Knowledge on the Rocks

What I learned about Whisky is not summed up in one line. 

I learned about legislation and how this is different from continent to continent. It helps to understand the legal limitations that are set to Whisky and Whiskey. It helps to understand how this legislation limits the flavours that are able to be produced by American and Scottish producers. It helps to understand the economics of reused casks from the USA and how this limits the Scotch Whisky Industry. This is a partly self-chosen limitation based on available of reasonably priced casks. 

I learned about the influence of Portugal and Spain on the Scottish Whisky industry. I recognised that calling a Whisky “Sherry matured” is utterly insulting to the Port and Sherry industries. It’s like saying to a craft stout (a Beer) that it is “Ex-Whisky” matured. Everyone in the Whisky world would frown at such a statement from the “Beer world”. I realised that I need to know which Sherry I am talking about. Am I talking a Fino? An Oloroso? A Pedro Ximenez? I realised that the Sherry industry also uses American Oak. Just like the Bourbon industry does. I will let you think about the implications of that last sentence all by yourself.

I learned that Oak, Oak and Oak can be lots of different things all together. Which species of Oak? Where did it grow? How fast did it grow? How cold did it get? How much water did it get? How dense is the Oak cellular structure because of it? How was it dried? How was it cut into staves? How was the Oak cask it seasoned by heat? All these things, and more, influence maturation of Sherry, Port, Rum, Beer, Wine and also of Whisky and Whiskey. I also realised that, in Europe, one does not need to use Oak to legally call a distillate Whisky. 

I learned about Beer. Yes, Beer. How the Beer brewing process is very very closely related to the Whisky making process. How the Scottish Whisky industry limits itself to sticking to what they know. That few variations of Barley used for malting and how those are malted. How the USA craft Whiskey industry doesn’t give a rats ass about the Scottish rules. How they experiment and therefore get a different understanding of the dram because of it. I did not say a better understanding. For a “better” understanding one needs to know about chemistry and biology. 

I learned that making Whisky is as much about the craft as it is about the hardcore chemistry. There is no way a craft distiller, or any distiller, can go around not understanding the chemistry and biology of malting, yeast conversions of sugars into alcohols, the Krebs cycle, ATP, distillation, maturation etc. etc. Not because they don’t need to know. They do need to know to avoid making carcinogenic compounds, fungi, toxins, methanol. 

I learned that ignoring the Wine industries know-how is odd indeed. The Wine industry very much knows about how wood influences low alcohol liquids. How tannins in the grapes influence the Wine. How tannins in the wood influence the Wine. How the Wine interacts with the wood. How all this Oak influence is given to the Wine. How what’s left over in the cask is bound to have some influence on an “ex-Wine” matured Whisky. Again, recognise that saying a Whisky is “Wine matured”, “red Wine matured” or more detailed “Champagne matured” is just as odd as saying “Sherry matured”, We Whisky drinkers deserve to know which Wine, how long the wine was in the cask, which Wine-house did it come from. Etc. etc. Ps. ask any Wine expert the colour of tannins and be amazed how this totally translates to the colour of Whisky. 

I learned that Vanillin is a phenol. A phenolic compound. An aromatic compound. A carbohydrate. I now understand why ppm is only measured on the malted barley. Not on the finished Whisky or Whiskey. If they did bourbons would be world champions. This last statement is an extrapolate of my know-how, not know-how. It made me realise that “peat” and “phenols” are related, but not 1 on 1 interchangeable nor equal. Peat is a mishmash of dead vegetation. Peat is a word used all around the world for may different kinds of plants that died in a soggy environment. Pete and Peat are pronounced the same, but just as peat from Islay is different from Orkney Peat, it is different. 

All this knowledge is deepened every day and if you have no idea what something meant I invite you to find out. Use my blog as a starting point, but also used any scientific journal on brewing, Rum making, Beer making, Winemaking to help further your know-how. 

If you have smiled at any moment in time while reading my words and spotted where I am still lacking in my know-how, and I fully realise that I am, then please don’t tell me. I want to find out where the gaps in my knowledge are and enjoy the moments where I learn something new. That is my Whisky journey! 

How does this all relate to Bruichladdich you might think? I started, quite by accident, to buy Bruichladdich drams. For some reason, the story I found, about a Wine guy rattling the gates of Bruichladdich and being told to fuck off, stuck. This Wine guy started using his Wine know-how for making drams. The micro provenance series LADDIEMP3 till LADDIEMP7 have been a source of education for me. They were the reason I could taste Sherry (ok I know!!!) and Port Matured and Ex-Bourbon matured side by side, based on the “same” distillate. Further LADDIEMP’s showed me how barley and provenance influence a dram. Other LADDIEMP’s showed the influence of variations of Wine maturation. During the YouTube live streams, I asked some direct questions to Adam Hannett and got them answered. All this helps me learn. 

That is my Whisky guest. It is a quest for knowledge. A quest to understand the dram I enjoy. My Blog is my diary. The place I make notes on what I found. What I learned. It is also the place where I read back and snicker at my own ignorance. It is good to know and realise that my know-how is just like the tip of an iceberg. I will never fully understand. I don’t want to. It would conclude the Whisky journey. It would limit opportunities to meet and get to know good people. Good people like Femke! 

Written by Rombout Mastenbroek (Instagram / Twitter)

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