Of all the cereals needed to make whisky, whether in Scotland or elsewhere, barley tops the list. The reason lies in one word: diastase, an enzyme plentiful in barley which spurs the crucial switch of starch to sugars, not just in barley but in other cereals as well.
Recent archaeological discoveries in the Middle East have revealed that homo sapiens started tippling several thousand years earlier than originally thought.
At a time of whisky boom and new distilleries opening almost monthly, it may seem strange to harp on about vanished distilleries. However, more than 100 Scots distilleries, plus countless bonded warehouses and other whisky-linked buildings, have disappeared in the past century or so.
Having described the effects of US Prohibition, both on America and the wider world, it is only proper to say the temperance movement a century ago was not solely a US phenomenon. In December 1920 Scotland held local referendums on outlawing alcohol and many places voted “dry” and closed their pubs and off-licences, many for decades.
The long-forgotten TV series on Eliot Ness and The Untouchables portrayed the enforcers of US Prohibition as brave, determined men battling the gangster bootleggers who smuggled drink into the States from Canada and Mexico or who brewed low-quality hooch to sell at sky-high prices.
Aside from several Islamic countries, no nation on earth bans alcoholic drink, and the reason is simple. They have learned the lesson from Prohibition, when the US banned alcoholic drink from 1920-33, arguably the most disastrous policy adopted by a democratic state in modern history – although Brexit may well come to supersede it in the long run...
I have frequently commented in this column on how prices of whiskies from lost distilleries have skyrocketed in recent years as a combination of increasing rarity and speculation have driven prices through the roof.
It has often struck me that different nations and cultures, for all their differences, share certain aspects of folklore in common.
For all the current mushroom growth of new distilleries is a welcome boon after the 1980s-90s when so many distilleries closed, I worry that many of the new ones will struggle long-term to survive.
One growing phenomenon in the whisky industry is special cask finishes—after 10 years or whatever in standard bourbon casks, a single malt is transferred into a port, sherry or other cask for its final year or two of maturation. Those last two years give the spirit the extra colour and deep taste which adds that final panache to what is already a fine whisky.