Whiskey (with the E) refers to any distilled spirit made from a cereal grain.
Whisky (without the E) refers primarily to Scotch.
This site is about Whisky.
During my 30+ year’s association with single-malt Scotch whisky, I have had the privilege and opportunity to experience many aspects of this most majestic of drinks. During this time, I have written many articles for print and online publications. In this space, I will reprint some of the more memorable ones, and I hope you enjoy them all.
Antique Tools for Whisky-making
In expressing one of his many thoughts about tools and technology, Steve Jobs said, “What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” This philosophy accurately describes the craftsmanship with which whisky has been made for well over a century, as the tools of the trade have kept pace with evolving technology.
I have been collecting antique tools used to make Scotch for many years. These pieces were won at auction, purchased at antique stores in Scotland, received as gifts, and found on eBay. Combined with pieces of peat, stalks of barley, wooden bungs, and charred barrel staves, the tools bring tangible understanding of the processes of whisky making to audiences during my educational tasting events.
A few of the essential tools used in the whisky-making process include these:
ADZE Often appearing in crossword puzzles (as “wood shaping tool”), the adze is used in barrel making to shape and smooth wood.
DRAW SHAVE or DRAW KNIFE
Used for finer finishing of the wood than the adze provides. Draw knives were used as long ago as the 1600s.
HYDROMETER This Sikes Hydrometer dates to the 1950s (it was invented in 1802 by Bartholomew Sikes) and was used to determine the strength of spirits for both the distiller and tax collector. The kit consists of a float, a variety of weights, and a thermometer.
MALT SHOVEL In the hands of a maltman, the wide paddle blade is used to aerate the barley, laying about a foot deep on the malting floor, to insure consistent germination of the grain.
PEAT CUTTER The right-angle blade would be pushed downward, through boggy peat, yielding a block of peat measuring about 3” x 4” x 24”.
PROOF SLIDE RULE This tool was used to determine the alcoholic proof (strength) of the spirit.
VALINCH or WHISKY THIEF Used as a pipette to extract a sample of spirit from a barrel for sampling or quality control. It is inserted into the barrel through the bunghole.
Over 500 Years of Scotch History
Scotch’s rich history spans more than half a millennium, from a time when the lexicon of the day gives our modern spellcheck feature apoplexy. Today, we gain instant gratification researching whisky with a keystroke. Following is a brief overview of significant events in this illustrious history.
1494 – First recorded mention of a spirit distilled from barley in Scotland.
“Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor, wherewith to make aqua vitae.”
Scottish Exchequer Rolls, 1494
1519 – Hieronymus Brunschwig, German physician, chemist, and pharmacologist writes Little Book of Distillation, one of the earliest books ever written concerning the subject of chemistry. The book includes instructions on how to distill aqua vitae, and due to its descriptions and illustrations of distillation equipment, it was considered an authoritative text well into the 16th century.
1577 – Hollinshed publishes Chronicles.
“It sloweth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth flegme, it relisheth the harte, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirits, it cureth the hydropsie, it repelleth gravel … and trulie it is a sovereign liquor if it be orderlie taken.”
Raphael Hollinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577
1745 – Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland clans’ uprising crushed; illicit stills proliferate.
1780s – Robert Burns writes about whisky in many of his works:
- “ … Leeze me on thee, John Barleycorn, thou king o’ grain!”
- “Freedom an’ whisky gang tegither, tak aff your dram!”
1784 – "Highland Line" established for tax purposes, differentiating the Highlands from the Lowlands.
1870 – The Phylloxera vastarix blight ruins French grape crops, decimating the supply of wine and cognac and allowing the whisky to be introduced to the palettes of thirsty consumers.
1887 – Alfred Barnard publishes the iconic The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, describing in exhaustive detail his visits to over 120 distilleries.
Late 1800s – Early 1900s – Rise of the “Big 5 Whisky Barons”. The efforts of these men helped to revolutionize the Scotch whisky industry, and the proliferation of blended whisky around the world:
- James Buchanan (Black and White)
- Thomas and John Dewar (Dewar’s)
- James and Peter Mackie (White Horse)
- John and Alexander Walker (Johnnie Walker); business started in1820, in Kilmarnock, Scotland
- Robert Haig (Haig and Haig); H&H was the whisky onboard the S.S. Politician when it ran aground on the Isle of Eriskay – the basis for Compton McKenzie’s Whisky Galore.
Other notable names of the era are the Berry Brothers – Francis and Walter, Arthur Bell, Aeneas Coffey, and James Stevenson.
1920 – 1932 – America’s “Noble Experiment,”; aka Prohibition.
1963 – Creation of the single malt Scotch whisky category of spirits.
2009 – Scotch Whisky Association redefines official category names of Scotch whisky as:
- Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- Single Grain Scotch Whisky
- Blended Scotch Whisky
- Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
- Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
2012 – Johnnie Walker production ends in Kilmarnock after 192 years.
2013 – Present – A few of the newest trends include
- Distilleries “Going Green” with environmental and sustainability concerns being paramount. The Macallan Distillery (Speyside) is at the forefront of this movement.
- Elimination of age statements, in favor of word descriptions like series of Nordic battles, colors of the liquid, and descriptions of casks or whisky-making tools.
- Blurring the descriptions of flavor and aroma from the various distillation regions, i.e., we now have peaty whiskies from Speyside, and fruity & floral expressions from Islay.
The Macallan Distillery
In its own way, each bottle of Scotch whisky is a time capsule, reflecting the industry’s evolution over centuries. Through the years, one shining constant rises above all else – the passion of the people involved in “the blood of Scotland.” Alfred Barnard, in 1887, writing in The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom: “Again, I wish to stimulate an interest in the art of distilling among those who trade in whisky, and to aid in demonstrating what I am convinced is correct, that good whisky, as a beverage, is the most wholesome spirit in the world.”