The role of the cask in whisky making is crucial and entire forests of white oak are planted, grown and managed in the US to supply the barrel makers. They supply the bourbon industry and the ex-bourbon barrels come to Scotland, either complete or knocked-down. Pre-used casks from Spain, Portugal and France also find their way here – the Scotch industry can never get enough of them.
Two weeks ago I mentioned the importance of the enzyme zymase in yeast for whisky making. Today we look at that other indispensable ingredient – barley (pictured) – and its enzyme, diastase. Without barley, specifically malted barley, whisky wouldn’t exist.
Centuries ago, illegal distilling and smuggling were rampant in Scotland and Ireland as successive governments tried, unsuccessfully, to control distilling and to tax the distillers, or the whisky, or both.
The German writer and philosopher Goethe once wrote: “Where there is the brightest light, there is also the darkest shadow.”
It has always struck me that people in these islands – especially Scots and the Irish – have a strange attitude to drink, epitomised by a onetime friend who once said: “If I can remember the end of a party, it wasn’t a good one.” Of all folk in Western Europe, it seems we (especially when young) too often drink only to get tanked rather than enjoy the great taste and inner relaxation drink can bring.
It takes a particularly strong frame of mind to write about a subject that seems to be in terminal decline — but that is what makes Aeneas Macdonald’s book, Whisky, so fascinating. It was written in 1930 when the fortunes of Scotch whisky were at their all-time nadir.
One of the underappreciated facts about international trade is how disproportionately valuable certain goods and commodities are. To take a simple example: the Swiss export (among other things) Gruyere cheese and Rolex watches. However, one Rolex watch can be worth as much as, say, half a ton of Gruyere.
There’s no doubt Scottish distilleries are becoming, along with Nessie and famous castles, big magnets attracting ever more tourists to Scotland. The Scotch Whisky Association reckons 1.7 million people visited Scotland’s distilleries last year. I can only urge those distilleries that haven’t yet contemplated a visitor centre to open one.
The Scotch whisky industry will undoubtedly be seriously affected by Brexit. After all, France is the biggest export market by volume for Scotch, although exports to the US have higher value as Americans tend to buy rare and old malts whereas France buys cheap blends in bulk. Many other EU countries buy big volumes of the cratur, adding up to the biggest single market for it.
The burnished copper stills seen in every malt distillery have become both a symbol of the whisky industry and, to a lesser extent, a sort of Scottish icon. And, as the industry continues to win new converts to the cratur across the world, the demand for stills keeps increasing. Which in turn is good news for the firms that make the stills and related distillery equipment.