. Visit them here Bruichladdich
*During my fact checking I discovered that I really should be spelling whiskey without an e. Whisky is the Scottish spelling derived from gaelic, whiskey is the Irish spelling derived from being drunk and misreading the Scottish spelling. In all seriousness whiskey is the Irish spelling.
**There is very little fruit in the winter in the northern regions of our globe, luckily people discovered early on that certain grains could be stored and turned into alcohol in the winter. This was a huge boon for the booze industry in the early years of scandinavian civilization, circa 5000 BC? hopefully Aaron can clear this up for us.