Last night’s Iron Chef America battle between Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian and Michael Chiarello brought one of my favorite tipples to the forefront: Scotch whisky. Instead of breaking down the ingredient like I usually do, here are 10 interesting facts that you may not know about this Secret Ingredient:
1. The term “whisky” is actually derived from the Gaelic words uisage beatha, which in turn came from the Latin Acqua Vitae or “water of life.” It’s thought that the name refers to the fact that these spirits were first used by monks for medicinal purposes.
2. The oldest reference to the production of whisky is not in fact in Scotland, but in Ireland, where it is believed that monks began distilling spirits as far back as the fifth century. The first reference from Scotland is found in the Exchequer rolls, the accounting records for the royal finances in 1494, where an allowance was made for “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.”
3. Scotch whisky is always spelled without an “e” (as is whisky from Canada and Japan). Most other nations such as the United States, Australia and Ireland call their similar spirits whiskey. There are lots of theories as to why this is the case, most of which are disputed. Just be sure you never add the “e” when writing to a Scotsman or you may be the cause of the beginning of World War III.
4. Scotch whisky is, at its most basic, a distilled beer. It’s made using malted barley (or other grains) but the “wash” is different from the beer you might drink in a pub in that no hops are added. It’s then distilled twice to create a smooth strong spirit that is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years before it can be called whisky. Traditionally these barrels came from the port-producing regions of Portugal and the Sherry-producing regions of Spain. As these became harder to obtain, Scotch distilleries turned to their American cousins in Kentucky to buy Bourbon barrels, which by law could only be used once before being discarded. It was a marriage made in heaven.
5. There are a number of classifications of Scotch whisky, but the main ones are:
• Blended Whisky: This is a mix of grain whisky and malt whisky, and makes up the majority of Scotch that is consumed around the world.
• Single Grain Whisky: This is relatively rare and is made from nonmalted grains such as corn.
• Blended Malt Whisky: This is also sometimes known as “Vatted Malts” or “Pure Malts” and is some of my favorite whisky. It is made from blends of a number of single malt whiskies from across Scotland.
• Single Malt Whisky: This is made, as the name suggests, from malted barley grains from a single distillery. They’re often sold with age statements (10/12/18 years, etc.), which means that they are a blend of single malts from the same distillery where the youngest whisky used is the age stated on the bottle, unless it is a single cask bottle where the whisky must all be from the same making.
6. There are over 100 distilleries and five regions for the production of whisky in Scotland: the Highlands, the Lowlands, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown. Each area produces whisky with a very particular style. My own favorites are the quite challenging peaty whiskies from the small island of Islay.
7. Selling single malt whiskies is in fact a relatively modern creation as, up until the 1960s, most single malts went to make blended whisky. Glenfiddich was arguably the first single malt to be sold in its own right and became popular worldwide, as it was also the first to be sold in airport retail shops. While many single malt whiskies are of course quite wonderful, I really do urge you to try some of the great blended whiskies and blended malt whiskies that are readily available.
8. A staggering one billion bottles of scotch are exported from Scotland every year. America is the second-largest customer, importing an impressive 120 million bottles a year. This is still quite a ways behind the French, however, who are rapidly approaching 200 million bottles a year.
9. In 2009, I was lucky enough to be invited to taste a small dram from a bottle of 50-year-old Glenfiddich. It retailed for around $16,000 a bottle; however, this pales behind the price of some of the most expensive Scotches on offer, which include the Macallan 1926 ($54,000) and the Dalmore 64 Trinitas ($160,000).
10. Finally, I am often asked, “What’s the best way to drink whisky?” Of course everyone will have their own preference, but I am not a fan of adding ice, which I think dulls the flavor. Most distillers I have met suggest adding just a very small amount of room-temperature water to the glass. This lowers the alcohol content slightly and allows many of the distinct flavors of the spirit to come to the front.