Scotch Whisky. Rich. Smokey. Peaty. Superb. And, intrinsically connected to Virginia. How?
In 1822, a Virginia doctor and amateur botanist living near Charlottesville managed to successfully grow wine grapes in American soil. He did this by crossing European varieties with native vines. They were so successful, that by the 1850’s, some genius decided to try growing Norton’s American wine grapes in Europe, and, through a terrible misunderstanding of plant biology, introduced the Phylloxera aphid to French vineyards, touching off a blight that nearly wiped out the entire European wine industry.
It was a sad time – especially if you were a British aristocrat who had become used to a glass of Bordeaux with dinner, a glass of Port before bed and a glass of Champagne every time the music started. Well-heeled Brits of the late 19th century suddenly found themselves quite thirsty.
But, as it turned out, the British cultural equivalents of hillbillies up in the Scottish Highlands had been making their own brand of backyard hooch. They were, it seems, fond of taking their barley beers and distilling them down to nearly pure alcohol in order to kick them up a notch or two. A shot of this uisge-beatha – pronounced “WHOOS-ga-bar”, meaning “life water,” or, “water of life” – was exactly what the newly sober gentry needed. How else were they supposed to keep a stiff upper lip?
Nearly overnight, Scotch whisky went from being the sort of drink you’d expect to buy out of the back of a horse cart in a mason jar, to a highly sought-after gentleman’s drink that the upper crust were willing to shell out big money for. And, we can all thank a Virginia wine hobbyist.
Today, the range of flavors of Scotch whisky is vast and the methods for producing them is going through a period of great experimentation. Traditionally, Scotch has only three ingredients: barely, water and yeast. The process is straight-forward: 1) malt the barely, 2) make a rich barley beer, 3) distill the beer into whisky, 4) store it in oak barrels for enough years to let it mellow out before drinking it.
The secret to the unique flavor of Scotch whisky, however, is in the first and last steps. “Malting” barley is a process in which you allow the grains to begin to germinate so that the grain starts to turn its starches into sugar as it prepares to grow a plant. Then, you need to halt that process before it actually starts to grow and uses up all of that sugar as energy, because those natural sugars are what your yeast is going to convert into alcohol. For Scotch, the magic happens with the method that they use to halt the germination. The grains need to be quickly heated and dried, but not cooked, which would caramelize the sugar and ruin it. The Scots do that by roasting the malted grain over a smoldering fire.
Thanks to Scotland’s damp, gloomy climate, the entire country is covered with a thick layer of peat, which burns slowly at a low temperature and gives off a rich, pungent smoke, making it absolutely the most perfect fuel for drying barley malt. The malted barley then takes on that smokey, peaty essence, giving Scotch Whisky a flavor that is unique.
At the end of the process, the whisky is clear, like water. The distiller puts it into an oak barrel and waits. Five, eight, ten, thirty, or more years, and what comes out of the barrel is dark, rich and smooth. Oak barrels were hard to come by in the 19th Century, and were therefore far too expensive to use on the highland version of moonshine. Instead, distillers repurposed whatever used barrels they could get their hands on once other merchants were finished with them. Wine, port and cognac barrels were favored.
Today, that’s where development and experimentation in the whisky industry is taking a new direction; seeking out specific types of barrels to flavor the end product. Many distillers are touting their use of sherry, rum, and wine barrels and are producing new and exotic flavors with them. Glenfiddich’s “Fire and Cane” whisky, finished in Caribbean rum barrels, and Tamdhu’s Batch 4, finished in sherry casks, are great examples.
Which brings us back to Virginia. Virginia’s growing bourbon industry is now sending lots of its used barrels to Scotland for use in the Scotch Whisky process. Used bourbon barrels make excellent Scotch with a rich, caramel aspect. Virginia and Scotch, it seems, are forever linked.
So, this winter, as you sit beside the fire on a chilly night, pour yourself a dram of some fine Scotch whisky and raise a toast to the Commonwealth.