On any August 11th, a Scottish grouse may not be legally shot. On any August 12th, except during severe world wars, it may and probably will be. But, since only a fortunate and well-heeled handful of Americans will be able to visit Scotland for the opening of the grouse season this week, some 5 million U.S. bird shooters must be content to participate in spirit, if at all. Of these, an unknown number will find it easier to throw a spiritual bridgehead across 3,000 miles of cold gray ocean after hoisting a few nips, or perhaps a noggin, of a well-aged and cunningly blended Scotch whisky.
And, although unable to grace the 12th with their physical presences they may, if possessed of only a wee drap of poetry in their bluid, yet achieve a vision of Highland moors hip-deep in windswept heather and sparkling rivers full of noble Scottish salmon. They need only to mingle a dram of pure spring water with an equal amount of Scotch whisky, drink deep of the mixture, lean back, relax and close their eyes; the vision will come, with perhaps a coyey of grouse flushing wild from the heather as extra solace.
Long ago in all lands, men discovered that fruit could be turned into wine and cereals into beer and that when either of these is boiled and the vapors condensed, collected and drunk the effect on the drinker is a miracle. In their wonder and delight they dubbed this invention aqua vitae or eau de vie or akvavit or whatever in their language meant "water of life." In old Irish Gaelic the words were uisge beatha and, when Irish settlers a thousand years ago brought the art of distilling (which they may have got from Phoenician traders) to the western isles of Scotland, the Scots quickly learned the rudiments and invented a few tricks of their own, while colloquializing the name to usquebaugh or usquabae. The first reference to malt whisky occurs in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494, but distilling had been a flourishing domestic art for several hundred years, and in 1790 a whisky-drinking Ayrshire peasant named Burns wrote: "Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil;/Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil!" (Tippenny was ale, which commonly sold for two pennies the quart.) By the end of the 18th century, usquabae had been corrupted into "whisky" and was solidly established as the national drink of Scotland.
"If a body could just find out the exac' proper proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk every day, and keep to that, I verily trow that he might leeve forever, without dying at a'," said one of Christopher North's characters; he was speaking of Glenlivet, the most famous of Scotch malt whiskies. (Today there are 28 Scotch distilleries using the Glenlivet name, but a lawsuit in 1880 enjoined all but the distillery founded by George Smith at Glenlivet in 1824 from using the word without qualification, and today the original brand is labeled "The Glenlivet"—period.)
Three types of whisky are made in Scotland: malt whisky, made entirely from malted barley in pot stills; grain whisky, made from unmalted grains (mostly corn) in mass-production patent stills; and blended whisky, a blend of malt and grain whiskies.
Until the invention of the patent still by Aeneas Coffey in 1830, all Scotch was pure malt whisky. It was a rich, robust spirit that "goes down singin' hymns," and it was ideally suited to comforting the bodies and souls of Highlanders, whose lives were toilsome and whose climate was as harsh as their theology. As such, it had a limited appeal, and the English gentry chose brandy when it craved strong drink. Today there are a few Scots, and even a few Sassenachs, who still persist in drinking malt whisky pure and unblended, but the price is high and the supply is scarce. In the United States only a few cases a year are imported, for sale to intransigent connoisseurs, unreconstructed Gaels and other troublemakers.
The continuous process still could turn out more whisky in a week than a pot still could produce in a year, but the product was lacking in malt whisky's distinctive peaty flavor and body. By the same token, it had less of the various acids, esters, aldehydes, fusel oil, furfuryl and other hangover-producing congenerics that make pure malt whisky a drink best suited to soccer players, salmon poachers, deer stalkers and other hyperactive outdoor types.
Today, virtually all the Scotch whisky sold throughout the world is a blend of malt whisky, for body and flavor, and grain whisky (which unlike grain neutral spirits is aged for at least two years), for lightness and mildness. Blending is an art and, by cannily marrying Highland, Lowland and Islay or Campbeltown malt whiskies with grain whisky (in a ratio from 30:70 to 50:50), the blender is able to maintain a uniform character in his final product, year after year. Unlike most American whiskies, Scotch is often artificially colored. (Aging in charred barrels gives bourbon and rye an amber color, but Scotch is aged in uncharred wood.) The coloring was originally meant to appease non-Scots drinkers, who were accustomed to brandy and suspicious of a colorless spirit. But at least one distiller bottles a "white" malt whisky for limited sale.
Malt is germinated grain. If you soak barley in water for five days, then spread it on the floor of a warm room and sprinkle it frequently with water, it will start to sprout in about two weeks. When the sprouts are about three-fourths of an inch in length, the barley is known as "green malt," and some of the starches in the grain have changed into diastase, which converts grain starch into sugars called maltose and dextrin.
If you spread the green malt on a drying screen inside a kiln and build a peat fire under it, the smoke will kill the germ of the barley and will give the grain the smoky, pungent peat flavor that distinguishes Scotch from other whiskies. Heavy roasting will give it a heavy character, light roasting a light character, and it's here you determine the kind of whisky you'll end up with.
If you grind the dried malt into coarse meal, soak it in hot water until the sugars have dissolved, then strain off the water and cool it, you have a sweetish liquid known as wort. If you put the wort in a vat and add a special strain of yeast, the yeast enzymes will break down the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. This is called fermentation, and after three days you will have a beery liquid called "mash," with an alcoholic strength of about 10%.
If you put the mash into a copper still and heat it, the alcohol and some other compounds will vaporize and pass into a coiled and cooled pipe called a worm, where the vapors condense and reconstitute a liquid. This is known as "low wines" and is ready for a second distillation. This one is tricky, as the first and last parts of the run (called "foreshots" and "feints") are so heavy with bad-tasting toxic compounds that they must be discarded; the trick is not to discard too much or too little.
You now have a gin-clear liquid on your hands, with an alcoholic strength of about 70% (140 proof) and, if a man walks up and says, "What's that stuff?" you may truthfully say, "Why that, sir, is malt whisky!" If the man is a revenue officer, you are in trouble.
To bring Scotch whisky to potable perfection, it is reduced with soft water to about 125 proof, barreled in oak casks (preferably casks previously used for storing sherry) and matured under government supervision for at least three years—or four if the whisky is to be shipped to the United States. But generally malt whisky is blended with aged grain whisky after three or four years, then rebarreled for further maturing.
No one knows what happens to whisky while it ages, or why, but subtle changes take place in the nature of the complex compounds that determine the character of the final product. Probably some of the compounds are oxidized by contact with the wood or with air in the cask and thus mellowed in flavor and fragrance. Whatever the cause, aging improves the whisky—but age is no assurance of quality, and after bottling no maturing takes place.
The four chief malt-whisky-producing divisions of Scotland are the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown. Most experts rate Highland whiskies, particularly from Speyside distilleries, finest in quality. Lowland malts are usually less peaty in flavor, while such Islay and Campbeltown whiskies as Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Rieclachan are so pungently smoky that few drinkers find them suitable for a steady diet; in any event, the bulk of malt whisky is sold to large Lowland grain-whisky distilleries for use in blending. (Although there are fewer than a hundred distilleries in Scotland, nearly 3,000 different blends of Scotch are bottled for sale.)
Scotch whisky is defiance, and genius, and a song of thanksgiving. In its amber glow a race of hard-working, hard-fighting, hard-praying Highlanders found a glimpse of pure sunlight and warmth. In its wetness they found a way to damp predestined hell-fire (and if the flames flared up again the next morning, at least they'd been lulled for a spell). In its export to the heathen they found livelihood. And if today the Sassenachs have laid such a tax on the stuff that an honest Scot can't afford to get properly wobbly, perhaps tomorrow will be better.
Meanwhile it behooves us all, in the spirit of pure scientific research and a deep love of mankind, to seek oot that exac' proportion and quantity that ought to be drunk every day, so that you and me might leeve forever, without dying at all.