March 15, 2013 11:09 pm

Spirit of the place

Flavour in malt whisky is attributable to the malt specification, to brewing and distilling practices and to wood-ageing regimes
Islay is an expensive, logistically senseless place to distil malt whisky but is home to seven large distilleries©Alamy

Islay is an expensive, logistically senseless place to distil malt whisky but is home to seven large distilleries

An uneasy conflict troubles the collective conscience of those involved in the creation of Scotch malt whisky. The imagery with which it is communicated stresses the purity of its wild water and its malted barley, and the beauty, peace and loneliness of the surroundings in which it comes into being. The implication is clear: if the whisky tastes delicious, these ingredients and surroundings are causal.

The customary divisions of the Scotch malt world, moreover, are regional: lowland, highland, Speyside, Islay and the islands, Campbeltown. The malts of each group are said to have a different character, deriving in some unspecified way from that location. All this makes beguiling sense – for a set of consumers who are already familiar with the concept of terroir in the wine world. This notion of a link between whisky and its place of origin provides a useful scaffold for the climb into complication and connoisseurship.

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But as whisky scientists point out, it’s not really like that. Water has no influence on malt whisky flavour; barley can come from anywhere, provided that it delivers satisfactory spirit yield; and, in many cases, the newly made spirit is taken by tanker from its beautiful, peaceful, lonely distillery surroundings within a couple of weeks of distillation. It’s then aged in uglier, less peaceful but more logistically sensible locations in central Scotland.

Flavour in malt whisky, those troublesome researchers insist, is essentially attributable to the malt specification, to brewing and distilling practices and to wood-ageing regimes.

The marketers bite their lips; the customers don’t want to know. The myth (if myth it is) of the significance of place in the creation of flavour in malt whisky is just too useful and too appealing to be dispatched.

This was the theme of the latest in the series of London Gastronomy Seminars, this one chaired by myself and hosted by London University under the tutelage of Professor Barry C Smith, who directs the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Philosophy. The aim of these seminars is “to taste the technical”. Under scrutiny on this occasion were two distilleries from the island of Islay: Bruichladdich and Lagavulin.

Islay would appear to be the trump card in the hand of malt whisky’s terroiristes. This Hebridean island (lying 116km west of Glasgow) is a highly expensive, logistically senseless place to distil malt whisky – yet its seven large distilleries account for around one quarter of Scotland’s malt exports, and each is prized by enthusiasts as a “single malt” in its own right. If place is of no significance in the creation of malt whisky, then their existence looks like a colossal accounting error.

Jim McEwan, the production director for Bruichladdich and one of Scotland’s best known distillers, made an impassioned case for the significance of place in creating Bruichladdich’s flavours. He was born and grew up on the island, and managed Bowmore before moving across Loch Indaal in January 2001 to Bruichladdich to steer it back to life.

As a small distillery in independent ownership over the past decade, Bruichladdich has been willing and able to do more to maximise the influence of place on its whisky than any other distillery team in Scotland. (Rémy Cointreau bought the distillery in July 2012 but says it intends to respect Bruichladdich’s independence.)

All of its spirit is aged on the wind-harried, gale-prone island (there is nothing but the moody Atlantic between it and Newfoundland). The whisky is brought down to bottling strength with spring water from a neighbouring farm and bottled on the island. Bruichladdich has, moreover, encouraged local Islay farmers to grow their own barley, and made malt whisky exclusively from it.

“I can tell, for sure, the difference between Islay malt made from the barley grown on Islay, and the malt made from the barley grown in the north of Scotland,” McEwan said. “That’s a fact. Even on Islay, if you take the barley grown at Kilchoman, which has sandy soil, versus the barley grown at Cruach, which is peaty soil, there’s a difference on the new spirit. Will you find that difference 15 years later in a cask? That’ll be difficult but when the child is born, you can smell the difference and taste the difference.”

A contrasting perspective was offered by another Ileach, Georgie Crawford, who runs Lagavulin distillery on behalf of Diageo, the multinational responsible for distilling around 40 per cent of all Scotland’s malts. She had discovered, when previously working for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (a bottler of individual casks), that “there was no such thing as a typical Lowland malt or a typical Islay malt. It was just one cask, and they were all different. ‘Regionality’ was an example of generalisation at its worst.”

Her theory was that “every distillery has a thousand quirks, and I believe that it is these quirks, these points of individuality, that build together to make the dram.”

This point was made more comprehensively by Dr Nick Morgan, the “head of whisky outreach” for Diageo and a former Glasgow University history lecturer who suspected, he said, that he had been cast as the pantomime villain in the debate. The notion that terroir, as customarily defined in the wine world, might apply to malt whisky creation was, he said, “an illusion cherished beyond the bounds of reason. As far as whisky’s concerned, forget it.”

But he then proceeded to recount three historical examples of strenuous attempts being made to duplicate an existing malt in a new location, including the now-legendary Malt Mill (a Laphroaig-style malt formerly distilled just down the road at Lagavulin). All had failed.

“At this point,” he said, “I have to strip off my white coat and reveal a passionate and romantic beating heart. It’s my belief that one of the things that is missing from this debate is the notion of precise location: the way a distillery is designed. There is some conundrum in there which no amount of science can answer.”

In other words, “place” might, indeed, condition the flavour of whisky but place dramatically redefined. Not lochs, nor hillsides, nor oceans, but far more intimate places and climates: the churning of milled grain in a mash tun; a hurried or languid fermentation in the ancient pine or clean steel of a washback; the intestinal darkness of copper tubes and condensers, the range of temperatures inside them, and the violence or finesse of the race towards finished spirit. And, when the question came to the vote, it was Morgan and Crawford’s arguments that prevailed.

Andrew Jefford is the author of ‘Peat Smoke and Spirit: A Portrait of Islay and its Whiskies’ (Headline)

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A bottle of Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2006 and a 16­year­old Lagavulin

A bottle of Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2006 and a 16­year­old Lagavulin

Tasting notes: Lithe spirits

Lagavulin 16­ year-­old (43%):

Smoky, oily and complex, a reeky dram marked by peat­-kippered malt, the exuberance of wide spirit cuts, and complex oak ageing. Inimitably Ileach, even if it has spent almost all its life off the island.

Bruichladdich Islay Barley 2006, Dunlossit Farm Ceannacroic (50%):

Pungent, sweet and sappy, with honey, peach leaf and marzipan complexities: Islay (from the tall, refining Bruichladdich stills) in a blithely summery mood.

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