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Professional Writers, Learn Your Whisky Basics!

by Oliver Klimek on June 16, 2011

Educating people about whisky is a good thing, and many writers try to do so. But are all of them knowledgeable enough to take on this task?

In the June 2011 issue of the Whisky Round Table the 12 participating whisky bloggers shared their thoughts on the constantly increasing number of whisky blogs. One point brought up was because it is so easy to start a blog, there would be more or less automatically some lesser informed people posting sub-par quality content.

Fair enough, but for me the bigger danger, if you want to call it such, comes from those who may be professional writers but whose area of expertise lies beyond the borders of whiskyland. In the two years I have been blogging about whisky have read so much whisky rubbish from freelance food and drink journalists (if real or self-proclaimed doesn’t really matter), bartenders, newspaper “wine guys” or similar species that I tend to prefer the clumsy elaborations of newbie whisky bloggers trying to make their first steps in the crowded whisky blogosphere.

These professionals earn their living by writing articles for local newspapers, general knowledge internet portals like ehow.com or generic food & drink and lifestyle sites. Judging from the number of comments some of these articles receive, their readership is usually significantly bigger than that of your average whisky blog. Sometimes they feel compelled to write introductions to the wonderful world of whisky.

Let me present you some snippets of their wisdom, retrieved in just about one hour with the aid of my preferred search engine:

General weirdness:

Other whiskies are whisky (sometimes spelled “Whiskey” except in Canada and Ireland) and bourbon.

Caught in the traps of logic:

The harsher tones of single-malts are dampened by blending them with grain whiskies … The higher end blended Scotch will have more single malt which leads to a deeper flavor.
[If single malts are harsh, more single malt in a blend should result in an even harsher whisky]

What were those bloody whisky regions again?

There are four Scotch whisky-making regions in Scotland; The Highlands, The Lowlands, Islay and Campbeltown.

There are four general areas in Scotland that produce whisky: The highlands, lowlands, Speyside, and Islay

The four regions are Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside and Islands.

They make very distinctive whisky in those regions:

Highlands: This region produces lighter, almost sweet whiskies. Look for Macallan, Oban, and Glenmorangie labels.

Highland Scotches vary wildly because of the sheer number of distilleries and geographic variables, but you can count on a less sweet and peaty (but not overwhelmingly so) flavor.

Speyside Scotches tend to go over well with people who like their flavors a little more complex and subtle. At first sip, you might be disappointed. But just wait for it — the flavor is there.

Lowlands whiskey has the mildest flavor and Islands whiskey has the smokiest.

Legal definitions clearly are not everybody’s cup of tea:

Single Malt is only fermented barley that’s been distilled twice through a copper pot still and aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. The whiskey that’s eventually bottled must have been distilled in the same year.

A single malt means that only one barley was used to distill the liquor. Blended means that more then one single malt (of barley or grain) are blended to perfection by a master blender.

Scotch whisky is kept in the cask for a minimum of two years, while Irish whiskey is aged for a minimum of three years.

Most scotch whiskies are aged at least three years

Scotch whisky is produced by ‘blending’, while Irish whiskey is produced by ‘vatting’.

When choosing a Scotch you will find either “single malt” or “blended” on the label along with an age statement. In the case of blended, the age is that of the youngest whiskey in the blend.

While by legal definition Scotch must only be aged three years, it is invariably aged for much longer. 10 years is the youngest age of whisky that is regularly released.

Production is over-simplified:

The grain is ground to powder and thrown into a big tank of water, along with yeast that eats grain and excretes alcohol.

…mill it into grist (a coarse grind), add hot water and yeast and allow to ferment.

The myth of all or nearly all Scotch whisky being peated, perpeuated ad nauseam:

While making Scotch whisky, the barley used is wholly malted, and it is first allowed to sprout, and then it is dried. Peat smoke is used in the drying process, which produces the distinctive Scotch aroma of the whisky

In the case of Scotch whisky, the burning of peat moss to provide heat is traditionally used, which is what gives Scotch its distinctive flavor.

..halt the germination in a kiln (usually involving some peat smoke which gives single malt scotches their distinctive smokiness)

Malt Whisky is made with barley malt, which is dried over a peat fire.

Scotch and Irish whiskies often taste of the peat fires used to dry the malted grain.

Mixed inaccuracies:

Hold the glass to the light and examine the color. The lighter the color, the newer the Scotch whisky. … The more your nose burns, the higher the alcohol content.

While Scotch whisky is distilled only twice, Irish whiskey undergoes triple distillation

On first glance this is nothing more than an amusing compilation of errors, myths and inaccuracies. But articles like these are regarded as reliable sources because of the reputations of the writers and their platforms. Readers believe what is written there, if they don’t happen do know better. So the errors, myths and inaccuracies keep being recycled time and time again.

For this very reason I even have to give a whisky legend like Paul Pacult a special mention, not because of bad research or plain wrong information, but because of sloppiness. In an article for forbes.com he wrote:

Grain whisky is whisky produced from either maize (corn) or wheat in continuously running column stills.

There is nothing actually wrong with that sentence, but the context turns it into an inaccurate statement. It appears in a section with the headline “Scotch Whisky Fundamentals: The Basic Definitions”. The statement may correctly describe how grain whisky is commonly made, but is clearly not the definition of grain whisky. I can distill a mash from oats in a pot still and will get perfectly legal Scotch grain whisky. I just have to I add some malted barley too, as demanded in the official whisky regulations – a very important part of the definition that is omitted in the article.

This may look overly nitpicky, but at this level of whisky journalism everything has to be waterproof. Can whisky writing get more high profile that that? The reputations of Forbes and Mr. Pacult add up to a huge level of credibility. Just imagine now some of those food writers quoting this article and claiming “Scotch grain whisky has to be made from maize or wheat in column stills”.

Dear non-whisky writers, when preparing articles about a subject you are not an expert of, please do some thorough research even if you want to write only about the basics. As you can see, you can easily mess up even the simple stuff. You don’t need to have the knowledge of a whisky anorak. But please make sure what you write is correct.

Go to the library, buy a general whisky book, read whisky websites, even read the official regulations, attend whisky tastings and ask the hosts about anything you need explained. And check and double check before you release your work to your audience. They will be thankful.

Now, complaining is one thing, doing it better is the other. Here is my take on a short beginner’s compendium about Scotch whisky:

10 Essential Things About Scotch Whisky Everybody Should Know

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Marc June 16, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Agreed fully Oliver. Well said.

Just one caution to your readers: don’t always trust your hosts! I’ve been to whisky tastings of some leading brands, and have on occasion heard the host make basic of errors.

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Oliver Klimek June 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Such hasn’t happened to me yet, but I agree that it may not always be easy to separate the barley from the chaff, especially as a newbie. Shows how important it is to have as many sources as possible.

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Andy June 16, 2011 at 6:27 pm

If you want a real eye-opener for errors go buy the book ‘Whisky – The Water of Life’ by Margaret Briggs (I think it only cost me a couple of pounds on offer – read it & you’ll see why!). It gave me many a good giggle.

The best bit for me is the mandatory distillery map which shows Dalmore & Teaninich as being on the outskirts of Ullapool on the west coast and Dalwhinnie is now in Crieff…….genius!….portable stills….bring them to my back garden any day.

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