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Issue 5 - The elements of style part 3

Whisky Magazine Issue 5
August 1999

 

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The elements of style part 3

Part three maturation In the third and final part of his series on what influences the flavour of malt whisky, Professor Alan Ruthrford turns his attention to the ageing process.

In Parts One and Two of this series I attempted to describe the nuances of malt whisky character that arise from the raw materials (Part One) and from the distilling process (Part Two) respectively. The variables available to the maltster and the distiller lead to a wonderful diversity of new-make spirits ready to be filled into oak casks. However, anyone who has nosed or tasted newly distilled malt spirits might be excused some amazement that these raw, sharp flavoured, immature products should be capable of maturing into the complex, rounded and smooth-drinking whiskies which we know and love.

I mentioned in Part Two that an accident of history resulted in stills being made of copper – a substance now known to be essential to our distillation chemistry. A second and equally essential point is that our forbears would quite naturally have turned to wooden casks for storing and transporting their wines, beers and spirits. In most of Europe wooden casks superseded animal skins many centuries ago, providing strong, durable and easily handled containers which had a much more attractive effect on flavour than animal skins, and whose basic physical design has not been improved upon in almost three millennia.

Casks have, of course, been made of many types of wood over the years; beech, elm, chestnut, ash, teak, sycamore, pine, fir and even yew have all been tried. However, oak was favoured for most alcoholic beverages. The Scotch Whisky Order of 1990 specifies a minimum of three...

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