Andresky: Scotland’s whisky feels the ‘burn’ that bourbons don’t
There is an old Scottish saying about how to predict their weather: “If it’s not raining, then it’s about to.” The land of endless rainbows resonates in my memory when I toured the famous Highlands some years back.
A Scottish whisky-maker back then told me that the “burn” is what makes the “Uisge Beatha,” which is Gaelic for “water of life.” A burn is a spring water-fed stream. It’s the source of all great scotch. Like our American whiskey (notice we use an E in the spelling), the water makes all the difference.
The Scottish Isle of Islay (pronounced Is-Lay) ferments the strongest-tasting scotch malts of all, an almost medicinal flavor incomparable to any other. The water source of those Islay distillers, such as Ardbeg, Lagavullin and Laphroaig, are the spring waters that flow over long stretches of dense peat bogs. The burn plays the biggest role for that strong, peaty taste. The intensely fresh, clean spring water on the Isle of Islay is soft water. And almost everywhere else in Scotland, scotch is made from soft water.
In Tennessee and Kentucky, our American bourbon benefits from its water sources as well. American bourbons use naturally hard water, which gives the yeast nutrients to help it thrive.
Scotland’s soft water comes from springs that most likely have contact with granite. Granite is an impervious rock, unlike Tennessee limestone or chalky Kentucky subsoils and is usually mineral-free and purer than hard water-fed springs.
At least four Scottish distillers use hard water, so you can compare hard- and soft-water scotches. On the Orkney Islands, two scotch-makers, Scapa and Highland Park, use hard water. Glenmorangie, a very popular single-malt brand, sources from the Tarlogie Springs, which have underground limestone beds, but are not quite as hard as bourbon water sources. Glenmorangie has honey-like character. The fourth, Glenkinchie, has high levels of calcium in its hard-water burn.
Scottish single malt-makers profess that the purity of scotch is also in the type of barley used. It’s this roasted malt barley process that comes in contact with the burn and “cooks” it all together to make single-malt scotch.
Granted, there are more steps, but most Scottish people usually don’t drink single-malt; they drink blended. A blended scotch, like Johnnie Walker or Cutty Sark can be made not only from barley, but wheat and corn. This lighter version was what woke the Highlanders up in the middle 1800s and sent their royal whisky economically around the world.
A calamity occurred in the 1860s. France and greater Europe became the center of an infestation called phylloxera. This tiny root-sucking louse not only destroyed grapevines for wine but also the grapes used to make cognac. The French soon lost the high-octane, brandy market and ready to absorb it were the Scottish Highlanders.
Scotch whisky-makers began using glass bottles for their blends and shipped them off to Europe, North America and Asia. Scotch barons made vast fortunes worldwide. Whisky barons like Tommy Dewar, Alexander Walker and John Haig still bottle their blends today.
Legend has it that St. Patrick not only cast out the snakes in Ireland, but was the first person to distill from malted barley. Yes, the Irish are most often given the credit for the Scots’ party drink.
As one Scottish Highlander said, “Aye, the Irish may have invented the stuff, but we perfected it.”
• More about Andy Andresky: Owner of the 1776 restaurant in Crystal Lake, Andresky has written about wine for the Northwest Herald since 1999. He is a wine consultant for area businesses and teaches wine tasting and appreciation classes. Andresky can be reached through his Web site, www.1776restaurant.com.