As I sit here in my at-home whisky collection, err “office”, in rainy San Francisco, I am reminded of where the barley began. In what has become a lifetime of studies about spirits and wine, the major concepts I have learned to focus on in evaluation are terroir, raw material, and traditions found in the production process.
The influence of geography, what the spirit started as agriculturally speaking, and lastly, the people who make it along with the styles they have used to make it over the decades (traditions), will have us arriving at the core of studying wine, spirits, and yes, our wonderful Scotch whisky.
For Scotch whisky, this can be broken down as flavor notes that are indicative of Scotland’s vast geographical landscape, the trickery of mastering our beloved barley, and distillation and the casks it then takes rest in. That being said, there are a few glaring elephants in the room: terroir, ageing and even, blends. The notion of terroir can be often argued about in Scotch whisky (and beyond). I rest my case quickly with the Speyside pear and the peated Islay, two profiles we adore that we see over and over again coming from these specific regions. However, it must be noted that when dealing with single casks as we do in the Society, terroir becomes a bit more complicated.
These casks, while they started their lives at certain distilleries in certain regions, have been moved about; if only from one side of the warehouse to the other, this has an impact on the whisky inside, mostly in terms of temperature and overall climate.
The young whisky inside is also extremely influenced by both the reincarnated cask and perhaps even more so, the time it spends in it; where the cask started its life has a greatly concentrated effect on the influence of the liquid inside. As our Society cask will not end up blended, the wood is the only mother it’s ever known! And their time together, wood and whisky, is a most special time that yields many various results in both quality and style.
The Journey Begins…
When sipping, it’s important on occasion to allow yourself to be transported through your glass. Let’s take a quick journey of some of my personal favorite casks that I’ve collected as a Society member, a journey that will take us all over Scotland.
1 - Distillery Number Forty-Four
Our first stop is at a distillery found in the heart of Speyside, dating back to 1891. The distillery’s name means “rocky hill” alluding to the magnificent clis that overlook the River Spey. I opened a cask of this for collector friends and they were completely entranced. “Like no other whisky”, that cask was astonishing in its vibrant apricot and pear à la mode.
2 - Distillery Number Twenty-Eight
This distillery is found at the gateway to the Highlands and is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, dating back to 1488! An independent, family-owned distillery, we might otherwise not have discovered it had SMWS not brought it stateside. Pear, vanilla, sweet barley and oatmeal, this distillery produces a deeply pleasing go-to whisky, in the most traditional sense.
3 - Distillery Number Twenty-Six
This distillery has been distilling since 1967; a successor to a dearly departed, now silent distillery. We don’t see much of it stateside outside of some of our favorite blends. These casks are often whisky aperitifs with just a whiff of delicate smoke—nothing like you’ll see coming from Islay, but just enough to bind the beautiful floral, sea air and grassy notes. This is the definition of complex whisky and as a single cask, it is quite impressive.
4 - Distillery Number Three
A quick popover on a prop plane from Glasgow has us landing on the magical Isle on Islay, arguably the most beloved region of Scotch whisky. Islay is as if the earth is singing to us in all her subtle glory. Peated vegetation billows from the smokestacks; the rolling hills and beautiful purple heather are best admired from a traffic jam caused by the locals... the local sheep that is. I have found the “elegant” peats are my favorite with just enough smoke and a savory salinity that craves oysters and crab legs.
We Have Arrived At The Final Destination (For Now)
It’s a generous gesture to pour a few casks to compare side-byside when enjoying your Society whisky with friends. Through the never-ending learning process, be sure to reflect upon where the whisky came from and who it was made by. And, of course, give cheers to barley and how we have been able to harness all its beauty!