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Whisky Making: A Science & An Art

Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador for The GlenDronach, shares the best way to savour your whisky.

Home, for Stewart Buchanan, is nestled in the valley of Forgue, deep in the eastern Scottish Highlands, and his office is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland.

Buchanan shared his love and insight into the famous Scottish dram while on a recent visit to South Africa for the launch of The GlenDronach to whisky connoisseurs in the country.

What Makes A Single Malt Whisky?

For the whisky beginner, Buchanan explained that for a whisky to be called single malt, it must be made and bottled in Scotland, be a minimum of 40% alcohol, and be matured for at least three years in oak casks. 

A single-malt whisky is the product of a single distillery. Made from a mash of malted barley, single cask malts are from just one cask, while blended malts are a blend of two or more single-malt Scotch whiskies from more than one distillery, and a blended Scotch is a blend of grain and single-malt whiskies.

Since 2004, Buchanan, an engineer by profession, has been involved in every aspect of whisky making, and explains the science and art of whisky production.

“Single-malt whisky production is relatively simple,” says Buchanan, “although each distillery and region offers different styles due to many factors, such as hard or soft water, smoked or unsmoked barley, fermentation time, still shape, and even the location of the maturing barrels, and some of these techniques will be closely guarded by the whisky maker.

Glendronac distillery

The Process

“Malting of the barley is where we start to create the starches (sugars) that we want to extract,” says Buchanan, “and mashing is where we repeatedly mix the ground barley with water to remove the soluble sugars. In fermentation, we add yeast to the sugary liquid (wort) to start the conversion of the sugars to alcohol. At this stage it is similar to beer. In whisky production, we call this ‘wash’, and it is about 8.5% alcohol.

“Typically, although there are some exceptions, single-malt whisky is twice distilled in copper pot stills,” explains Buchanan. “

The first distillation (the wash still) will gently boil the wash, and the resulting evaporating alcohol is known as low wines and is around 26% alcohol.

This is normally distilled again in the smaller spirit stills, and this resulting evaporating spirit is then split into three parts: the start (head) of the run; the middle cut (heart); and the feints (tail). The head is the impurities that we don’t want to keep.

The heart of the run is the perfect, pure alcohols, which we will collect and eventually put to cask. The tail is the low-end alcohol, which we also do not want in our spirit. The heads and the tails are not wasted, and are returned to the still in the next batch.

“Finally, when all the spirit is collected, it will be around 68.5%. The resulting spirit is transferred to a cask, where around 60% to 70% of the character of the whisky will develop,” he explains.

Casks With Character

The cask determines the character of the whisky. “American-oak bourbon barrels give vanilla, toffee, butterscotch and cinnamon flavours, while sherry casks, which are key in The GlenDronach maturation process, give a nuttier character with dark dried fruits, such as raisins, plums and hints of dark chocolate.

“What makes The GlenDronach unique, is our sherry-style leveraging of Pedro Ximenez casks”, says Buchanan.

“The GlenDronach has the highest percentage of Pedro Ximenez in the industry, delivering the most balanced, robust character, and full-bodied sherried taste profile like no other whisky.”

What is the best way to drink whisky?

There is a ritual to drinking whisky the correct way. According to Buchanan, it begins with the right glass.

  • A tulip-shaped glass is best and allows swirling without spilling. It concentrates the aroma near the neck of the glass, funnelling the aroma to your nose.
  • Pour and gently swirl it, coating the sides of the glass with a thin film, or what whisky drinkers know as legs. Generally, the longer the legs, the richer the flavour and the finish (how long the flavour remains on your palate).
  • Nose it by bringing the glass to your nose and inhaling gently, but be careful as cask strength is strong and can “burn” your nose. Take your nose away, come back, and inhale again. Repeating this process will give life to a myriad of smells or flavours, Buchanan says.
  • Take a tiny sip, just enough to coat your tongue – too much will overwhelm your taste buds with the alcohol flavour – and swirl it to get a good mouthfeel. What does it taste like?
  • Savour the finish by swallowing the whisky, opening your mouth slightly to taste the lingering flavours. The finish refers to the flavours that explode in your mouth after you have swallowed the whisky. Finish will be distinctly different from mouthfeel and adds another layer of complexity.
  • Add a few drops of water – this slightly dilutes the alcohol content and opens up the flavour of the whisky, giving it a whole new character. The higher alcohol content, when tasting without water added, can mask the flavours and aromas. Adding a little water removes the heady alcohol smell and taste, allowing the true flavours of the spirit to shine through.
  • Repeat that tasting now with a little water added, and you will note how the whisky has changed and developed.
Glendronach Distillery

Glendronach Distillery

How to start building a collection

“You should become familiar with the single-malt category. Knowledge is key to knowing what to look out for,” Buchanan says.

He recommends finding a theme around which to build your collection, such as your favourite distillery or style, single-cask bottlings, distillery exclusives, or small-batch expressions.

“A collection doesn’t always have to be the old and rare vintages, but you can build towards that as you gain confidence in expanding your collection.”

“Most collectors start off as single-malt lovers and drinkers and do it for the passion. Soon, enjoying single-malt drinking becomes a lifestyle. It draws you in as you get to know more about the category, and meet all the great characters within it,” he added.

Buchanan suggests a bottle from The GlenDronach single cask bottlings. The GlenDronach is one of the few single-malt distilleries that offer single-cask bottlings.

“Our Master blender selects one of her favourite vintages, which are individually numbered cask bottlings at cask strength. This is a rare chance to taste single malt going from cask directly to bottle. These bottlings are limited due to the volume of each cask, and we are careful to allocate these fine and rare expressions across the globe.”

Trends globally

“The demographic of the whisky consumer has changed dramatically over the last five years, getting younger, with a growing number of female consumers,” says Buchanan. “There is a growing appreciation for all styles across the category rather than consumers sticking to just one brand or style. Customers are becoming more adventurous when it comes to single malts.

“Distilleries also have more to offer these days by using a wider range of casks in maturation such as Rum, Port, Madeira, Marsala, as well as different wine styles. This offers a flavour and character that attracts a consumer that would not normally have been drawn to the single-malt category,” he adds.

Words by Pauline Sayers

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