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Whisky galore! The language of the distillery

When I started working in the wine trade, the first thing I learnt was that anything more than a superficial understanding of wine takes time, and quite a lot of drinking, to master. A reasonably good understanding of whisky however can come quite quickly and blind tastings are far less daunting knowing that there are dozens, rather than hundreds, of possible answers. The next lesson was realizing that the right language makes all the difference when talking to aficionados; I didn’t have to know as much as they did, I just had to be able to decode what they wanted. This article will give you the first footholds in understanding the language surrounding whisky, from creation to describing to drinking.

Whisky or whiskey?

The first step in this language for me was working out the difference between the spelling whisky, which generally refers to scotch, and whiskey, which does not – oh, and scotch is a drink, and the Scots are people. The word whisky (or whiskey) is Celtic in origin, being a corruption of usque beatha/usquebaugh – the Gaelic for aqua vitae. Scotch whisky has cultivated a romantic association with Gaelic culture which is about as authentic as tartan. The earliest recorded distilling of a potable spirit in Scotland doesn’t come until 1493 and it’s not until the middle of the next century that it becomes a widespread practice across the country, and only then after the dissolution of the monasteries released the monks who understood the process of distillation into the wider lay community.

The whisky of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and even eighteenth centuries would have had a closer resemblance to gin than anything else we know today, given that it was made from a variety of grains, un-aged, and frequently flavoured with herbs or honey. Any questions of authenticity aside, it’s still through whisky that Gaelic words maintain a foothold in our culture, slainte meaning ‘health’ perhaps being the best known example, and as a toast is more appealing than bottoms up, or down the hatch.  Other examples include poit dhubh – literally meaning ‘black pot’, which is also colloquial Gaelic for an illicit still, and my favourite: té bheag, pronounced ‘chey vek’ (and sometimes tea bag), meaning ‘little lady’. If the bottle is to be believed it also means a wee dram. A fair proportion of distilleries bear anglicized versions of original Gaelic or Norse place names, most books about whisky will explain what these mean; I have yet to find an example which doesn’t describe the local geography – such as Knockando from cnoc-an-dhu meaning ‘little black hill’ – and it’s something that delights me.

Blends and stills

The majority of whisky available up until the 1970s was blended; basically a blend of grain whisky, usually made from maize, and single malt whisky which in Scotland means that it is made from malted barley. Until 2009 there was also vatted malt – a blend of single malt whisky’s from different distilleries – which, in an apparent effort to clear up any confusion, is now called blended malt whisky. Blends effectively meant brand names which represented consistency and quality in a time when legislation on food standards was a little more relaxed than it is now; they are also cheaper to produce as grain whisky is made in continuous stills which can run without interruption, whereas malt whisky is made in pot stills one batch at a time. The still does actually take its name (which the Oxford English Dictionary currently dates back to 1533) from the more familiar use of the verb still – that is, ‘causing to be motionless’.

The romantic idea of single malt whisky is that each distillery produces a perfect expression of terroir, but this is marketing smoke and mirrors. There are three things that really affect the taste of the dram in your glass: the first is actually smoke, or more specifically the heat source used to halt germination during malting. Any heat source will do the job but peat or wood smoke give a specific character. Peat smoke contains phenols; the chemical compounds which give some Island whiskies their smoky, seaweedy, iodine, and tar characteristics – so how your barley is malted matters. After malting the barley is milled down to grist and then fermented into worts (a word which derives from the German Würze, meaning ‘spice’). Once you have an alcoholic liquid the alchemy can really begin.

The second really crucial element is the shape of the still. Tall elegant stills only allow the lighter, more volatile vapours to be collected; short dumpy stills let some of the heavier compounds through. The distillate is then run through a spirit safe. Both the first part, foreshots, (heads) and the last part, feints (tails), contain undesirable elements, so these are siphoned off. Foreshot, incidentally, is also the term for a projecting part of a building – a definition which is currently attested by the OED to over 60 years before the distilling sense. The middle cut, or hearts, becomes whisky, though at this stage it’s only a grain neutral spirit.

Hogsheads, rundlets, and kilderkins

The really important bit happens next. The newly-made, or ‘new-make’, spirit, sometimes called white whisky or white dog (the latter is particularly appropriate given its bite), goes into an oak cask. This cask may be a 200 litre barrel, a 500 litre butt (or pipe) which once had sherry in it, a hogshead, or smaller quarter casks, rundlets, and kilderkins. The characterful words hogshead, rundlets, and kilderkins are all currently dated by the OED to the late 14th century, and hogshead will be familiar to Harry Potter fans as the linguistic influence behind the wizarding town’s pub, The Hog’s Head Inn.

These casks can be used more than once, so will be referred to as first or second fill. After three years and a day the spirit is officially whisky; after anything up to fifty years, and possibly time in more than one cask, it will be bottled. It’s the wood that gives whisky its colour and much of its flavour, the truly magical thing is that no two casks will produce an identical whisky, they don’t even all age at the same rate – each one is unique. This means that what goes into a bottle of single malt is a careful blend of different casks, the age statement denotes the youngest whisky in the mix. During this aging process a certain amount of evaporation takes place; known as the angels’ share, this escaping whisky not only gives warehouses a distinctive smell, it also encourages a dark fungus to grow on  everything nearby – whisky warehouses are easy to spot.

To identify and remember a whisky we talk about its colour, examine its clarity, and discuss the beading and legs in relation to alcoholic strength or body. Beading is a quick indicator of alcoholic strength; the stronger the spirit, the larger and longer lasting the necklace of bubbles around the edge of the glass will be when you shake it. The legs are the tears of liquid that run down the side of the glass after it’s been swirled around; they too indicate alcoholic strength as well as age.

Marmalade, peat, and pear drops

We then get really stuck in with descriptions of aroma, mouth feel, taste, and finish. Referencing peat, honey, marmalade, fruit cake, pear drops, toffee, and other reasonably standardized descriptions is a generally helpful way to negotiate the hundreds of available choices. Although after a few nips it’s easy to get carried away with the nosing and talk of drams redolent of libraries, beeswax, hot sand, new rubber, gun oil, fried eggs, and tea pots – it’s all part of the fun, and for many of us that’s the point of drinking single malt; it’s the fun of trying to analyse it, pin it down, and describe it with a group of like-minded friends that’s as intoxicating as the drink itself. If we lose the language associated with tasting all we’re left with is drinking which, as well as generally lacking in romance, would make the life of a hard-working whisky saleswoman rather duller.

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