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Issue 3 - The elements of style part 1

Whisky Magazine Issue 3
May 1999


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The elements of style part 1

Part one: the raw materials What determines the character of a malt whisky? In the first of a three-part series Professor Alan Rutherford looks at the effect water, barley and yeast have on flavour.

At any one time, over recent decades, there have been between about 80 and 100 malt distilleries operational in Scotland. The fortune and reputation of each of these is dependent on the consistency and distinctive character of its spirit.

In this piece I will try to describe from my own experience those aspects of the distiller's raw materials that have most effect upon malt spirit character. In the next issue I will cover the distillery processes, and finally I will explore the art and science of selecting casks to suit the spirit and the effects of maturation.

The process of making Scotch whisky is rigidly defined in UK and EC law, and this legality extends to most overseas markets. In addition to geographical restrictions, the law allows the use of only very few natural and wholesome ingredients, with no processing additives: the permitted ingredients at the distillery are water, cereals and yeast. In the case of Scotch malt whisky, the cereal used is simply 100 per cent malted barley. How important is each of these to the final spirit character?

The tale is often told of two neighbouring distilleries, taking their water supplies from different slopes of the same hill, yet making very different whiskies. I have no doubt that this statement is true, but I am equally sure that the reasons for the differing whisky characters have nothing to do with their water. Most Scotch malt distilleries have their own jealously guarded water supplies, and rightly so as water is...

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