Friday, 6 September 2013

Scotland 2013: Whiskey: the Spirit of the Land!


Whiskey! If I am cynical, that is what most tourists are coming to Islay for! This island is worldwide famous for its quality whiskey’s. Currently, there are eight major distilleries on Islay and all of them offer quite extensive opportunities for visitors to get acquainted with their products. I love whiskey, mostly the single malts, and I am particularly a fan of what I call “whiskey with character and attitude”. I enjoy the quite peaty Islay malts such as Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Lagavulin, but I also love the softer varieties such as Bunnahabhain or Bruichladdich. So, a large portion of our stay on Islay has been devoted to visiting the places where these delights are made.

Now, whiskey to me is not something ‘to drink’, it is something to savour slowly, let it work its magic in your mouth and nostrils. It is an experience. A good single malt contains the spirit of the land, the water, the soil and the sun, and it contains the spirit of the people who made it. The term ‘spirit’ is used for the final product that flows from the ‘spirit still’: the raw product that after maturation in wooden casks becomes the product so many love. And if you taste that and compare it with the final product (as we have done several times), it really contains the spirit of what is to come after ten years or so.
The production of whiskey is a fascinating process which is overall very much the same for each distillery but is also very different for each in its details. Things like mash times and temperatures (extracting the sugars from the malt), fermentation times, distillation set-ups and the actual ‘cuts’ are all different and, according to most, contribute significantly to the character of the product.
The whole process also has many links to alchemy as the method to produce the spirit is virtually the same as the procedure that is used to isolate a plant’s Mercury. In the case of whiskey, though, the volatile Sulphur, which is highly individual and a reflection of all the various things that make each distillery unique, is also distilled together with the alcohol (Mercury). The “new make” (what flows from the still) does not taste or smell like pure ethanol, there are all sorts of components in it as well: phenols and esters predominantly. Those are then combined with the alchemical Salt, which in this case is found in the wood of the cask. That “fixes” the volatiles and turns them into the finished product.

The result? The “exalted” essence of “the land” where it was made and matured, brought about by the love, dedication and devotion of the people performing this alchemy. I noticed that my appreciation for the Islay malts has deepened since my stay. These “land spirits” now trigger a deep connection with land itself, which I built by consciously contacting this land while I was there. I mentioned such contacts also at the Kildalton Cross, here is another example. This time in drinkable form!
Slàinte mhath!      

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