Whisky is made from fermented grains.
Barley is the best grain to use. If you were to make it at home (but please don’t try this yourself) you’d smush up the grains with a pestle and mortar.
Then you’d add water and yeast. The yeast reacts with the starches in the grains and water and alcohol is produced.
You heat this mixture and the alcohol rises as vapour, which condenses into whisky.
You do this a few times to get the alcohol content right and then put it in a wooden cask for a few years. The flavours of the cask (especially if it was previously used to hold bourbon or sherry) give the whiskey its flavour.
To get that flavour right is the Master Distillers art.
I met one yesterday. He’s an affable guy names Ian MacMillan and he oversees the distillation
of Bunnahabhain on the Isle of Islay, Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, and Deanstone in Perthshire.
Detecting my Irish accent he was quick to remind me that John Jameson was a Scotsman, and learned his craft from Robert Steen in Alloa in Scotland. He was one of the Haigs.
Well it’s lucky I am not the parochial type, as I would have been tempted to mention recent Scottish efforts in Rugby and Golf, but, being well mannered, I kept quiet and listened while Pierre Meintjes, Keeper of The Quaich and ambassador of Scotch in South Africa, helped Ian to take me on a tour of Bunnahabhain Malts of 12, 18 and 25 year vintages.
It was quite a trip, and I learned about the gentle nature of this ancient spirit, and how sometimes the seaweed in the peat used to dry the barley gave Scotch its medicinal, iodine like flavour.
Different whiskys get their flavour from the fresh river water used (heather, peat) to seaweed and salt in the peat.
Islay malts and Speyside malts are as different as Baritone and Tenor singers.
Whisky is a fascinating drink. To hear and understand more the world’s largest Whisky Festival, begins this week in Cape Town, from Wednesday to Friday, 6pm to 10pm. The price of admission is R180 and you can get your tickets at www.whiskylivefestival.co.za.
Everyone will be there, the Scots, the Irish, and the Americans, with dozens of brands to taste and sniff.
I once drank a glass of 1922 Talisker, in a reproduction Scottish castle, complete with oak panelling, kilted waiters and roaring log fires, in the 29th floor of a skyscraper in Makuhari, Japan.
But that’s another story, and you’ll need to get a few malts into me before I’ll tell that one.