Inside a book on the history of one of Scotland’s oldest family-owned distilleries the inscription reads, “To Evan: Calgary’s Glenfarclas Ambassador.” I smiled when my oldest son showed me the book during our Christmas holiday, thinking about the history that leads to the inscription.
When we moved to Creston in 1979, one of the drinks of choice among my co-workers and their spouses was single malt whisky. (Note: It’s whisky without the e, in the British Isles and Commonwealth countries. In the United States and Ireland, it’s whiskey.) At that time there were likely only two choices on the liquor store shelf: Glenfiddich and Glenfiddich.
It’s hard to believe that it was only in the 1960s that Glenfiddich began to market single malt whisky (a loosely-defined phrase for a whisky made in a single distillery from malted barley). Until then, references to Scotch meant whiskys blended from the products of two or more distilleries.
The aforementioned Evan was born on a Friday the 13th in 1980. Soon after I was presented with a “new father’s emergency kit”. Included were a number of small bottles with labels like “baby oil” and “gripe water”. My co-workers gleefully pointed out that the bottles’ contents had all been replaced with Glenfiddich. Emergency, indeed!
Evan, senior bartender and budding supervisor at the Calgary Petroleum Club, is a very knowledgeable wine guy. But when it comes to single malt whisky, he’s a walking encyclopedia. He is often hired to pour at whisky events, often by the local Glenfarclas importer. One of the items on my admittedly lengthy and ever-changing bucket list is to travel to Scotland with him so that we can visit some of our favourite distilleries. He wouldn’t need much persuasion.
Back to the emergence of single malt whisky. Until distillers like Glenfiddich began to promote whisky made only in their distillery, the market thought of Scotch as Chivas Regal and the like. Distilleries were closing at a remarkable rate as small, family-owned enterprises being unable to cope with the challenges of what had become, by necessity, an international market.
Today, a handful of global corporations dominate the whisky landscape, most of which have holdings of luxury brands from around the world.
But what about the whisky itself? Water is the first key. Initially, it is added to barley to promote its germination, a process called malting. Later, once the germinated grain is dried, it is mixed once again with water to create a mash, which then is then fermented with yeast, converting sugars into alcohol. Distillation takes place, sometimes three times, and result is a liquid with a 60 to 70 per cent alcohol content. The spirit is then aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years and often much longer. Typically, the casks are of American oak and have been used at least once to age bourbon.
There are many variations along the way that make one distillery’s product different from others. In drying the sprouted barley, for instance, the heat might be provided by burning peat, which imparts a smoky flavour. In the past, distilleries were built in close proximity to where necessary ingredients were grown or found. Hence the handful of whisky makers on the tiny island of Islay (eye-lah), where peat is cut from bogs and used to influence the flavour of the malt. An Islay whisky is almost certain to have a heavy dose of smoke. Aged whiskys might also be put into different casks, ones that have used for sherry, for instance, to add more flavour and complexity before bottling.
Today the international market is lapping up single malts at an unprecedented rate. Production at existing distilleries is being amped up, old and unused distilleries are being brought into production again and new ones are under construction. It’s all been a tremendous boost to the Scottish rural economy, with distillery tourism having pretty much the same appeal as wine tourism.
As the Scots say, Slainte!
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.