Whisky and wine: distilling the truth

Hopefully it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise to you to learn that this blog is about wine. From time to time, though, I like to throw in a wild card – today I am going to write about whisky (gasp).

At the beginning of June, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Scotland at a friend’s wedding. It was an fantastic event held at the impressive Gleneagles hotel, where we inevitably enjoyed an abundance of great food and wine.

On the last day of the trip, I was invited to attend a tour and tasting at the well-established Glenturret distillery – a producer of single malt and also the spiritual home of The Famous Grouse. Although I’m not the biggest fan of scotch at the best of times (let alone after a Champagne-fuelled night of dancing and very little sleep), I simply couldn’t say no.
I possibly shouldn’t admit this, but until now my knowledge of whisky making has been fairly limited and theory-based; I cursorily studied it as part of the Advanced course at the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. The tour guide, however, peppered the tour with a series of interesting anecdotes that piqued my interest. For example, did you know that the term ‘barmy’ (meaning mad/loopy – a word that is thrown at me more often than I should admit) originates from the practice of smelling the “barm”, which contained carbon dioxide that in turn caused whisky makers to act weird? What a fun fact!

Moving on…

I didn’t need to go on a distillery tour to know that whisky and wine are two very different beasts. Clearly. Wine is made from grapes and tends to have an alcohol strength of between 10-15%. Whisky, on the other hand, is made from grain (for example scotch is made from malted barley) and has a much higher alcohol content – typically around 40%.

Scotland distillery post
After learning about whisky production during the distillery tour, however, I arrived at the palpable conclusion that the two drinks have more in common than I initially thought. It turns out they share more than the tendency to cause a nasty headache following a few too many.

First of all, in many ways tasting whisky is similar to tasting wine. A good tasting note for whisky will cover many of the same areas as wine – the appearance, the nose, the palate and the finish. If you have ever participated in a wine tasting before, you will be delighted to learn that many of the techniques are applicable to whisky. Woohoo, you just learned a new skill without doing any work!

Secondly, the place of origin and the natural environment play a major role in determining the characteristics of the product. In wine language, this is known as “terroir” – and it matters for whisky too. In whisky production, the “peat” can alter the flavour depending on whether it is local or not. Similarly, whisky produced near the sea (“coastal whisky”) often has a more recognisable taste of salt or brine.

Finally, high quality wines and whiskies are aged in oak casks, which in turn imparts desirable colour and flavours. There is such thing as too much aging, though!

These three similarities simply touch the surface of the relationship between these two complex products. I can’t say I’m ready to pour myself a big old glass of Black Label after a long day at work, but I’ll certainly be more open to the idea of enjoying a glass of whisky every now and again. The friendly team at the Glenturret distillery did a fine job converting a whisky-disliker to a whisky-tolerater.


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