Nobody woke up
one day and said: "I want to invent Scotch." Perhaps our most revered of brown spirits began life the same way as so many things on this planet: A happy accident born from whatever spare parts were laying around, perfected over years of trial, error, and blind luck.
The barley that serves as the spirit's chief ingredient? A crop that had long littered the Scottish countryside. "Like many distilleries around here, ours started out as a farm," says John Campbell, distillery manager at Laphroaig. "They had spare barley so they turned it into hooch."
The peat that gives many Scotches a distinctive smoky flavor? Just look to the bogs of Islay, a desolate island off the Scottish coast that is home to a few thousand residents and a cluster of the country's most famous distilleries.
"The early distilleries weren't exactly legal, so you're not going to buy five tons of coal without alerting somebody what you're up to," says Ramsey Borthwick, malting manager at Port Ellen Maltings. "They used peat as fuel to dry the malt, and probably by luck realized that using it through the process gave it this flavor."
And the wood barrels that give Scotch so much of its color and flavor? Well, that's just what people stored things in at the time. It just so happened that these casks also turn the once-clear distillate into a brown liquid with a lot more taste.
Over time, many of these matters of necessity and chance solidified into custom and law. Like bourbon, tequila, and Cognac, Scotch is governed by a strict legal definition that stretches far beyond the mandate that the whisky originate in Scotland. It must be made with barley (though ones labeled as "grain Scotch whisky" may also involve other grains). It must sit in an oak barrel for at least three years. It must be made largely the same way it was back in the 19th century, when many of today's now-legendary Scotch distilleries first set up shop.
This is why, at its heart, Scotch is pretty much the same drink that was made centuries ago. Any introduction of new technologies or methods is done sparingly and with extraordinary caution. Few industries are filled with artisans so finely attuned to their craft's traditions—and so reluctant to rock the boat.
At its core, Scotch is a thief. Those used barrels that are so vital to its color and flavor? They are basically loaded wooden sponges, soaked with several gallons of bourbon or sherry or whatever they possessed in their last life. As a Scotch spends years or decades in the cask, it moves in and out of the wood, soaking up color and flavor and stealing a bit of whatever liquid was there before. The spirit undergoes a metamorphosis: It enters the wood as a clear new alcohol. Only when it emerges, no sooner than three years later, is it legally Scotch. We now know that a barrel's wood is responsible for all of a whisky's brown color and about 70 percent of its flavor.
For distilleries looking to experiment with this aged spirit, the barrel is a key place for them to play. At the Cambus Cooperage, a huge industrial plant owned by spirits giant Diageo, workers are using a new way to stretch the life of the valuable wood barrels: Massive, automated shaving machines that scrape away the insides of used casks, revealing fresh layers of oak beneath.
"The average fill lasts seven years," says James Carson, business leader at Diageo. "Shaving extends the barrel's life from three or four or five fills to many more. The life can now extend to more than 100 years." The machines were turned on in 2011 and were the first ones use in Scotch production.
Or take the Islay-based Bruichladdich distillery, which has become known for its playful use of unusual cask types that give limited-run releases unusual flavors. In addition to the common bourbon and sherry casks that many distilleries employ, this Islay-based shop has been known to store its Scotch in wine barrels, Cognac barrels—there are even rumors of a few tequila barrels in the back of its storehouses.
Walk through a warehouse at fellow Islay distillery Bowmore and it's hard not to notice the handful of oak barrels with Japanese writing scrawled on them. These are made from Japanese mizunara oak—one of the rarest types of wood casks on the planet, known for endowing spirits with a sweet vanilla and coconut flavor, and used sparingly even by Japanese whisky makers.
Other distilleries look to play around with the Scotch formula by tinkering with the distillation process. In general, taller stills produce softer flavors, while shorter stills give you a heavier, more sulfury spirit. The reason: A taller still, such as those favored by many Speyside distilleries (Glenmorangie, in particular) gives the evaporating alcohol more time and space to separate its compounds, resulting in a purer spirit (though not necessarily a better one, as many Scotch-drinkers seek out the heavy-handed hit produced by short-still Scotches.)
When Low-Tech Is Best
In some situations, this clinging-to-the-old-ways-ness can come off as downright surprising to outsiders who are used to companies prioritizing production and volume above all else. At Bruichladdich, the majority of the equipment dates back to the facility's construction in 1881. When the distillery's mash tun (a giant tub used for creating the grain mash) needed new parts, the operators were told spares simply didn't exist anymore. The hardware was simply too old. Instead of upgrading its equipment, the distillery instead shut down whisky production for four months so it could mold new parts from scratch.
"After 130 years, we didn't want to write it off," says Allan Logan, Bruichladdich distillery manager. "We want it to work for another 100 years."
Down the road at Laphroaig, workers forego automated peat-collecting machines in favor of hand-cutting squares from the ground. It burns better this way, they say—cleaner, more efficiently, and with a smaller environmental footprint. They also malt their own barley, manually turning mounds of the grain on a concrete floor every few hours, 24 hours a day.
And part of the beauty of some Scotches—in particular the single malts that originate from a single distillery—is how much they are a reflection of their environment. Experienced Scotch drinkers can tell that the peat used to make Highland Park comes from the distillery’s home in the far-north Orkney Islands, a location where the ground and climate lend the peat a slightly more heathery flavor than what is grown on Islay. And when Mortlach completes a planned expansion of its distillery, an enormous amount of attention is being paid towards making sure that every tiny nuance of the new stills matches the existing hardware—to the inch. After all, even the slightest change in equipment or process can be enough to change the way a spirit tastes or feels.