The Whisky Trail

Whisky (from the Gaelic , "water of life") has been produced in Scotland since at least the fifteenth century, when it made its first appearance in print, but it is believed to have an unwritten history predating this perhaps by many centuries. The precise origins of Scotland's national tipple remain shrouded in mystery. Scholars believe that spirits were first produced in the Middle East in the eighth or ninth century for use in the preparation of medicinal tinctures, and it is likely that the secret of distillation was brought to Scotland and Ireland, then at the westernmost fringes of the known world, by monks who had learned the art from Arab doctors. The earliest whiskies made in Scotland would seem unfamiliar to modern drinkers, more modern methods of refinement and the cask-ageing process not yet having been developed. The raw spirit, as it emerged from the still, would have been rough and unpalatable, so it would be flavoured with infusions of local herbs and berries. One thing that has remained constant, though, is the status of malted barley as the main ingredient for the finest whiskies.

"Malting" is the process in which the grain destined to make up the dram is allowed to partially germinate before its growth is interrupted by baking in an oven. This natural process releases the seed's energy reserves from the form of starch into sugars, which are accessible to the yeast that will convert them into alcohol. The peat used to fire the ovens in which the malt is dried lends a characteristic flavour, much beloved of connoisseurs, to the final product. The next stage in production is to grind the malt and dissolve it in water to produce a "mash", in a vessel known as a "mash-tun". Scotland's natural abundance of fresh, clean water from burns and springs lends itself to this method of drinks production, and the character of the local water supply accounts for much of the difference between the distinctive personalities of Scotland's whisky-producing regions. The mash is heated, to maximise the solubility of the ingredients, and the liquor drained off in preparation for fermentation. This process is repeated twice to ensure all the nutrients have been extracted from the malt. The resulting malty broth (known as "wort") is cooled so as not to kill the yeast, a living organism, used in the next stage: fermentation.

Wort for use in whisky is fermented in a similar way to other brewed products such as beer. Yeast is added to the mix and allowed to grow and develop. Brewer's yeast, known to scientists as , is a micro-organism that feeds on the sugars in the wort as it grows, and produces alcohol as a by-product of its metabolism. Because of the biological nature of the fermentation process, it is imperative that the equipment used is clean and sterile: the presence of any unwanted organisms such as bacteria could disrupt the carefully-controlled conditions and result in a product that was unusable for distillation into whisky.

When fermentation is finished, it is time to distil the spirit. Whisky is traditionally distilled in copper stills operating in pairs. The process takes advantage of the fact that alcohol's boiling point is lower than that of water, so that as the fermented "wash" is heated, the alcohol begins to turn to vapour before the water. The vapours are collected and re-liquefied to produce a spirit of much higher alcoholic concentration than the original wash. The first still produces "low wines", containing roughly 20% alcohol by volume, which are then passed into the second still to be distilled again into "feints", of around 70%. The feints, when they have been matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years for blended whiskies or eight years for single malts, become the whisky that is known and loved all over the world. The cask-strength whisky, which packs a punch at 70-75% alcohol, is usually diluted to a more market-friendly 40% before sale, though the cask-strength spirit is available to aficionados through specialist outlets.

Whisky has been produced in Scotland for many hundreds of years, and since the nineteenth century this has been done under strict licence, rather than as the cottage industry it once was. The licensing system ensures the quality and safety of the product (safety is a major concern in distillation: improperly produced spirits can be highly poisonous), as well as securing revenue for the exchequer. Under the system of regulation, production of Scotch whisky has flourished and it has found markets all over the world, which are protected by international law. No drink distilled outside Scotland, nor aged for less than three years, may be legally described as "Scotch", defending the reputation of our national drink from cheap foreign imitators.

And it is a reputation that is worth defending. The export of whisky provides a major source of revenue for the Scottish economy, overseas sales amounting to a staggering 2.5 billion per year. The top export market is the United States, whose citizens spend 400 million on Scotch whisky annually, with France, Spain, South Korea and Venezuela making up the rest of the top five. In total, the whisky industry is worth 3 billion per year to the Scottish economy, and provides almost 41,000 jobs in Scotland.

The USA is also the number one source of overseas visitors to Scotland. Not counting visitors from the other nations of the United Kingdom, the USA accounts for 24% of tourist visits to Scotland. Scotland has a lot to offer overseas guests: our many historic sites; the stunning natural beauty of our countryside; our status as the home of the game of golf; and with the increasing interest in genealogy many visitors, particularly from the New World, are coming to discover their own Scottish heritage. But more and more visitors are coming to Scotland to visit the home of whisky.

Many distilleries offer tours to visitors to show the curious how their favourite drink is made first-hand, and there are now specialist trips taking sightseers around the major centres of whisky production. Scotland is divided into five whisky-producing regions, each with its own style and its share of devotees. Speyside, on the banks of the River Spey in Moray, was once considered part of the Highland region, but due to the distinctive character of its whiskies, and its profusion of distilleries (almost half of all Scotland's distilleries), it is now recognised as a separate region. With its concentration of whisky heritage, and as home to such major brands as Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan, Speyside is a major centre of whisky tourism in Scotland.

The Isle of Islay is also afforded status as a region unto itself: in its mere 240 square miles, it is home to eight well-known distilleries (a ninth, Kilchoman, began production in 2005, the first new distillery on the island in over a century, but has not yet begun selling its product). Campbeltown, the Isle of Arran and the Mull of Kintyre, is home to three malt whisky distilleries, and the Highland region (sometimes subdivided into Highland malts and Island malts) produces many of the more well-known malt whiskies such as Glenmorangie and Dalwhinnie. Only three malt whisky distilleries remain in the Lowland region, where the whisky is traditionally produced by a triple-, rather than double-distillation method.

The Scottish Malt Whisky Trail takes visitors on a tour of some of the most important centres of whisky production, and the traditional crafts associated with the industry. Centred on the Speyside region, whisky lovers can visit working and historic distilleries, see the art of the cooper (barrel-maker), and of course get a chance to enjoy some of the finished product with old and new friends in the convivial atmosphere of a Highland pub.

Buoyed by the large and growing international market for Scotch whisky, the industry is adapting its traditional values for the modern world. New markets are opening up, and new generations of drinkers are learning to love the malt. In Germany, traditionally a nation of beer and wine drinkers, Scotch whisky is experiencing a surge of popularity among the young. Scotch is now the fashionable drink to be seen with in Germany's restaurants and bars, having overtaken French cognac as the most popular premium spirit. A whole industry has sprung up importing whisky by the cask from Scotland and blending and bottling it in Germany to suit the local palate. Lars "Jack" Wiebers, from the former East Germany, began importing whisky after developing a taste for it on holiday in Greece. "The standard whiskies from the distilleries are usually made by mixing whiskies from various casks to get consistency," Wiebers said. "With an independent bottling, you often get the pure taste of a whisky from one single barrel.", he told German website Deutsche Welle.

With a bright future of growing sales abroad, and increasing interest from visitors in whisky production at home, Scotland's whisky industry has a bright future to look forward to.

Scotland's West Coast Whisky Trail

VisitScotland: Scotch whisky

Last updated 28 Nov 2012