Birth of Malt Whisky
The journey of discovery that eventually introduced malt whisky to the world began in much the same way as it did for beer and wine: wild yeasts and sugar (like sugar from grapes) eventually found themselves at the same party and their reaction was spontaneous and dramatic. Together, yeast and sugar began a process of chemical alchemy called fermentation and the result was alcohol.
As with anything having to do with civilization, where in the world this process was first noticed determined everything. In warmer climates, the art of wine making was born, and in cooler climates, the art of beer brewing was born. It wasn't long before these were both distilled to create brandy and whisky, respectively.
Distillation is the process of boiling liquid, collecting the steam and condensing it back into liquid. It was thought to have first been discovered by Phoenician sailors to help remove the salt from salt water. While the process helps remove certain substances, it also helps concentrate others like the alcohol from distilled beer and wine. The process of distillation is why we refer to many types of alcoholic beverages as spirits - there is an almost mystical quality to the production as steam is created and wafts about the distillation space. Similarly, this spirit is condensed back to earth in a new form, as a new life. Overtime, cultures have agreed to refer to this restorative process as the the water of life: Vodka, Aquavit, Eau-de-vie and Usquebaugh are all linguistic plays off of this term.
Usquebaugh is the Gaelic reference to water of life and this was eventually truncated to usky and translated from Gaelic by the British into whisky.
Single Malt Scotch
Whisky by simple definition is a distilled, grain-based alcohol. In the American south, it is made from corn or rye and called bourbon. In Ireland, it is made from barley and called Irish Whisky. Scotland has internationally protected the term Scotch, which can only refer to barley-malt whisky produced in Scotland. Scotch in its finest form defines the very best in whisky anywhere in the world, and the most laudable specimens are almost always single malt scotch.
Single Malt refers to the fact that the whisky comes from a single distillery. The implication is that it will carry the distinct aromas and flavors of only that distillery as defined by the water used, the fields and rocks the water passes through to reach the distillery and where the distillery allows the whisky to age. The sacredness of the single malt distillery is akin to the notion of terrior in France: producing wine from a single vineyard is holy in that it embodies all of the flavors, aromas and subtleties that cannot be found anywhere in the world except on that one small plot of land.
It follows, then, that single malt scotch differs from the blended scotch that has defined most of the world's experience with scotch whisky up until very recently. The first whisky distilleries can be traced back to 1494 in Scotland, but the commercial market for the drink didn't become viable until the 18th century. During this nascent period in Scotch whisky production, it was extremely difficult to achieve any sort of quality or consistency with a single distillery. So, innovative store owners like John Dwar (1806), the Chivas brothers and Johnnie Walker decided to produce a reputable whisky by blending scotch from multiple distilleries until quality and consistency were achieved. These blended scotches dominated the world market for whisky until the 1960's and 1970's when technology and centuries of experience allowed single distilleries the opportunity to create consistent, world-class scotches.
These modern single malt scotches are now so remarkable in personality and subtlety and so wonderfully distinct from one another that they command the attention of the entire world.
Written by Tynan Szvetecz
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