And for your reading pleasure, might I give you the stupidest analogy I’ve seen in quite some time…

Some Scotch drinkers like single malts, while others prefer a blend.

Leaf-eating insects had been thought to prefer a blend as well. Their olfactory receptors respond to a mix of volatile chemicals released by a plant and the insect moves toward it, a behavior called chemotaxis. But a study in Current Biology reveals that silkworms, at least, are more like single-malt lovers.

You COULD read the rest, but there’s no other mention of Scotch.

WWW – the Weakening Whisky WoundTable

Here’s a good question, from regular reader Brendan H. which allows me to solicit the opinion of some friends…

Hey Kevin,

Another weird question for you, thinking as I kick a bottle of Cigar Malt.

Does the alcohol content of my whisky decrease as I near the bottom of the bottle?

I ask this because (1) there seems to be less alcohol burn as I wind
through the bottle and (2) because alcohol being a light, fairly
volatile liquid, could be in vapor form at the top of the bottle and
released when I remove the cork.

If so then it might seem wise
to swish the whisky around the top of the bottle to recapture any
vaporous alcohol before opening.

Thanks for the science lesson.


I responded to Brendan…

Theoretically, It COULD.
If it sits for a long time with a bad seal, the alcohol could evaporate…reducing the amount of Alcohol (by volume) in the liquid.

Once the alcohol has entered a gaseous state I don’t think it will recombine with the liquid by swishing…

But I thought I’d ask for input from some of my industry friends…

Chris Morris, Master Distiller, Brown Forman

You are correct. Every time a bottle is opened, a drink poured
out, and the bottle resealed you have created headspace. The headspace
will be filled with evaporate.

Keep doing this and the ever increasing
headspace will continue to sap the alcohol strength from the spirit
(very small amount overall).

If you desire to return the alcohol vapor
to the spirit you would have to chill the bottle to condense it. That
of course is not standard storage procedure. I wouldn’t worry about it.


Dave Pickerell, Master Distiller, Maker’s Mark

At the risk of being too technical … here goes.

If the bottle is tightly sealed, only a relatively small amount of alcohol will evaporate … and then an equilibrium condition will set up where alcohol evaporates and condenses at the same rate and the concentration of alcohol in the vapor state is constant throughout the space…. it will not stratify… The proof in the liquid will remain essentially unchanged.  Even if the bottle is opened and partially consumed, and then tightly re-sealed, this same equilibrium will be achieved, and there will be essentially no proof reduction … even as the liquid volume decreases.  (Theoretically, there might be a minuscule proof reduction here, but I don’t think you could notice it).

If the bottle is loosely closed … or not capped at all … The alcohol will continue to evaporate and will never reach an equilibrium because it will continue to escape from the open mouth of the bottle into the surrounding air space.  Thus, the proof will continue to drop.  This also explains why a non-chill filtered whisky bottled at a proof of 86 or greater will eventually cloud up if left for a long time with the cap off or the seal loose.  When the product reaches a proof below 86, a chill haze begins to develop, because some of the components become insoluble in alcohol and water mixtures below 86 proof … This haze can be anything from a little cloudy to something akin to river mud.

Mark Reynier, Bruichladdich

When reducing  to obtain the desired 46% vol that we like to bottle at, it is notoriously difficult to arrive at the precise
figure because the alcohol strength (in bulk) and at cask strength is so volatile. We have a legal  0.1 variance and a matter of 60 minutes is enough to reduce the strength by 01 or more.

Therefore, even at a reduced volume (a bottle) and strength –  and with exposure to air, I imagine that the strength would fall . . . albeit at a stultifyingly slow

The reduced alcohol burn referred to is probably reduced by the rasping cigar smoke in the throat.


Ian Millar, Glenfiddich

First off, why would you have a bottle open so long this could happen??? THAT wouldn’t happen in Scotland!

Secondly, yes – you could lose something in evaporation and the rate of loss would relate to the temperature of the room and was the bottle in direct sunlight or indeed artificial light.

(Never take a chance – store the bottle in a cool dark place, open with good friends and devour with joy).

All the best

The rare Saturday story

James Thompson* emailed me this morning to tell me about an article in today’s Times (UK) which, on its surface, discusses the Ladybank distillery, but strayed to touch on issues of terroir – this time regarding water and its impact on the finished spirit.

Now before anyone jumps on me for the term terroir and how it is not applicable to the production of Scotch whisky – I’m still looking for someone to come up with a Gaelic term that means "the place where a thing is made" I’ll happily start using that term.

Back to business…

Continue Reading >>

Follow-up/Whisky Live Paris 2006

32 Primary Aromas follow up

In the latest episode of WhiskyCast, Mark Gillespie did me one better on the subject of 32 primary aromas – not only interviewing me, he also talked to Charles Maclean – to whom I attributed as the seminal source of the 32 aromas myth.

Read the original The Scotch Blog article: 32 Primary Aromas? Myth Busting

Listen to Episode 47 of WhiskyCast

Whisky Live Paris

I did not get a chance to attend last year’s Whisky Live in Paris – I’ve been told it’s one of the most interesting shows any where. I also believe that anything Martine is involved in would be top shelf.

This year, the show serendipitously happens to occur the weekend before I’m attending the Bruichladdich Academy. So, it wasn’t too much of a task to switch my plans to include a stop in Paris to attend this show.

Last year, the Whisky Live Paris show was completely sold out, attracting more than 1,800 private visitors and 1,200 professionals, this year the show will be spread out over three days, September 16, 17 and 18, to accommodate the expected crowds. I understand that one of those days will be for "professionals".

Co-sponsored by La Maison du Whisky and Whisky Magazine, Whisky Live Paris will host more than 50 distilleries (and 300 whiskies) from Scotland, Ireland, United States, Japan, France, Wales, and India. In addition, each day, there will be a tasting of rare whiskies that have been bottled especially for Whisky Live.

A rare whiskies tasting gives the opportunity to try three single casks selected by La Maison du Whisky: a Glenfiddich 1974, a Highland Park 1977, and an Ardbeg 1975. Apparently there will also be a special surprise – but that’s all they will tell me.

If you are planning to attend the Paris show, please consider buying tickets via The Scotch Blog (by clicking here or on the Whisky Live graphic), since this will register the traffic as coming from this site. If you do not speak French you may, like me, need a translator.

Here’s an idea – convince your (girlfriend/wife/boyfriend/husband/significant other) that a romantic autumn trip to Paris would be a great get-a-way for the two of you. Only upon reaching Paris do you "discover" that a whisky festival, of all things, happens to coincide with your trip.

How could he/she refuse you the pleasure of attending the show, after you were so considerate to take them to Paris? It could work.

In the coming months I will be giving you more information about the show, and I hope to see you there.

Whisky Live Paris

Terroir-ism (Part 4)

Dave Robertson, Robbo of Jon, Mark & Robbo’s Easy Drinking Whisky Company, is always ready to chime in, and he is today’s guest writer for the final installment in the series on terroir:

In days gone by when the technical aspects were poorly understood it was common place for the then distillery manager to wax lyrical about his/her water source, barley and its own maltings, his/her traditional rake style mash tun with its 6 larch wood washbacks which filled the small copper
pot stills, heated by coal condensed via worm tubs and aged in old sherry/bourbon barrels on site in low lying dunnage warehouses before being mixed in 100’s of cask batches to create a massive super blend.

It has only really been since the interest in single malts that the notion of "romantic marketing" and the need for terroir to be talked up in addition to provenance, origin, raw materials and ancient process techniques have become public knowledge.

Romantic – yes. Consistent flavour and high quality – no!

Since those times, science has played a stronger role in the understanding and manufacture of malt whisky leading to improved yields and efficiencies, but more importantly, consistency and quality of flavour. Allied to that has been the massive improvement in wood maturation knowledge – where it is
commonly accepted that some 40 – 80% of a mature whisky’s flavour can be derived from the wood (ex-bourbon lower, first fill spanish oak ex-sherry much higher…).

Given all this I could, with a little help from my friends, (Jon & Mark) create whiskies that resembled (and maybe even matched in a blind tasting) any single malt that exists without actually using that malt in the recipe.

For example, our Rich Spicy has been commented on as being Macallan in style and is derived from Bunnahabhain, Highland Park, Glenrothes and Tamdhu – all matured in Spanish oak sherry casks. 

With careful selection from a range of cask types and ages we can create a spectrum of flavours that match anything that exists as a single malt! In some ways, blending (grain and malt or vatting malts
together) can create an even more interesting taste experience – and is much like what top wine producers, chefs, parfumiers and conductors do with their selections!

"Heresy" I hear you shout.

Try it yourselves – take your fav single malt, understand its flavour, and pick some others from your drinks cabinet that you then mix together to create that style you love.  My granddad (a PhD in Chemistry from Edinburgh in 1927) used to love mixing his own hooch by taking a bottle of cheap blend and mixing it with some cask strength malt my dad managed to draw for "testing the instruments" in the good old days and low and behold made some fab stuff.

I have attached a simple chart that covers all the main 4 flavour bases as far as JMR is concerned – fell free to play about with this and I would urge that readers of the Scotch Blog position whiskies on the map for themselves, think about what they like and start mixing.

We think that Dave Wishart has maybe made it a tad too complicated by picking 12….

As we like to say – maximum flavour, minimum fuss – to victory with vatted!

The days of terroir, location, etc., etc., are much less important and can be illustrated by the fact that 1 large distillery on Islay (as a trial) was run without peated malted barley and made some of the tastiest "speyside" style new make spirit – weird, wonderful and wacky!

Oh, almost forgot….. most distilleries will have had to change their water source, barley varieties, maltings, mash tuns to lauter tuns, wooden to steel washbacks, direct fired to steam fired stills, computer operated still cut points, cask types and place of maturation and who the master blender/distiller is……are we really suggesting that nothing has changed and that terroir is still fundamentally important ?

Don’t get me wrong I still love the romanticism of it all – but temper my enthusiasm with how the stuff really tastes….

For those that crave flavour we salute you!

Plus ca change
plus c’est la meme chose



Terroir-ism (Part 1)

Terroir-ism (Part 2)

Terroir-ism (Part 3)

32 Primary Aromas? Myth Busting

While doing some research about the part that your sense of smell plays when tasting/ drinking/ enjoying whisky, I repeatedly came across the following statement in one permutation or another:

…there are only four primary tastes (sweet, sour, salty and bitter) but there are
32 primary aromas.

I found this to be an interesting little factoid – something that I’d never heard before – so of course, I set about to find out what those 32 primary aromas might be.

Continued research turned up something odd. Charles MacLean, Whisky Magazine, Aberlour, The Scotch Doc, The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling, (and a few other random places) all state unequivocally that there are 32 primary aromas. Yet not one of them lists those 32 primary aromas.

Glenfiddich’s Ludo Ducrocq also mentions the primary aromas factoid, but says:

…there are apparently 32 primary aromas – although nobody has ever been able to tell what these are…

Interestingly, ALL of the sources which declare the presence of 32 primary aromas, are related to the Scotch Whisky Industry.

Apparently, someone, somewhere made this fact up, and everyone else just accepted it as the gospel and continued to reiterate it – without ever stopping to ask what the 32 primary odors were.

That’s not how we roll here at TSB, SO I started off on a little research of my own, which included discussions with Ed Lavin at the
Department of Food Science & Technology at Cornell University; Gail Vance Civille, President of Sensory Spectrum, and co-author of the books Aroma and Flavor Lexicon for Sensory Evaluation: Terms, Definitions, References, and Examples; Sensory Evaluation Techniques; and Sensory Evaluation in Quality Control; Dr. Barry Green at Yale; and Dr. Marcie Pelchat, Experimental Psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. I also exchanged emails with Dr. John Piggott, University of Strathclyde and was also pointed to the work of Jordan Ross, (though I did not speak with Jordan).

Here is what I learned:

  • The statement that there are 32 primary aromas is FALSE. None of the scientists had any idea where such a concept would have come from.
  • There are several hundred different types of olfactory receptors, but they do not correspond on a one-to-one basis with classes of odors.
  • Another myth is that the primary tastes each have their own little spot on the tongue:

TongueThe tongue map, showing sweet on the tip of the tongue, bitter
on the back and sweet and salty on the sides, long accepted as fact, is a myth. It’s based on
a mistranslation of a German paper that was written in 1901 by a Harvard
psychologist. If you do any experimenting on yourself you’ll discover
it’s not

  • Sweet, sour, salty and bitter are perceived anywhere there are taste buds.
    While there are differences in sensitivity to the four tastes around the tongue,
    these differences are small.
  • Most researchers accept the existence of a fifth taste: umami, a Japanese word meaning savory or meaty.
  • Unlike taste
    preferences, which are hard-wired from birth, preferences for odors are, for the
    most part, learned through experience.
  • The human tongue contains about 10,000 taste buds located
    in four different types of structures, called papillae. It is these papillae,
    not the taste buds, which give the tongue its bumpy surface.
  • There appear to be several receptors for bitter and sweet, tuned to different molecules.
  • The "four basic tastes" are an out-dated and language-limited model of what we perceive.
  • Some people are born with more taste buds – and as a result may experience taste,
    particularly bitterness, much more intensely.
  • There are proven differences in the way men and women smell – women can be more sensitive to strong smells, and more capable of detecting weak aromas. There is no corresponding research that states men and women taste things differently. This is important to keep in mind as the industry attempts to attract more female Scotch drinkers.
  • The brain is trainable and will get better at picking out subtleties and nuances in aromas – a developed "palate" is really a developed brain.
  • The Olfactory Bulb, the Hippocampus, and the Visual Cortex all play a part in helping to recognize aromas.

I hope you find this as interesting as I do. I plan to explore this in greater detail.

The next time you see a article about Scotch that declares there are 32 primary aromas…you’ll know better.

Terroir-ism (Part 3)

Today, Gerry Tosh of Highland Park, does a stint as a guest writer to give his views terroir:

Why do people feel the need to pin down definitions of whisky or get scarily scientific about its production?

Our Distillery manager refers to making whisky as a "black art". This is because we don’t know all the answers to making whisky and long may it continue – as the mystique that surrounds Scotch whisky is half the fun.

For me, terroir is a very difficult term to steal from Wine or Coffee and land on Scotch Whisky.

Terroir has to do with ecology; from the grapevine to bottle. Covering aspects such as: micro climate, soil, geology, aspect, altitude, vineyard and vinifaction. We, in Scotch whisky, simply don’t do this anymore. 200 years ago we would have had distilleries getting their Barley locally, malting at their own distillery and then maturing at the distillery. Although most of us will do some of these, very few of us will be able to own all of them.

The wine guys who have been doing this for a lot longer than us still can’t agree on the true benefit of terroir. The historic Paris wine tasting of 1976 is a good example where the crème de la crème of French wine experts ranked a California wine as the best red wine and three of the four top whites were from California. These results and many more subsequent blind wine competitions around the world suggest that the importance of terroir can easily be overstated.

But for some distilleries this might work.

Take Highland Park as an example:
We don’t use the barley we used in 1798 because we would have no chance to get the volume of alcohol out of that strain of Barley we need for today’s demand. All our barley now comes from mainland Scotland.

We still do floor malting at the distillery. We have tried to replicate the flavour we get from doing this in big industrial machines but just get close.

We use locally grown peat to smoke the barley, the geology of which is unique as it is about 9000 years old, but more importantly it contains no wood. Thus creating a different aromatic flavour than any other whisky.

We use the same water source used in 1798 which is a "unusually hard water" and rises through Walliwall stone.

The Orcadian climate is unique. With maximum average temperatures of +10 C (about 50 F) and minimum averages of +2 C (about 35 F) therefore we have a wonderful, consistent, cool climate which means our "Angels" go a little more thirsty up here than at other distilleries.

The winds blow over 100 mph for about 80 hours a year – this carries the salty air across the island, killing all the trees, which changes our peat. It gets the salt into the barley, especially the floor malting. In fact it gets into every facet of the distillery.

Then we age it on the island.

So terroir, although redundant for most distilleries, may possibly have its exceptions.


Terroir-ism (Part 1)

Terroir-ism (Part 2)

Terroir-ism (Part 2)

More on the topic of "terroir".

I asked:

Perhaps "terroir" is not a concept that fits exactly with Scotch? Perhaps we need a new term that represents the "soul" of a distillery – including distillery location, still shape, warehouse location, water source, etc.

Perhaps that’s just a romantic notion now given that barley is rarely local, maltings are rarely local and even maturation isn’t always local?


And they answered:

Ronnie Cox, The Glenrothes

How do you describe terroir? In my view: Mother Nature.

But unlike the French understanding of "terroir", in the malt whisky world, we wouldn’t talk about Mother Nature without also talking about Father Time. These two are inseparable in our world (and, if the truth be told, in theirs as well) but whereas the drinking of great wine is largely a case of trial and error (will it get better with time?) great malt whiskies cut out that element of chance. The time of perfect maturation is left to the maker – not the consumer.  Easy – and (luckily) not dependant on sunshine.

But if terroir is all about Mother Nature, we in Scotland would say that we
have learned to tame many of her idiosyncrasies.

We, on the distilling side of the industry, look to science – not the serendipity of terroir to improve excellence in every factor which contributes to malt whisky.

Yet, in spite of our very considerable knowledge of distilling, we’re still a long ways from understanding more than 60% of the organic chemistry in maturation. Until that 40% gap in our knowledge is adequately filled – its still "magic" to me.

Dave "Robbo" Robertson, JMR Easy Drinking Whisky

I love the idea of the "soul of a malt" – Flavour could be a function of its soul….

Soul could cover attitude, location, raw materials, process
conditions, wood type, etc each element of which will contribute to the

John Glaser, Compass Box Whisky

No, I don’t believe Scotch whisky has "terroir" in the same way that wine is thought to have it.  (That, in itself, is a big debate in the world of wine!)

Dr. Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie

There is no doubt that some of David’s claims are true, and if I really wanted to make an ‘Islay’ style whisky at Tain, for example, I could. But it wouldn’t do me any good, really!

What I do believe, however, is that we don’t fully understand all the factors which contribute to a whisky’s character, and there is no doubt that the (by no means exhaustive) factors you mention must all contribute in some way.  I still believe, however, that apart from the huge influence that peating of malt has on a whisky’s character, the 2 main influencers are the distillation regime (size, shape, cut size, reflux etc. etc.) and the wood quality.

Dr. David Wishart, Author, Whisky Classified

Knowing where a distillery is located doesn’t tell you how its whisky will taste. Today, the cask is king, and regional styles are largely redundant.

Terroir-ism (Part 1)


If you are unfamiliar with the term "terroir" it is a French term with no exact English translation – much used in the wine industry – it refers to all the physical/environmental characteristics in and around a particular vineyard site (climate, soil, geographical location and so on).

The term has, of late, worked its way into the lexicon of whisky production.

While I believe that a ‘terroir-like’ concept is important to help understand why one Scotch is different than another produced at another distillery right down the road, I don’t think that the term "terroir," as used by oeneophiles, can be used accurately to describe what makes a particular Scotch different from others. Like Dominic Roskrow says:

I’m cynical about terroir, not least because it’s a pretentious wine term.

Perhaps, we need a new term, one that represents the "soul" of a distillery – and encompasses the still shape, distillery location, warehouse location, water source, and other factors.

Maybe that’s just an overly romantic dream on my part – as single malt Scotch becomes bigger and bigger, there are fewer ingredients that point to the authenticity of Scotch made in a single place.

Barley is increasingly imported from England and beyond; few distilleries malt their own barley (4); few bottle on site (3); and few use local water for bottling dilution (3).

Today there is precious little, aside from location of the physical stills, the maturing warehouse, and the local water used in mashing that gives a whisky an authentic sense of place – yet, there is something undeniable that separates one whisky from another.

The region in which a distillery stands has nothing to do with this difference as regional designations give us no clue as to what to expect from a whisky. Highly peated drams can be found in Speyside, while delicate drams are available from Islay.

Moreover, I’m just not a fan of the regional designations – I can buy into them from an historical and geographical basis, but for little more.

The growing use of the term "Islands" particularly irks me.

From The Instant Expert’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch (upcoming 2nd edition):

Fairly recently, there has been a movement to define a new region called the “Islands.” The term refers to all of the whisky-producing islands (except Islay) of Scotland – Skye, Jura, Orkney, Arran, & Mull. These islands are geographically dispersed around the perimeter of Scotland and because of this, as well as the lack of an identifiable style among the distilleries, I don’t treat them a separate region, but include them instead with the Highlands.

I asked Jim Murray (well-known whisky expert and author of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible) his views on the Islands:

“Islands. No, I have never regarded them as a region mainly because their styles do vary. No other island, for instance, produces the honey thread one finds in both Highland Park and Scapa. Some island whiskies produce recently peated drams, like on Jura and Mull; and historically like on Skye. And where does Arran fit in with those? Doesn’t really.”

So, if regional designations mean nothing, what makes one distillery different than another?

I chatted with Mark Reynier about the concept of terroir:

Kevin Erskine: David contends, and I agree, that the regional classifications are not useful for much.

Mark Reynier: David is right. The ‘appellations’ or regions of of Highland, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown were merely administrational divisions to make it easier to manage distilling licenses in the nineteenth century; it had bugger-all to do with taste.

Sure, all those years ago no one would have foreseen the demise of Campbeltown from 32 to 3 distilleries; or the dominance of Speyside; or the collapse of Lowland. But they are not terroirs.

I think these regions are more to do with cataloguing and pigeon-holing for bar lists and books than anything else.

The concept of terroir is misunderstood and erroneously applied.  I do not believe a distillery, a bunch of buildings, itself exhibits a Terroir in the true sense of the word. It probably did more so in the old days when barely was grown around the distillery and indigenous yeasts were used. But today, where the barley is grown, the maturation location, the water can show terroir attributes but are sadly rarely applicable today.

KE: Let’s talk about Barley…which is rarely locally grown.

MR: The real concept of ‘terroir’, as opposed to the glib and trendy use by marketing departments, is actually very easy to prove:

At the last Islay Festival, I organised a tasting that 147 members of the public took part in; ‘nosing’ 4 new spirit. The samples were drawn from the spirit safe at 0 age, colourless, identically distilled, same harvest, but from 4 different ‘terroirs’. 100% of the tasters – all members of the public – on the nose alone, could tell that the 4 samples were different.  The ‘Terroir’ was the only difference between the samples: the fields where the barley was grown. In this case the soil, bedrock, microclimate all played their part. That’s ‘terroir’.

Today, barley is used from where ever it is cheapest/ best yielding and has nothing to do with the distillery itself  (some use English barley, some have even used Australian).

KE: Does that matter?

MR: Sure it does! Which is more important?  Islay grown or Global barley?

KE: Depends which traditionalist you talk to. Some say that without local barley and maltings "terroir" is not provable. To others, the fact that the barley is not from Scotland is the worst thing in the world. In my opinion, the origin of the barley is besides the fact…

MR: That’s complete twaddle!  That is precisely the industry line… Of course, locally grown barley is relevant. Locally grown to whom though? Local malting is, I have to say, irrelevant, even though we are planning to do this ourselves. One could argue a case for the influence of the origin of peat used during kilning, but I think that is a very long shot.

KE: I’ll agree that it would be nice from "Scotland First" viewpoint to only use Scottish barley – but does it impact end spirit? Likewise, does the location of the maltings matter to the final product? Likely only for tourism purposes… Do you think that Scottish Barley has an impact on final flavor?

MR: If you mean ‘does Scottish barley in general taste different to English barley’ No, of course I could not say that. But barley, like any growing thing, is influenced by climate, soil and cultivation techniques. We use exclusively Scottish barely. Why?  Call me a sad bastard but it says ‘Product of Scotland’ on the label – and I feel  that is important. That’s all.

Currently we use 6 different farms – or ‘terroirs’ and I can show anyone the different character from each one.  What is more – I can show you an annual difference too from the same field; a vintage difference if you like – another concept that will be ridiculed as impossible. I can show that organically grown barely produces better flavours, but come to Bruichladdich and you can see for yourself.

The marketing men will say it is all Scottish – but I know for a fact that it is not possible.  For starters, all Port Ellen maltings barley comes from England. That’s one of several  reasons why we use Inverness.

We are considering reopening our own maltings –  not for a romantic, tourist reason, but purely for commercial reality – as we believe it will become increasingly difficult to expand our different ‘terroirs’ or farms with our current arrrangements – because of increased consolidation in the malting sector. And because we have another project up our sleeve. But this is not a terroir attribute.

Would you include still shape/size in your definition of terroir?

MR: No – not for terroir. But, still shape is very important to the weight of spirit; this is more influenced by history than place. Older distilleries –  often originally farms – have smaller, generally onion-shaped stills with short-necks that produce heavier alcohol as these were the biggest capacity they could fit in to a stable when they decided to go legitimate around 1823. The younger distilleries like ours were purpose-built and so not confined by space and consequently have taller narrower necked stills producing elegant and floral spirits.

KE: But did they design the still for a particular (expected) flavour, or did the still shape come as a matter of available and space – and the resulting spirit turned into the house style?

MR: Probably the latter. Which is why folk don’t mess with the shape – and new stills are copied exactly from the original – assuming the result was what pleased. An Islay distillery (around 1975) produced a double sized wash still to the exact same blue print, but it did not produce the same results.

The bottling and mashing water are highly relevant. We use three different waters in different phases of production – mashing, cooling and bottling. All three come from Islay for mashing it is peaty and mineral. The cooling water comes from the burn and the bottling water from a spring that is crystal clear. As far as I am aware it is the only spring water used in bottling, and comes from 1800 million year old Gneiss rock – the oldest in the Scotch whisky industry – and not an industrial estate.

The problem with terroir – is that until scientific research is done, no one has the definitive proof and this allows every Tom Dick And Harry to stick their oar in ‘authoritatively’.

KE: My fear is that if terroir is NOT a factor then a large company could set up one massive distillery with an "Islay Room", a “Speyside Room” and ship the water in…

MR: I agree, perhaps if terroir has no relevance, Scotch whisky will be produced like the Irish at Cork.

Some think that the location/type of warehousing doesn’t have an impact. I disagree (for the most part). At least, I hope there’s something to warehouse location…

MR: You are referring  to the "No Salt in Malt" argument. I believe strongly that warehousing does have an impact; at least whisky matured beside the sea does show a marine influence – this is not mere anecdotal evidence – anyone who has tasted Bruichladich, Springbank or Lochside can see for themselves.

But we have shore uncovered up to 50 meters out twice a day, not 20 metres from our warehouses – and a prevailing Atlantic wind that can knock you off your feet. I am convinced that this heavily marine-influenced atmosphere impacts our maturing spirit: Casks breath alcohol out and air in. If they did not there would either be no Angel’s share or there would be a vacuum and you’d never get the bung out!

Sadly, as Andrew Jefford wrote in his excellent book Peat, Smoke & Spirit a good deal of Islay whisky is not even matured here on Islay – even when the distilleries are located on the sea – and their stocks are matured centrally inland. The losses are higher for some reason on the islands than in the mainland, so economically it makes more sense for the big boys to tanker the spirit away to the mainland.

Some  companies have managed to remove the very factors that influence ‘terroir’ – such as barley origins, warehousing and water – and then say "Terroir does not exist, so what’s the problem? "

That’s why I am doing everything to put it back.

KE: I think the peat monsters being warehoused off-island lends to peoples’ thoughts that Islay maturation is not important in an Islay.

MR: Sadly, I think you are right.  That’s the problem. And do you think that one man speaking out is going to make any difference? That’s what Jefford was getting at in his book – and which is why he will probably never write again in the whisky industry. He too is a wine man, and looked at Islay from a refreshingly non-industry perspective.

But rest assured, soon we will have the definitive proof that warehousing does have an influence as described above: we have dispatched around Scotland  various casks of  our new spirit to different destinations – precisely to gather evidence thatdoes not yet ‘officially’ exist.

To give you an idea of  how the consumer is being deliberately confused, figure this out:

"Our findings…..show that it is Scotland and its climate that is the important thing. It is irrelevant to us whether XXXX is aged on Islay or in Central Scotland. Almost all XXXX for example is warehoused in Central Scotland and yet people still find a ‘sea salt ‘ character in it.

There is no scientific evidence to show that whiskies aged in different places in Scotland are significantly different from one another, and in some ways quite the opposite."

And guess why there is no scientific evidence? The Scotch Whisky Research Institute has never been commissioned  to research this subject. And guess who The SWRI is owned by…?

Then the same company’s marketing department:

"whipped by the sea spray of the West Coast … the sea air and iodine peat give XXXX its powerful marine character, influenced by seaweed and pepper."

So which is it? And of course the whisky is not matured there.

I bet none of them drink even drink whisky.

This topic has stirred up a lot of interest – as a result there will be more stories on "terroir" in the coming weeks…

Into the Wood

The interaction between wood and whisky is one of the most interesting, if not completely understood components of the whisky production process.

The following article is based primarily on a presentation entitled “A Wood Primer” that John Glaser of Compass Box Whisky created and was kind enough to share with me – much of the content of that presentation was based on the work of Dr. Jim Swan who is well known for his work as a consultant in the whisky industry and who is currently working with the Welsh Whisky Company in the production of Penderyn. Additional information came from a recent article by Ian Wisniewski entitled America – the Stave in issue 52 of Whisky Magazine; the work of Dr. Masaharu Minabe of Suntory; Graeme Richardson of William Grant & Sons; and Dave "Robbo" Robertson of the JMR Easy Drinking Whisky Company. Enjoy!


Why Oak?

One of the most frequently asked questions is “Why do whisky makers use Oak?”

The reason that Oak is utilized is its unique physical and chemical nature. Oak has strength –  physically, its wide radial rays give strength when shaped for a cask; Oak is also a "pure wood" as opposed to pine or rubber trees which contain resin canals that can pass strong flavors to maturing whisky.

But it’s not just the Oak itself, it’s the transformation that happens to the Oak as a result of the seasoning and heating treatments during the coopering process – these result in the production of pleasant-tasting Oak lactones.

Oak has three broad effects on the spirit:

  1. Additive – Adds organoleptically (a $0.50 word meaning the taste and aroma properties of a food or chemical) desirable elements from the cask.  For example: vanillin, Oak lactone (coconut, bourbon character), toastiness, wood sugars and color.
  2. Subtractive – Removes undesirable elements from new make spirit. For example: sulphur compounds and immaturity.
  3. Interactive – Adds extractive wood elements from the cask and converts them to organoleptically desirable elements. For example: change tannins to acetals; change acetic acid to fruity esthers.

Dr. Swan defines 5 specific constituents of Oak and identifies how they influence maturing spirit:

  • Cellulose – Which has virtually no effect other than to hold the wood together.
  • Hemicellulose – Which consists of simple sugars that break down when heated and provide:
    • Body: through the addition of wood sugars
    • "Toasty & carmelised aromas & flavors"
    • Color (unaged or "new make" whisky is a clear liquid)
  • Lignin – The binding agent that hold the cellulose in wood together which, when heated yield:
    • Vanillin
    • Sweet, smoky and spice aromas
  • Oak Tannins* – Which play an essential role in maturation by enabling oxidation and the creation of delicate fragrance in spirits. Tannins combine with oxygen and other compounds in the spirit to form acetals over time. According to Dr. Swan, acetals:

Have a strongly ethereal influence on the product giving it delicacy and top-note…without it, spirits are dull and flat.

*Naturally occurring preservative compounds with a slightly puckery, astringent taste in the mouth, similar to the effect of strong black tea or fresh walnuts.

  • Oak Lactones – Resulting from lipids in the Oak, they increase dramatically during toasting and charring and can pass on a strong woody and perhaps coconut character; lactones give bourbon its distinctive character; and occur in higher concentrations in American Oak than in European varieties.

Will any Oak do?
So any Oak tree can be used when making a whisky barrel? No. Of the hundreds of Oak species, just three species are used for wine and whisky cooperage:

Quercus Alba, “White Oak” (America)

  • Commonly referred to as “American Oak”
  • The most commonly used variety in whisky cooperage
  • More vanillin than European varieties
  • Fast growth
  • High in lactones, which when toasted, provide woody, vanilla, and coconut flavors

Quercus Petraea, “Sessile Oak” (Europe)

  • Found across Europe, notably in France
  • Most commonly used for wine cooperage
  • Slow growth, fine tannins and more vanilla (compared to Pedunculate)
  • Most common species in Tronçais forest

Quercus Robur, “Pedunculate Oak” (Europe)

  • Found across Europe
  • Spanish Oak generates more raisin, prune-like flavors
  • Most commonly used for cognac and sherry cooperage
  • Fast growth, more tannins, thus more oxidative characteristics in the matured products (compared to Sessile)
  • Most common species in Limousin forest

Whoak Now that that’s out of the way, there are a number of other factors in how wood affects whisky. Chief among them are:
- Growth rate of the "donor trees";
- Method and length of time to dry the wood;
- Toasting and charring during cooperage.

Impact of Oak Growth Rate: Slower is Better
Winemakers are convinced of the relationship between Oak growth rates and the flavor and quality of their wines; while in whisky, this factor is not widely considered. It is known that slow growth Oak has more of the “good stuff” – especially vanillins and Oak lactones. White Oak is "fast-growth."

Tis’ the season
Once the wood is cut, the method used to season (dry) the wood has a huge impact. The wood MUST be dried before being used to make barrels – the drying process converts chemical compounds in the wood to more desirable types. How the wood is dried and for how long has a direct impact on the quality of the spirit.

It’s accepted that air seasoning is better than kiln drying (it reduces tannic astringency as well as releases more vanillin), yet, while the barrels used to age wine may be made of staves which have been air dried for as much as 24 months – most bourbon barrels are made from wood which has been kiln dried in a matter of weeks.

Why? Some distillers think that the method for drying the wood is only important for the first-fill of a spirit aged in a new cask, (e.g., wine or bourbon) and has little or no impact when maturing spirits in previously used casks – and of course, Scotch is aged in previously used casks.

The Heat is On
The application of heat is integral to the process of making the barrel – wood fibers behave much like plastic polymers – they want to be straight. In order to bend the staves, they need to be heated. The straight staves are arranged inside a metal hoop and heated. I have heard that either an open flame or steam may be used. As they are heated they become more pliable and are shaped – hoops of various diameters are added to each end – six in total – which are hammered down, towards the middle. Each hoop is held in place by the pressure exerted by the staves as they try to straighten themselves. The casks are then toasted which caramelizes the wood sugars.

This is where the construction of bourbon casks and sherry casks diverge.

Bourbon Vs. Sherry

Bourbon Casks

The barrels, once formed, are charred – the inside of the cask is set on fire for a short period of time, which creates a black charred layer. There are various levels of charring which will have different affects on the spectrum of compounds and
flavors the Oak will impart to the maturing spirit: more vanillins,
lactones, "toastiness," spice characters, and tannins.

Charring casks causes further transformation. Char (carbon) removes sulphur compounds and immaturity from new spirit. Bourbon casks are typically charred for 40 seconds to 1 minute, but some distilleries have experimented with charring times of up to 3-4 minutes. The result of charring is dramatic changes on the surface – for example, wood sugars are caramelized, which will leech into the maturing spirit.

Sherry Casks

Sherry casks are only toasted and not charred. The casks used to mature Oloroso are the most popular with the Scotch industry. Sherry casks can be made of American Oak, but this is usually for Fino Sherries and are generally not used by the Scotch industry. It’s accepted that European Oak adds more flavor than American Oak – sherry cask matured whiskies tend to be more full-bodied than bourbon cask matured ones, and this is likely the result of the type of wood, just as much as the type previous liquid occupant.

More History

The wide-spread use of bourbon barrels is a fairly recent occurrence – a result of the difficulty in sourcing sherry casks during the Spanish civil war in the late 1930’s. Currently any where from 300,000 – 400,000 bourbon casks are acquired for use in the maturation of Scotch whisky – in contrast to only about 18,000 sherry casks.

Contrary to popular belief, very few whiskies are aged exclusively in bourbon barrels – most ex-bourbon aged malts are vatted with a (varying) percentage of whisky which was aged in ex-sherry barrels. Laphroaig, Glemorangie 10, Ardbeg 10, Glenlivet 12, are among those few "pure" ex-bourbon matured whiskies.

It’s not the size of the cask (or is it?)

There are three cask commonly used by the Scotch whisky industry:

  • Barrels –  190 liters/50 gallons
  • Hogsheads – 250 liters/66 gallons
  • Butts – 500 liters/132 gallons

Butts come from the sherry industry while the majority of barrels and hogsheads originate in the bourbon industry. All things being equal, the larger the cask the slower the maturation. Conversely, a smaller cask means that the maturing whisky is exposed to more wood and maturation is quicker – the Laphroaig quarter cask is an example of this.

One last thing
Once a bourbon cask has completed its "first life"  that is, it has been used to age bourbon, it is ready for its second life as a whisky aging vessel. It is broken back down into separate staves and shipped to Scotland. In Scotland, coopers reassemble the staves into casks which will be used to age the whisky that you will enjoy in a few years. Some bourbon casks and all sherry casks are generally shipped whole – not broken down into separate staves.

It’s not common, but some companies re-char ex-bourbon casks before use.

Casks may be used for as many as four fills, i.e., filled with four separate batches of new make spirit. Generally, though, casks are retired after their second, or third re-fills. Sometimes when a cask has reached the end of it’s their useful life – after it has been filled and re-filled so many times that the spirit has taken out all the "good stuff" from the wood, some distillers will shave down the the inside of the cask to reach fresh wood and then the cask will be re-charred.

Below are pictures of this being done at a Diageo Cooperage in Carsebridge. The first picture shows the machine that shaves down the inside of the cask. The second picture shows the recharring – which lasts 30-45 seconds at this cooperage.


How ex-sherry casks are treated, once whisky distillers get their hands on them, differs by distiller. Most will empty the cask of any residual sherry, nose the cask (to ensure the casks smells fresh, and then fill with new spirit. Dave Robertson doesn’t believe any one would char fresh sherry casks unless the sherry cask does not smell "right", in which case they might char, or may simply reject the cask.

I’m sure that in the future I’ll delve more into the nuances of maturation, bottling, etc. But for now, I suggest that you pick up issue 52 of Whisky Magazine. In his article, Ian discusses the various charring techniques – focusing on "how the bourbon barrel influences the taste of whisky." A thoroughly interesting article.

As a matter of fact, if you live in the US and you don’t currently subscribe to Whisky Magazine, you may want to consider a subscription; especially since Paragraph publishing offers readers of The Scotch Blog a 22% discount off a new subscription. Simply go to Whisky Magazine and use the code BLOG1205 when placing your order.