Scotland’s Best-kept Secret (Nov, 1954)
Scotland’s Best-kept Secret
No, other country in the world has been able to make Scotch whisky. The Scots have been doing it for over five hundred years, and even they don’t know how they do it BY JOHN KOBLER Illustrated by Erik Blegvad
town with seven distilleries … in one mile of Highland river; they used the same water, peat, and malt . . . yet each spirit had its own individual bouquet.”
During a jaunt through Scotland not long ago, I had an opportunity to inquire into the mystery under ideal conditions— while sampling some twenty-year-old Ballantine’s in a snug little pub facing Loch Lomond, in the company of Mr. John Grant, director emeritus of Hiram Walker & Sons (Scotland). I failed to penetrate the mystery, but I learned a lot of other things about Scotch whisky.
A Pint-a-Day Man at Seventy-two Besides his eminence as a technical authority, Grant is often cited by fellow Scots as an inspiring example of how the national tipple, taken in what Caledonians consider moderation, benefits the health. A pint-a-day man at seventy-two, stocky, muscular, with a face that glows like a sunset and hair like a snowdrift, Grant hunts, fishes, plays golf, and enjoys the sensuous side of life with the enthusiasm of a man half his years. He is also a walking anthology of whisky humor. Example: First Fisherman: “Will ye nae take a dram, Sandy?” Second Fisherman: “Noooooo. But ye may prepair one.” Another Grant favorite is Sandy’s explanation of the way he likes his whisky: “With water—aboot half and half.”
” ‘There’s whisky and there’s guid whisky,’” said Grant, quoting an ancient Scottish saw, ” ‘but there’s nae bad whisky.’” He added, twinkling, “Because, d’ye see, if it’s bad, it’s not whisky.”
The recorded history of Scotch, he told me, is almost five hundred years old. The first written reference to it was made in 1494, when by order of King James IV, it was entered in the books of the Scottish Exchequer Rolls that Friar John Cor was to be given “eight bolls of malt wherewith to make aquavitae.”
“Actually,” Grant said, “they’d been distilling the stuff for donkey’s years before that. Some folks claim that Scotch whisky was the nectar of the gods. Probably the method of distilling it came to Scotland via Ireland. “The original Gaelic name was uisge beatha, ‘water of life.’”
No other liquor has given rise to so much poetry, song, legend, and politics.
Scotch whisky is one of the most mysterious beverages known to a thirsty mankind. Its basic ingredients—water, yeast, and malted barley —are few, its chief instrument of production—the centuries-old pot still—simple. Yet every attempt to produce it outside of Scotland results in potions not only unrecognizable as Scotch but often undrinkable.
The painstaking Germans, convinced the secret lay in the quality of Scottish water, once imported shiploads of it from the River Spey. The Japanese, those masterly imitators, duplicated a Highland pot still down to the last copper rivet and set it up in a town they renamed “Aberdeen.” Other countries have imported Scottish yeast, Scottish barley (needlessly, because even the Scottish distillers have gotten a lot of their grain from other countries), and Scottish peat, the smoky flavor of the potion being attributed to the peat fire over which the malt is dried. But in all cases the sole resemblance to the model was the label on the bottle.
No Two Brands Taste Alike The mystery does not end there. Scotland has 107 malt-whisky distilleries today, some within shouting distance of each other. But no two brands taste alike. Maurice Walsh, the Irish novelist, who once worked in Scotland as a whisky-excise officer, recalls, “I knew one small To the Scots, it is more than a drink. It symbolizes their Scottishness.
Toward the middle of the seventeenth century, when Oliver Cromwell began sending excise officers into the Highlands to collect oppressive taxes from the distillers, every patriotic Scot became a bootlegger, actual or potential. Pitched battles ensued between the excisemen and the Scots, with many casualties on both sides. But the traffic grew until by the beginning of the nineteenth century there were in Glenlivet alone, which then as now produced the greatest of all Scotches, two hundred illicit stills. Despite the taint, Glenlivet was the only brand King George IV would touch.
The general lawlessness was so blatant that the Duke of Gordon, the biggest landowner of the Central Highlands, appealed directly to the English Parliament. No power on earth, he declared, could stop the Scots from distilling the water of life, but if the government would legislate reasonable taxes, they might be persuaded to respect them. Parliament took the hint and agreed upon a less restrictive tax code.
Most of the smugglers laughed at the notion of paying the Crown anything. An exception was George Smith of Glenlivet, one of the toughest of the lot. Realizing no industry can long endure outside the law, he applied for a license, and the Glenlivet Distillery was officially established. His compatriots threatened to roast him alive in his own kiln, and for years he never ventured far from home without loaded pistols in his belt. But gradually other distillers followed his lead. By the turn of the twentieth century, the industry had become an exemplar of respectability and conservatism, and except for certain dubious relations with American gangsters during Prohibition and a slight resurgence of secret distilling during the whisky-short war years, it has remained so ever since. Today the Crown stations excise officers inside every leading distillery, with the function of seeing to it that no whisky —except exports, which are tax-free— leaves the premises before payment of a minimum tax of ten guineas, tenpence ($29.52) per proof gallon.
Hiram Walker & Sons (Scotland) owns four distilleries in Scotland—two in the Highlands, at Elgin and Forres, and two in the Lowlands, at Dumbarton, near Loch Lomond. Three are malt distilleries, using the traditional pot still. The fourth, at Dumbarton, is the largest of Scotland’s eleven grain distilleries, which use a relatively modern method to produce a faster-maturing whisky.
How to Make Whisky At Grant’s invitation, I dropped in at the Lowland malt distillery, called Inverleven. and he proceeded to show me around. His manner, so debonair the night before, was now one of hushed respect, as befitted a serious subject.
In the main building, a squat, three-story red-brick structure, we climbed up to a grangelike room at the top. Some bulging burlap sacks stood against the wall. Grant reached into one and pulled out a fistful of powdery, grayish kernels. “Malted barley,” he said. “We don’t malt it here. It’s delivered to us from our Highland plants. The first thing they do is run the barley through a screen to remove any impurities. Then they soak it in vats of water—what we call steeps— for two or three days. After steeping, they spread it out on a concrete floor to germinate for about twelve days. During germination, an important chemical element, enzyme amylase, is produced. At a later stage of production, it will act upon the starch in the barley, converting it into sugar and other substances.
Peat Imparts a Special Flavor “The germinated barley we call malt. Our maltmen remove the surplus moisture by drying it in a kiln, and to the coke and coal with which they stoke the fire, they add the peat that many believe accounts for the way Scotch whisky tastes. Possibly. Peat, of course, comes from old, decaying tree roots, and in this country, one of the commonest trees is Scottish fir, highly aromatic. The flavor imparted to the malt by peat smoke lingers through all the remaining stages.”
He led me across the room to a small gristmill and dropped the kernels into a hopper. “We give the malt a rough grind to facilitate the breakdown of the starch, and it slides down a chute into the mash room below.”
We descended. A big circular tun full of malt and steaming water occupied the middle of the mash room. A mechanically driven mashing wheel was rolling majestically back and forth over the malt, reducing it to a gluey fluid. One lone workman, his face gray with malt powder, was regulating the wheel and the flow of water.
“Not many employees!” I shouted above the whir of the machinery.
“Don’t need many!” Grant shouted back. “It’s a small operation. Only about fifteen in this distillery.”
He watched the ponderous masher in thoughtful silence. “Uncle of mine lost an arm to one,” he remarked at length.
The hot water in combination with the now active enzyme, he told me, has the effect of extracting the sugar from the mash in the form of a liquid called wort (pronounced wurt). This is presently pumped into yeast-impregnated vats in the adjoining fermenting room through refrigerated pipes. The residue of the mash, called draff, is fed to cattle.
We passed into the fermenting room. The wort was heaving and popping like lava, and the fumes it released made my head spin. “That’s carbon-dioxide gas,” my guide said. “Now and then a workman will tumble in. Unless he’s fished out within thirty seconds, he’s done for.”
Fermentation lasts forty-eight hours and results in a liquid called wash. Though wash contains only the crudest, low-strength alcohol, which even the most desperate tosspot would hesitate to drink, it brings onto the scene the resident excise officer, a former R.A.F. pilot named Alfred Thurgood. So concerned is His Majesty’s Chancellor of the Exchequer lest a single drop of alcohol be consumed tax-free that all operations from this moment forward must proceed under bond. At the start of fermentation, for example, Thurgood has worked out mathematically the approximate quantity of spirit that a particular batch can be expected to produce. If the actual yield assays at much lower than his figure, he concludes that somebody has been tampering with the vat and slaps on the appropriate tax.
“Can’t a distiller help himself to his own whisky?” I asked.
“Dear me, no,” said Grant. “The blighters let us have ten ounces per barrel for our personal use. That’s hardly enough to keep the office staff going.”
I followed him down to the stillroom on the ground floor. “Malt whisky,” he said, waving a hand at two enormous, pear-shaped pots standing under the wash tank, “is double-distilled.”
He showed me how the wash gravitates from the first to the second pot. Heated by a coke-burning furnace beneath the platform, it releases alcoholic vapors, which drift to the low-wines receiver and are then pumped up through a conduit to the second pot. Next they descend through a spiraling condenser, called a worm, which is cooled by water. The cooling reconverts the vapor into a stronger alcoholic solution now known as whisky. This is passed through a locked glass case, to which Thurgood alone holds the key. The case encloses hydrometers and thermometers that tell him at a glance when all the alcohol has been extracted from the wash. He then opens up the wash tank so the waste material can be removed.
The first flow from the whisky stills of this distillate, called foreshots. is too high in alcoholic content and the last part, called feints, too low to make a potable whisky. They are drawn off to be redistilled with the next batch of low wines. Only the middle part is ready for aging.
Minimum Legal Age: Three But before it is transferred to storage, Thurgood again locks all receivers and conduits, and records the quantities so he can more readily detect any subsequent illegal withdrawals. During its lengthy sojourn in the wood—in England, no Scotch whisky younger than three years can be legally sold; in the U.S., none younger than four unless specifically labeled; and for a really mellow Scotch, at least seven years should elapse—it remains under double lock and guard in a storeroom accessible only to Thurgood and certain privileged members of the firm.
“With all those precautions,” I said, “I suppose nobody ever gets away with a drop.”
Some Artful Dodges Grant tossed me an arch look. “I shouldn’t go quite that far,” he said. “You noticed, perhaps, that the locked receivers have a dip-rod fixed in the lid. That is so the excise officer may ascertain the level of the contents without having to open the receiver. Well, sir, some unsung genius of a maltman discovered he could attach a small sponge to the dip-rod, soak up a little whisky and . . . But I’m sure you perceive the idea…”
Other artful dodges have been attempted from time to time. The women who package the bottles have been known to slip a pint or two into their bosoms. One maltman invented a hollow tubular belt that would hold almost a quart. In the Hiram Walker plants, a dozen employees a year are caught red-handed and have to be fired.
“We used to have a sensible way of reducing temptation,” Grant recalled.
“We’d dram our workmen free three times a day. But the blighters won’t allow dramming any more.”
We crossed a courtyard to the stores, the domain of a Speysider named George Robertson, whose main function is to judge the quality of each barrel as it ages. He samples two to three hundred a day. “There are perhaps a thousand qualified noses in Scotland,” Grant said. “At least half of them are quite good. But only about a dozen are great. George Robertson is one of those dozen noses.”
A moment later, I was shaking hands with a thin, sandy-haired man in a linen duster, with pinched nostrils and pinkish eyelids. “I’m aboot to test a barrel now. if ye’d care to be present.”
We walked to the end of a vast, dim chamber where a workman was opening a barrel with a bung starter. He inserted a spigot in the bunghole and Robertson drew a spoonful of whisky into a cylindrical glass. “This here is a dock glass,” he noted. “No doot so called after the type they used in the old days on the docks to taste the wines as they came in from Europe. It should be just wide enough to admit a good-sized nose.”
Robertson stuck in his nose, which was of modest dimensions, sniffed, and shook his head disapprovingly. “Rummy sour,” he said. “It’ll have to go.” He turned to me. “Scotch should be aged in barrels that once held sherry. The ghost of the Spanish wine gives just the desirable flavor. But sometimes they’ll slip in a rum barrel and the whisky’ll go rummy sour. Or water may have been lyin’ in the barrel with the bung out. In that case she may go foosty on you, she may go woody, she may go anything. With a sensitive nose like mine, if she’s foosty, it’ll take me all day to get rid of the smell.” He paused reflectively. “And it’ll spoil m’ evenin’ dram. . . .”
“Color’s important, too, isn’t it, George?” Grant prompted.
“It is that. You want a clear, light brown. But if there’s iron in the barrel, from a nail, say, it’ll go greenish. No harm, mind you, but it’s not pretty to see. Whan that happens, we clean the whisky by adding a little charcoal or milk to the barrel.”
He tested two more barrels.
“Ready for bottling?” I asked.
“Not yet, not yet,” said the great nose. “There’s the blending still. This is a single, or a self, whisky, as some call it, and the modern palate has no taste for it. Too gusty. Here, see for yourself.”
He tendered me a dock glass half full. I took a mouthful. “I see what you mean,” I said thickly, my tongue numb.
“Oh, a few connoissoors,” he said, with a respectful gesture toward Grant, “like a single now and again. But generally speaking, what’s wanted nowadays is style and grace, something that lies easy on the stomach. For that sort of whisky, you buy singles of various ages and properties from other distilleries, your choice dependin’ on the over-all character you wish to create—mild, sweet, dry, rugged, or whatever. Every whisky firm, of course, develops its own distinguishing formula. Ballantine’s is a marriage of forty-three singles. . . .”
What a Scot Prefers Naked In the board room, where an array of whiskies is kept to cheer the parting visitor, Grant joined me in a sturdy product of this marriage, a thirty-year-old Ballantine. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask for soda when some happy instinct restrained me.
“Soda,” said Grant, tossing down his dram neat, “is an obscenity. As for ice, the mind shrinks. The discriminating drinker may, without shame, add a little spring water-”
“A little spring water, please,” I asked.
“But on the whole there are two things the true Scot prefers naked,” the splendid old gentleman concluded, pouring me some water and himself another dram, “and one of them is whisky.”