Whisky’s key ingredient

What are the ingredients of whisky?  If you answered barley, water, and yeast, then you were correct.  And yet, there’s so much more…

There is a word that goes hand-in-hand with whisky making in Scotland.  Many in the industry would suggest it’s the most important ingredient of all, but you won’t read it in whisky books or hear it mentioned during a distillery tour.  The word?  Consistency.

It’s something that some entities don’t focus on too much. For example, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society celebrates the inconsistency of whisky.  Two similar casks could be filled with spirit from the same distillation run and sit side by side in the warehouse together for 12 years – only to emerge as two completely different beasts come bottling time.  For the Society, that inconsistency is gold!  It means they (potentially) get to bottle two casks from the same distillery, at the same age, and yet showcase two different flavours.  The diversity and inconsistency between casks is precisely what bottlers of single casks seek out.

However, for those at the distillery, inconsistency is a dirty word.  The stillman is charged with the task of producing exactly the same style of spirit for each run, so that the distillery’s house style is consistent.  Blenders demand consistency.  It makes sense:  Whether we’re talking about a blend like Johnnie Walker, or a single malt like Highland Park 12yo, the brands – via their master blenders – need to ensure that each bottling production run tastes the same as the one before it, and this is the blender’s primary objective.  How would you feel if you bought a bottle of your favourite malt from your local outlet, got home and poured yourself a dram, only to find that it tasted nothing like the familar style you were expecting?  The very reason blends and blenders came into existence in the first place was to iron out the inconsistencies in whiskies at that time and to produce a consistent product.  Consistency is the norm, and it essential for the success and endurance of any brand of Scotch.

The blender's tools...
The blender’s tools for consistency…

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The Top Four Whiskies for Christmas

Once upon a time, whisky was whisky, and Santa wasn’t too discerning when it came to what special dram you left out for him on Christmas Eve.  In decades gone by, there was also less distinction – by both marketers and  consumers – about the significance of sherried versus non-sherried whisky.  Of course, with the huge decline in sherry consumption and the corresponding rise in the cost of sherried single malts, the distinction and noise around sherried whisky is now more stark and louder than ever.  (And that’s before we even mention words like European oak or sulphur candles!)

When I first started hosting whisky tasting events in 2001, I did a fair bit of freelance work for Macallan.  This was back when the core range was simply the 12yo, 15yo, 18yo, and 25yo – all of them made with Golden Promise barley, and all matured exclusively in sherry casks.   I used to describe the flavour of these sherried whiskies as being like “Christmas pudding in a glass”.  The really great sherried whiskies showcased all of the dried fruits you’d find in Christmas pudding (e.g. raisins, sultanas, dates, cherries, apricots, etc); as well as the butterscotch and toffee notes you’d associate with the brandy butter or Christmas sauce.   Some of them also exhibited a bit of the spice that we commonly associate with European oak, and occasionally there was also the pleasant bitterness of cloves and Christmas mince pies, or the sweetness of cinnamon.

As such, for me, if I’m going to drink a single malt at Christmas time, it’s got to be a sherried whisky.  And, certainly, when it comes time on the 24th to put out a dram for Santa, it’s been a Glenfarclas for jolly Saint Nick every year since my kids arrived on the scene.

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