Whisky: an accidental success

Neil Pendock January 9, 2014 0

Whisky is the world’s #1 aspirational drink for boys who’ve grown up and made it. Ask any whisky wonk why he drinks the Scottish stuff rather than brandy and ten to one his answer will be the latter is “too sweet.” It wasn’t always thus as Julian Baggini points out in his new book The Virtues of the Table.

“Take any distillery tour in Scotland and you’ll be told how 70 to 80% of the flavour of whisky is determined by the used oak barrel it matures in, which these days is almost always a bourbon cask imported from America. Those aged in Spanish sherry barrels are sweeter and heavier. You would have thought that the choice of barrel reflected centuries of accumulated wisdom. The truth is far more mundane. Scotch whisky used to be matured almost exclusively in barrels made from European oak, the cask of choice for sherry, port and Madeira makers after Napoleon increased oak cultivation to help build his warships. The fortified wines that filled the oak casks were popular in Britain, where distillers wanted to make use of the empty barrels. In America, meanwhile, machine-made native-oak barrels were becoming cheaper to produce, and bourbon distillers favoured the flavour given by heavily charred new casks. Then in 1935, protectionist federal law made the use of new barrels compulsory. Suddenly there was a glut of used bourbon casks undercutting old sherry barrels. Scottish distillers took advantage, radically changing the flavour of their drinks – an opportunistic response to changed market conditions, precipitated by a law passed by a foreign nation.”

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The result was a drier spirit with less tannin as “tannins comprise about 1% of American oak and 8% of French oak.” It’s the law of unintended consequences all over again. Mother Grundies in the US (above) try and force teetotalism on the nation. The result is a century later, everyone is drinking single malt Scotch.

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