Burns collected Scottish folk songs and tales, like “Tam o’ Shanter”, and often revised them with his own flair. Whether his works were strictly original or not is often debated. When it comes to the power of his work, and the way it resonates with the human soul, there has never been any debate. His love of conversation, his uncanny insight and articulation of simple truths, and his brilliant repartee often shocked polite society. He captured the essence of humanity, in “A Man’s a Man for a’ That”, and while he poked fun at the establishment of the day, he ably expressed the feelings of the common man. His works were appreciated throughout Europe, in a cult-like following. “The Works of Robert Burns” was the first book after the Bible officially translated into Russian from English by the Soviet government.
He was a proud Scot who wrote about Scottish History, as in “Bannockburn”, with the immortal lines “Scots wha’ hae wi’ Wallace bled”. He also wrote of the simple things in Scottish life – a mountain daisy, a louse, even a haggis! It’s his love poems that are perhaps best remembered – like “Ae Fond Kiss”, “My Luve’s Like A Red Red Rose”, “Jean”, and “My Bonnie Mary”. In fact, the very first poem Burns wrote was “A Maiden and her Man”.
His writing was not of any great literary style. Writers like Sir Walter Scott were much more “mainstream” and accepted than the ploughman from Ayr. But today, Robert Burns is wider-read, more celebrated, and reigns supreme as Scotland’s immortal bard. His empathy and understanding of the common man made him a spokesman for all humanity – and he’s loved the world o’er.
Like many a genius, he suffered from physical frailty. Robert Burns died of a failing heart at the young age of 37. But his is the acknowledged voice of Scotland. The power of his poetry lives on to this day – and he is celebrated all over the world by Scots and non-Scots alike.
A strict legal definition of Scotch Whisky has been in place for many years, to protect Scotch Whisky from unfair competition and to underpin Scotch Whisky’s reputation as being of the highest quality.
Scotch Whisky is defined as: Whisky that has been produced at a distillery in Scotland, from water and malted barley (only whole grains of other cereals may be added). It has been processed at that distillery into a mash, and fermented only by the addition of yeast.
Scotch whisky has been distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8% so that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used and the method of its production.
Scotch whisky is wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks for no less than three years.
No coloring agent other than plain caramel may be added, and no substance other than water may be added.
How is Scotch Whisky Made?
The first step in making malt whisky is malting the barley. It is steeped in water, and allowed to begin germinating. Malting releases enzymes that break down the starches in the grain and convert them into sugars. Once the desired state of germination is reached, the malted barley is dried. Some distillers add smoke from a peat fire to give the product a smoked, earthy flavor.
Most distilleries get their malts from maltsters. Only a few run their own malting operations. These include: Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Laphroaig and Tamdhu.
The next step is mashing and fermenting. The dried grain is first ground into a rough flour called grist. The grist is mixed with hot water in a large vessel, where it is allowed to steep. In this mashing process, enzymes developed during the malting convert the barley starch into a sugary liquid known as wort. The wort is transferred to another large vessel called a wash back. It is cooled, yeast is added, and it is fermented. The resulting liquid (about 5–7% alcohol by volume) is separated from solid matter by filtering. At this stage, the wash, as it is called, is similar to corn beer.
The next step is distilling. Distilling increases the alcohol content and removes undesired impurities. Two types of stills are used for distillation: the pot still is used for single malts, and the Coffey still is used for grain whisky. Most Scotch malt whisky distilleries distill their product twice.
For malt whisky the wash is transferred into a wash still, where it is heated to its boiling point. The alcohol evaporates – travels to the top of the still – condenses – and reverts to liquid. This liquid (called low wine) now has an alcohol content of about 20%. The low wine is distilled a second time, when it becomes stronger, and is called the new make. Its alcohol content can now be anywhere from 60%–75%.
For grain whisky the wash is distilled in a column still, where it is produced by continuous fractional distillation, unlike the simple distillation process used for malt whisky. Grain whisky requires only a single distillation to achieve the desired alcohol content. This efficiency results in the whisky being less expensive.
The maximum distillation purity prescribed by Scotch Whisky Regulations is 94.8% alcohol by volume. This allows the spirit to have a rather high level of alcohol purity. In practice, Scotch single malts are generally not distilled to very high levels of alcohol content, so they can retain more of the flavor of the original wash.
The spirit is placed in oak casks for maturing. Used sherry casks were traditionally used, but today other wine casks may be used, like port, Bordeaux, Cognac, Madeira – even bourbon whiskey casks from America.
The distillate must age for at least three years and one day in Scotland to be called Scotch whisky, though most single malts are offered at a minimum of eight years of age. Some believe older whiskies are better, but others find the age for optimum flavor depends on the distillery, or even on the cask. Older whiskies are inherently scarcer, however, so they command significantly higher prices. Evaporation occurs in the distillation process, causing a loss in volume and also a loss in alcohol content.
Different types of cask also give different colors of whisky – sherry and red wine casks give a darker whisky, while bourbon casks give a lighter colored whisky. The 1990s saw a trend towards “wood finishes” in which fully matured whisky was moved from one barrel into another one that had previously aged a different type of alcohol (port, Madeira, rum, or wine) to add the “finish”. A notable example is the “Black Bowmore”, released in batches in 1993, 94 and 95 after 29, 30, 31 years in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. The name evokes the density of color and complexity of flavor naturally imparted into what was originally water-clear spirit in 1964.
The now properly aged spirit may now undergo vatting or marrying with other whiskies. In the case of single malts this can involve mixing different ages of whisky from the same distillery. The vatted whisky is generally diluted to a bottling strength of between 40% and 46%. Some distillers release a “cask strength” edition, which is the product of a single cask, has not been vatted, has not been diluted and usually has an alcohol content of 50–60%. These bottles usually have a label that details the date the whisky was distilled, the date it was bottled, the number of bottles.
Whiskies with alcohol content below 46% can become hazy in the bottle. Chill-filtering is done to avoid this happening. The whisky is chilled to near 0°C to remove the oily compounds produced in distillation. Bottled whisky over 46% doesn’t need this filtering. Whisky enthusiasts often think chill-filtering removes some of the flavor of the whisky.
What Does the Age Mean?
When an age is mentioned on the label, it is that of the youngest whisky in the blend. If a blend is described as being twelve year old, the youngest whisky in the blend must have been matured at least twelve years.
When a vintage or distillation year is declared on a label, all the whisky in the product must have been distilled in that year.
Scotch Whisky Regions
There are four main Whisky regions designated: The Highlands, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown.
The Highlands – The Hebrides are included in this region. Distilleries include: Aberfeldy, Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie Oban, Arran, Isle of Jura, Tobermory, and Talisker.
Speyside – the Spey river valley, once considered part of the Highlands, is now a region in its own right, since it has almost half the distilleries of Scotland! Notable names include: Abelour, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, and The Macallan.
Lowland – now only a few distilleries remain in the Lowlands, including Auchentoshen, Bladnoch, and Glenkinchie.
Islay – the Isle of Islay has some famous distilleries, including Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Kilchoman, Lagavulin and Laphroaig.
Campbelltown – once with 30 distilleries, now with only 3: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank
There is an excellent Interactive Map of whisky distilleries – go to www.scotsman.com and click on “whisky”.
Want to find out more?
The definitive rules governing the making, bottling, and labelling of Scotch Whisky can be found in Scotch Whisky Regulations Guidance 2009.
The Origins of Hogmanay
The Scots have a long heritage associated with this event. We even have our own name for it – Hogmanay.
Can you imagine what John Knox would have thought of today’s New year’s Eve festival in Edinburgh? See picture below.
In lands where daylight almost disappears in winter, turning the corner at the Winter Solstice is a time to celebrate. It is the New Year, when friends and family gather to celebrate and to exchange gifts. This is what Scots call Hogmanay.
An integral part of the Hogmanay partying, which continues to this day, is to welcome friends and strangers, with warm hospitality and a kiss to wish everyone a Guid New Year. The underlying belief is to clear out the last vestiges of the old year, and welcome in the New Year with a fresh start. Bagpipers still pipe the New Year in at midnight, by playing a lament for the old year and something upbeat to welcome the new.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?
Torch Processions and Bonfires
The magical fireworks display and torchlight procession in our capital, Edinburgh, and many other Scottish cities, is reminiscent of the ancient customs of Hogmanay parties hundreds of years ago. A few years ago, the procession swelled to over 100,000 people! The risk to public safety forced the organisers to make this a ticketed event. Today, several thousand people, with lighted torches, wend their way from the Mound, through the city, up to the top of Calton Hill, where they throw their torches into the bonfires that burn late into the night.