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A regional appreciation of the science of whisky

whisky bottles

In December 2009, Jacob Fuller of Cambridge Wine Merchants conducted a whisky tasting for the Cambridge and Great Eastern Group.

Jacob described the fascinating story of the evolution of whisky making in Scotland and how the different processes and techniques influence the quality and characteristics of the final product.

Scotland is divided into six whisky-producing regions; Speyside, Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown, Islands and Islay. Although each whisky is unique, the malts produced in each region have some common characteristics, which separate them from whiskies from other regions. These differences are the result of several factors, such as different raw materials and production techniques.

Several of the malts sampled had pronounced peaty, smoky flavours with an intensely phenolic or medicinal character. Traditionally, the peatiest malts come from the island of Islay, but there are distilleries, such as Highland Park and Talisker, which offer smoky spirits. Traditionally, it was believed that the peatiness came from the peaty local water used in production. In reality, it comes from the burning peat used under the barley before milling and mashing.

The other key influence on the raw spirit is ageing in oak casks. By law, all Scotch whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks in Scotland, though many are matured for much longer. The casks have generally been used for maturation of other alcoholic beverages, for example, sherry, port, madeira or bourbon, which reduces the levels of extractable tannins present and imparts other desirable flavours.

Malt whiskies brought for tasting included:

  • Bruichladdich X4+3: (cask strength, 63.5% proof). Pale and fragrant, quadruple distilled and the most alcoholic single malt ever. Matured in French oak.
  • Bairn of Islay: (40% proof). Cambridge Wine Merchants' own bottling of a young heavily-peated Bunnahabhain’s. Super-rare.
  • Pittyvaich: Speyside. The distillery was closed in 1991. Very rare.
  • Edradour: (cask strength single cask) sherry first fill, unfiltered. Ten years in a sherry cask. Rich and heavy.
  • Rosebank: (cask strength 56%) 1991 Triple-distilled’ in the Lowland style. Very rare, the distillery was closed in 1993. Very fine floral bouquet.
  • Bruichladdich Octomore: The peatiest malt ever (140ppm phenolics!). Complex and delicious, and far from one-dimensional, as might be expected.

Scottish-themed food was provided to help soak up the whisky, including cheese and oatcakes, black bun and shortbread, ensuring that a most enjoyable evening was had by all. SCI’s Cambridge and Great Eastern Group would like to thank Jacob Fuller for his whisky expertise, and thank committee members John O’Toole for helping to organise the event and Doug Prain for baking the black bun, which was made to a traditional Scottish recipe.

John Wilkins, Chairman SCI’s Cambridge and Great Eastern Regional Group

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