Monday, October 25, 2010

Scotland's Scotch Whisky


The crystal clear water used for making Royal Lochnagar's distinctive drink comes from a spring at the foot of Lochnagar Mountain. To ensure a regular supply of spring water, this important component is stored in a peat lined dam for future use.

Making of whisky, we discovered, is on the surface a relatively straightforward process starting with soaking the barley in water to encourage germination. Then, when small thread-like roots appear, the barley is spread over a perforated floor and the peat smoke from fires ten feet beneath, percolate upwards through the seed, drying it and giving it a peaty flavour. Peat is in fact heather that has over thousands of years metamorphosed and compacted in the soil. In millions of years, under pressure and heat, this same peat will eventually turn to coal.

The health benefits of whisky
Before distillation in Lochnagar's 19th century copper stills, the alcohol, I was told, tasted like beer. I dipped my finger into the liquid and it did indeed tastle like a heavy beer. I had heard of its health properties; prevents clogging of the arteries, thins the blood and contributes to longevity. It sounded good, and I tried a further sample.

Copper still
 A tour of the distillery vividly portrays each step of the process until finally, for maturing, the whisky is poured into American White Oak casks where it 'sleeps' for at least three years and sometimes considerably longer.

The cask in which the whisky 'sleeps' while maturing also has a part to play in the final outcome. Because the casks are oak, and oak is porous allowing the maturing whisky to breathe, 2% of the whisky is lost to evaporation over that sleeping period. This 2% is known as the 'angel's share'.

In whisky production an important step is measuring for the proof. In earlier times, for lack of a better method, gunpowder was added to the alcohol. If it exploded when lit it was judged to be too strong. With today's refined techniques, measuring for proof is not quite such a hazardous process.

Whisky, as any devotee will know, comes in single malts as well as in a wide assortment of blends. Many of the blends are considered to be some of Scotland's finest whiskies. Among the well known single malts are Royal Lochnagar's Selected Reserve mentioned earlier, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich. Among the blends are Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker Black Label and Islay Mist, with literally a hundred others in-between.

Cocktails with a dash of Scotch whisky
Whisky is also an important ingredient in many cocktails. Mint Julep is a favourite of racegoers at the Kentucky Derby. Others are Rangoon Swoon, Jungle Juice, Mango Nightmare, Rusty Nail and Whisky Sour, so good that it is guaranteed to make you smile.

Because there are many whisky distilleries within easy driving distance of the Royal Lochnagar, we were able to visit Glenlivet and Glenfiddich Distilleries as well as the Strathisla Distillery, the home of Chivas Regal and Islay Mist. Although production methods are basically the same in all these distilleries, each has its own secret recipe that gives the whisky its unique flavour.

Prince Charles
Scotch whisky and its royal connections
At the conclusion of our tour at Royal Lochnagar we were invited to partake of a dram of whisky in the 'tasting room'. Through a thick glass screen which separated us from the warehouse, we could see row upon row of wooden casks filled with maturing spirits. It is not uncommon for organizations and individuals to buy a cask of whisky and leave it to mature in the warehouse.

As I stood in the cool, dimly lit 'tasting room' sipping whisky, the woody smell of the casks, the aroma of spirits and the photo of a young Prince Charles on the wall beside me, brought to mind snippets of information pertaining to royalty and surrounding this famous tipple. King George 1V is said to have enjoyed illicit Glenlivit, the Duke of Edinburgh's favourite is a dram of Glenfiddich, Prince Charles has been called 'Charles Monarch of the dram' and Queen Victoria was an enthusiastic supporter of the whisky industry.

Glancing through the screen again I noticed a cask with a painting of a ballerina on the lid. This cask had been set aside to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the Scottish Ballet. The whisky will sleep until the Scottish Ballet's Golden Jubilee in 2020 when it will be opened at a celebratory event.

Royal Lochnagar's warehouse
Alongside it was a cask filled for Prince Charles in 1988. When opened at a later date its contents would be bottled and sold for charity.

On that visit to the Royal Lochnagar Distillery we heard of a party that had taken place a couple of nights before. After heavy rains, the burn that usually trickled along beside the distillery had burst its banks. The overflow washed through the Visitors' Centre, and the guests, we were told, danced their Highland reels in two inches of fine Scottish peaty water. Did anyone suffer ill effects? Not at all. Royal Lochnagar was the drink of the night and what better to chase a chill than a couple of drams of Scotland's finest whisky.

Posted by Anne Gordon on Monday, 25th October, 2010


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