The formula for flavour
Nick Hammond visits Auchentoshan, a lowland distillery near Glasgow, where he discovers the importance of 'wood management' in whisky making.
It's not the silty burn water that flows through heather-clad peat bogs. Nor is it the loch water used in the tuns or the carefully smoked barley, grown in the nearby fertile fields.
The real 'essence' of a Scottish malt whisky; the bulk of its body, its odour, character and colour is down to the barrels it is kept in and where those barrels are stored. Of course, where the whisky is stored and where it originates does have an impact on the end result. But not as much as those barrels. They call it wood management up here.
A refreshingly trouble-free trip on Virgin trains with a snowbound Scotland unfolding before my eyes, a short car journey from Glasgow Central and I finally arrive at the classic whitewashed distillery of Auchentoshan. The smell of malted barley is redolent and strangely exciting. The distillery is in full production.
I love a wee dram, but I'm no expert. But a short tour of this invigorating little distillery later and my whisky knowledge has increased exponentially. Oh no. I can feel another obsession coming on.
By law, a malt whisky must be distilled entirely from a mash of malted barley and a single malt is the product of a single distillery - hence the unique and identifying flavours found in each. Even a single malt, however, may be the result of blending several different casks of different ages from within the chosen distillery.
I was surprised to hear the experts stress the importance of wood management.
'It is the very lifeblood of the whisky, its personality,' says Richard Paterson, whisky expert extraordinaire and Master Blender at Whyte & Mackay. 'I choose the particular whisky I want from a particular distillery, I source my casks from across the globe and I carefully determine where I want the resulting cask to be stored to achieve exactly the blend I am after.'
Ron Morrison of Robert Graham Ltd, concurs: 'We specialise in independent bottlings of Scotch whiskies and we are single cask specialists, which means we select one specific cask from a particular distillery,' he explains from his must-see store on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, over a glass of the latest house special, Hoebeg.
'We get to choose what we buy,' he continues, 'then we decide where, and in what casks, it is to be stored, and for how long, until it is ready for bottling.'
All this means there is an almost endless variation on the classic themes of Scotch whisky; the light, harmonious whisky of the Lowlands; the sweet, fruity varieties from Speyside; the smooth, heather-sweet malts from the Highlands and the pungent, oily, peat and seaweed barnstormers from the islands. The peatiness, for example, is introduced in differing degrees when peat is used to malt the barley.
Those with little or no knowledge of the subject often sniff at blended whiskies. I admit to being one of them. But Richard Paterson - known in the business as 'The Nose' because of his extraordinary olfactory sense - soon puts me right as we enter his incredible blending room in Glasgow.
'I nose hundreds of samples from casks all over Scotland every day,' he says, carefully pouring a small amount into a tasting glass and flinging it over his shoulder onto the floor.
'Just preparing the glass,' he explains at my quizzical look before continuing with his defence of blended whisky. 'I have to assess which stage each sample is at; has it reached its peak, should it be moved now? Does it have the depth of flavour we are looking for? Or is it still too young and raw? Or should we let it sleep for another 10 years.'
'These are the decisions I must make before I select exactly the right components from whiskies of varying ages and styles and blend them to create the perfect Scotch whisky.'
My whisky education continues. Where I once was only interested in the heavy peat of Island malts, I can now appreciate the pleasure of a light, floral pre-dinner dram. Get yourself to a distillery. A whole new world of discovery awaits.