Wines and whiskeys have more in common than you’d think, both in the way they’re made and the way they’re savoured
Okay, this is something of a cheat. But it's hard to resist writing about whiskey in a wine column when you have just returned from visiting a distillery that could pass off as a museum, where commerce seems subordinate to art and where almost every piece of manufacturing equipment demands attention for form and not merely function.
Twin pagodas guard the entrance, which leads to lovingly restored interiors at Strathisla at Keith near Inverness. The Isla -- more stream than river -- runs along the boundary. Founded in 1786, this is the oldest operating Highland malt Scotch whiskey distillery which, after going through many hands, was acquired by the Chivas Brothers in 1950. Today, it is part of the multinational spirits and wine giant Pernod Ricard. While it continues making the eponymously named single malt it was designed for, it is regarded by the company as the physical and spiritual home of Chivas Regal, the brand that has 20 per cent of the overall Scotch market and 85 per cent of the 21-year-and-above segment.
Barley has nothing in common with grape, but the similarities in the manufacturing and evaluation processes between whiskey and wine are apparent. In both cases, the brew is fermented by yeast and matured in oak -- used American oak in the case of Chivas, which is sourced from bourbon manufacturers in Tennessee. Then, a master blender at a distillery performs a role not unlike that of a winemaker. Whiskeys are tasted as they run off the double distillation process as 'heart' (the equivalent of tasting wine from a fermentation tank), decisions are made about the kind and size of the oak barrel (American, French, new, old, hogshead, sherry butt, etc), followed by decisions about the blend at the time of bottling. AOC type regulations exist in the Scotch whiskey industry; for example, whiskey must be aged at least three years in oak to be called Scotch.
The real difference in the manufacturing process of course is that while wine is just fermented, whiskey, like other spirits, is distilled -- or double distilled as they are pretty much all over Scotland.
At Strathisla, there is a tasting organised in exactly the way a wine tasting would be. Whiskey glasses designed for nosing, which look very similar to wine glasses, are laid out before each table with small pours. Tasting notes are exchanged as we are talked through the characteristics of the Strathisla single malt, the Chivas and Royal Salute blends.
My inexperienced palette thinks it senses some of the flavours I am expected to -- particularly those from oak such as vanilla and dark fruit that are also discernible in wine. I miss the others that I am supposed to discern, such as ginger and pineapple.
Being something of a skeptic about the mystification of spirits such as whiskey or vodka, I believe that virtually 'all' the characteristics of a Scotch come from the oaking, as opposed to 'most' as people would have us believe. I could be wrong but the jury will always be out on whether things such as cold climate grain or clear spring water actually influence the taste of a spirit.
Still, it's wonderful to be in what must be among the most beautiful places in the world, sipping the best whiskeys and listening to a language that is comfortingly familiar to wine-speak.
The writer was in Scotland at the invitation of Chivas Brothers