About Time

Sensitive about your age? In this article we’re looking at the part Time has to play in bringing our national dram to us. The relationship between whisky and time is usually only considered as far as the number of years stated on the label.

This indicates the length of time the spirit has spent in a cask. The two most common varieties of Scottish whiskies, blends and malts, have something in common – they are usually both composites. In the case of the blend, several different single malts get mixed with a few different single grains. Most examples of single malts, although coming from a unique distillery, are themselves a result of the mixing of many casks. In both cases the goal is to produce a standardised and repeatable character.

An age statement, if chosen to be used, must indicate the youngest of these components. By law our national drink’s spirit must spend a minimum of three years in wood before it can be awarded the title ‘Scotch Whisky’. Why? The reason is less obvious than might be thought.

The Politician and the War
Although some producers fought for a minimum maturation period in order that too young whiskies were not brought to the market, it took a strongly influential politician and a war to bring in the appropriate legislation. During the first world war Lloyd George blamed alcohol for problems facing the British army in battling the enemy. He proposed the poor quality of work carried out by drunk and hungover operatives in munitions factories was the reason for an inadequate supply of arms.

The workforce had to be protected from themselves so drink had to made less accessible. Opening hours of hostelries were reduced, in some areas they were closed altogether, spirits were reduced in strength and the age at which whisky in particular could be sold was set at two years. A year after these restrictions were brought in, the age limit was extended a further year. By excluding the youngest and rawest spirit, thought to be the most damaging variety, it was hoped a more sober workforce would lead to more reliable weaponry.

Ageing in Wood
The concept of putting spirit into a cask to mature would have been lost on our ancestors who felt the drink was complete when it came off the still. The benefits of ageing in wood were probably discovered by accident when some surplus stock was left in a cask until it was needed or while it was transported. It was understood that it was necessary to burn the inside of the casks in order that any bacteria which could spoil the contents would be killed off. Coincidentally, burnt oak both extracts and adds good and bad flavours respectively. Thus the technique of leaving the spirit to mellow become popular.

Today it is very unusual to find an example of an unaged style while whiskies of great age are more common than ever. The record for the oldest bottled whisky is currently 64 years but older whiskies do lie waiting for the right moment.

It should be mentioned that, no matter how long you hold on to a bottle, the age of its contents do not change. A common misconception is that the whisky will continue to improve in the bottle like some other drinks can. If this is disappointing news, take solace in the fact that it should stay fit to be drunk for months and often years after opening.

Looking beyond the years spent in wood we should consider something not unrelated. The oak trees used in the making of whisky barrels are themselves of considerabe age. Think too about where these trees grew. Next to no domestic oak contributes to our celebrated and uniquely Scottish tipple. Most come to us via the Kentucky Bourbon industry or to a lesser extent the wine and rum industries.

Yeast is Treated with Reverence
In Scotland, yeast is not held as being of great importance beyond its role of converting sugar to alcohol during the early stages of production. In American whiskey circles, however, it is sometimes treated with great reverence. There are a few older distilling companies who nurture their particular yeast strain over generations of brewers. They believe that keeping that particular contributor constant is essential in maintaining the distillate’s character.

The Most Ancient Element
If awards were being handed out for being the most ancient element of a dram then there is no competition. Peat, when used, adds an almost prehistoric contribution to our enjoyment. Essentially, peat was used as a heat source for drying the germinating barley. The barley has to be killed off lest it consume its energy resources before the brewer can feed them to his yeast. As the fragrance and taste of the burning fuel is imbued into the liquid, its presence is a source of mixed emotions. While some love its elemental power, others dislike it even in measured quantities.

Nowadays, tasteless, indirectly heated air is now used in the majority of kilns, but a few distillers stick to using peat for its peculiar contribution. Peat itself is the result of vegetation, mainly moss, dying but not fully decomposing. The bogs of Northern Europe with their poor drainage let oxygen starved water become the resting place for decaying plants. Over centuries, these layers of seasonal growths of plant life are compressed into a black mass, butter-like in consistency. After harvesting then drying, the energy conserved in the primordial soup is ready for tapping into.

Although digging to the bottom of these marshes will see us time travel back thousands of years for our needs, we require the turf to have the right qualities for the furnace. If it comes from too deep, this will lead to high temperatures and little flavour. Rather it is smoke that is required. For this we need only return to plants that were growing around about the eighteenth century!

Well, I hope the minutes it took you to read this page were not wasted and next time you consider the flavour, aroma and texture of your dram, spare a thought for all that is in the glass – and if you do work in a munitions factory, think long about having another!

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