A Guide to Scotch whisky

This article first appeared in The Scottish Sporting Gazette, to see the original article click here.

Dougie Munro of the Robert Graham Whiskies Ltd, Est. 1874, Canongate whisky shop in Edinburgh with part 1 of his guide to whisky.

Toasted Oak Barrels for ageing single malt scotch whisky You would be hard pushed to find a more traditional drink than Scotch whisky. Sure enough there is an argument about who came up with the idea in the first place; the Irish lay claim to the oldest distillery and the Scots will paint their faces blue, threatening to charge you down if you suggest theirs isn't both original and the best.

Actually distillation (the process that makes whisky what it is) was first documented in Greece as far back as 1AD - though it wasn't invented overnight, it will have dated back much further than that.

Scotch whisky wasn't recorded until 1495 when it appears in the Exchequer records. As it so often is, it was being produced by a man of the Cloth; Friar John Cor. What Friar Cor was producing would have been quite different to the bottle of whisky you get from your local supermarket today, but the industry itself hasn't changed all that much over the years, it has merely evolved and matured (forgive the pun).

In Friar Cor's day there was little regulation on what could be called whisky, or usquebaugh (pronounced Ooh-Ski-bah) as it was known, The Water of Life. Only the imagination can guess at the kind of firewater people were drinking, but all that has changed in our modern times and the industry is strictly regulated. By law, Single Malt Scotch whisky must be made from malted barley, water and yeast (nothing else). Also it must be matured in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years and bottled at no less than 40% alcohol by volume.

Malt whisky falls into certain geographical categories: Lowland, Highland, Speyside and Islay, amongst other smaller regions. The nature of the land often influences the style of the whisky.

The island of Islay lies of the west coast of Scotland; a windswept and beautiful place, home to no less than eight distilleries. The island is predominantly made from peat which, when dug up and dried, makes excellent fuel. When burned to dry the barley the smoke is extremely pungent and imparts its flavour into the grain - this is carried through to produce smoky and spicy whisky. Robert Graham LTD has been producing our own Islay malt for some years now, we call it "Hobeg" and it won last year's gold medal at the International Spirit Challenge (ISC). It is a quintessential Islay malt filled with phenolic miasmas and the aromas of bonfire and earth and meaty goodness. Finished off with a warming flavour, yet it is very soft as it goes down. Islay malts are highly sought after by loyal and enthusiastic fans, they even have festivals to celebrate the sacred spirit!

Islay whisky distillery Robert Graham Ltd On the mainland, to the north east you'll find Speyside; a patch of land with two significant reasons for being the most densely populated whisky making area in Scotland. The River Spey, Britain's fastest running river, flows over granite which makes for startlingly pure water and the best kind for making your whisky from. The other reason is a little more nefarious... Distillation wasn't always legal in Scotland and the hills and valleys of the Speyside region made for a good place to hide your illicit still from the excise man (most famous of which was Robert Burns himself). When the ban on distillation was lifted a great many distillers applied to have their stills legally endorsed, most staying on the patch they'd been using all along. Speyside whiskies tend to be soft and smooth, and the popular choice of cask used for maturation are former sherry casks from Spain, which impart a sweet, juicy flavour (though not all distilleries follow this route). Speyside whiskies make up several of Robert Graham's Dancing Stag Single Cask range, individual and unique whiskies selected by our expert whisky taster (nice work if you can get it!).

The rest of the Highland region produces a variety of styles. Coastal distilleries take on a slightly dry, sea-salty flavour, which is refreshingly pleasant and best enjoyed on a dark and stormy night, whereas the central Highlands tend to be lighter, more airy and have a fresh fruitiness to them such as the Ailein Mor - our very own Highland malt (this year's silver medal winner at the ISC).

There aren't many Lowland distilleries left these days, but what is produced from this region is predominantly light, airy and delicate. These were the favoured flavours with the gentry of the South of England just over 100 years ago, but the jealous London gin makers lined the pockets of a few greedy politicians and the ensuing tax levies put pay to the trade of Lowland malt.

There we have a brief guide to Scotch whisky. In part 2, we look at blending and vatting; the art of creating a perfect dram.

Robert Graham LTD have been purveyors of fine cigars and whiskies since 1874 and have a wide selection of exclusive whisky in their nationwide stores as well as their website: www.whisky-cigars.co.uk