Sunday, September 16, 2012

The water of life

The word whisky comes from uisge beatha, the Gaelic for "water of life" of “frisky water”. Irish whiskey has an "e" in it thanks to marketers a in the last century wanted to distinguish 'classier' Irish whiskey from large quantities of Scottish rotgut that was on the market. Oh, how times change. But nevertheless, Scotch is now always spelt whisky.
First of all I should point out the differences between vodka and whisky. Vodka, despite common misperceptions, is not made from potatoes, but can be distilled from anything with sugars that can ferment to produce alcohol. What makes it vodka is that it is distilled to as close as pure alcohol as possible, and is then cut with water. Most of the actual flavor of vodka is more to do with the quality of water that dilutes the spirit than the alcohol itself. Crappy water = crappy vodka.
Scotch is essentially distilled beer, but unlike vodka, but it's only distilled to a 75% alcohol content, and the final spirit contains 'impurities' that give it much of its flavor. The rest of the flavor and character comes from the aging process, or malting process in single malts, but more of that later…
As I said, Scotch whisky is, basically distilled beer from barley grain. The most sophisticated (and interesting) of the Scotch types, in terms of flavor and process, is single malt, and that’s what I’ll mostly be describing here. In single malt whisky, the barley is soaked in water for two or three days (the quality of the water is an important factor in the character of the whisky) and then the grain is spread out allowed to germinate for a week or more - this is the malting process during which many of the starches in the grain transform into a variety of sugars. This stage is time and labor intensive and is skipped in other types of whiskies, but it's this process that gives single malts much of their complexity. After the germination stage, the grain is dried, and this stage can also add to the flavor of the whisky. Traditionally single malts are dried in a kiln fueled by peat. The more smoke that's allowed to permeate the gain, the peatier whisky (e.g. malts from the island of Islay are smoked heavily and therefore very peaty). Again this significantly adds to the flavor in single malts, as opposed to other whiskies.
The grain is then ground up into grist and poured into a large barrel or mash tun to which water is added (again the type of water is important, and the chemical composition of the water source is important in the final flavor of the whisky). The sugars in the grain dissolve in the water and the sugary liquid, or wort is drained off. More water is added to the grist, and wort drawn off. The number of times this happens is variable and is distillery-specific.
The liquid is then has yeast added and fermentation starts on the wash as the liquid is now called. The wash is fermented for about 2 days, with a final alcohol content of about 7-8%.
Now comes the distilling. For single malts, a 'pot' still is used (which looks like a big copper Hershey's kiss) and the liquid is distilled in batches. This again is distinctive from other whiskies where distillation is continuous (in a so called Coffey still), a process which is faster and not so labor intensive.
The first distillation (referred to as the low wines; 20-25% alcohol) is taken off and distilled again (to become 75% alcohol). From this second distillate the first part (foreshot) and end part (feints) are returned to a batch the low wine for re-distilling, as they contain some noxious impurities. The middle cut or spirit is drawn off, and will be used for the whisky itself. The decision when to ' cut' is partly automated, but some distilleries rely on a still man who makes their decision based on experience, and partly magic.
The spirit is then placed in casks to age. The location for aging is important as it can affect the flavor - for example the salty sea air of Laphroaig distillery gives their whisky a distinct iodine/hospital smell (that's due to a high iodine concentration in aerosolized sea salt that permeate the casks).
For single malts the casks are charred oak bourbon barrels imported from the US (under US law bourbon barrels can only be used once). During the aging process the spirit reacts with the oak barrels, going from a clear to a golden color. The longer the spirit is aged, usually the deeper the color (and the mellower and less harsh the taste). For some brands, the spirit is transferred to a sherry, port, wine, or madeira cask to 'finish' (usually for two years) and again it picks up some subtle flavoring due to reactions with the wine infused cask wood.
During the aging process 40-50% of the whisky evaporates away and is lost. This is referred to as "the angel's share"  (as an aside I highly recommend the Scottish movie "the Angel's Share" a fun "heist" movie, although non-Glaswegians will probably need sub-titles).
When aging is completed the whisky is bottled. Scotch has to be aged at least a three years and a day, with most Scotch being 8 years. Most single malts are aged 10 years. Sometimes whiskies of different ages are mixed together, but the age you see on the bottle will be the youngest  batch in the mix. However, your bottle may be mixed with an older batch, often to give a more mellowed flavor. "Single cask" whisky is drawn from just one cask, and not mixed. The whisky is 55-57% alcohol at this stage, and so has to be cut with water again, to 40% (or 43% for export) with the signature water supply before bottling (unless it's bottled as "cask strength"). Once in the bottle, although there may be a little evaporation, there is no further aging as such - unlike wine, there is negligible oxidization in the bottle. So you might as well drink it.
Single malts can consist of multiple age batches, from multiple casks, but from only one type of whisky at a specific distillery. Blended scotches can have up to 40 different types of whisky within, from multiple distilleries, some single malt, but much of it grain whisky (see American whiskies below). But they all have to be made in Scotland under Scottish distilling laws.
For each region of Scotland, single malts have a slightly different flavor. Lowland malts are slightly citrusy, Islay malts are very peaty, Speyside malts are sweet and slightly fruity, and highland malts have vanilla and spicy tones.
My personal favourite is Glenmorangie (port or madeira wood finish). It’s also the favorite of Connor and Duncan MacLeod of the Clan Macleod, so for me there can be only one. At the moment I have 22 bottles of single malt in the house, and some high end bourbons too.
As a final note, Scotch should never be drunk with ice. That is sacrilegious. Connoisseurs will a tiny bit of water, no more than a teaspoonful, to their whisky, and this will in fact help bring out the favor of the scotch – IF, AND ONLY IF, the water is the best spring water. Adding crappy faucet/tap water to your fine Scotch is just plain dumb. You can now (from get ‘whisky stones’ for your Scotch – pieces of granite that you can cool in your freezer, and chill your scotch without diluting on contaminating it. These are fine, although they will show down evaporation and you’ll lose some of the bouquet of the whisky. Just be careful how you wash the stones after – and do not, as a friend did, scrub them with detergent, or you’ll have forever soapy-tasting whisky.    
Anyone who puts coke, or even worse, Iron-bru, in good single malt, deserves to fry (in batter) in a special layer of hell.
PS. In the US, whiskies are usually denoted by the cereal grain that the mash is largely (at least 51%) derived from, although bourbon is 51% corn (maize), whereas corn whiskey has a mash that is 80% corn. Bourbon that has been aged at least 2 (often 4) years and doesn’t have added colorings, flavorings or grain spirits, can be called straight bourbon.  In addition to bourbon & corn whiskey, you will find barley, wheat and rye whiskies in the US (barley whiskies in the US may also be malted in a process similar, but not identical, to single malt Scotch too). Tennessee whiskey is essentially bourbon, but some distilleries filter the whisky through sugar maple charcoal, which is supposed to improve the flavor. Canadian whiskies are different again (mostly corn/wheat with other grains aged 3-6 years typically, and are usually blended, even if they are referred to as “rye” whisky). The one exception is Glenora (Nova Scotia) which is a pot stilled, single malt, produced in Scottish fashion, that I am extremely curious to try.

Prologue to the next bit

I was sat thinking about what I should write about, but most of my week has been a boring succession of meetings and paperwork. There was a bright spot on Friday when we finally filed away the last of the devastation that was wrought by the crazy guy (see earlier posts) who had a grudge on me. We had to go through his numerous deluded accusations before an official panel and one by one they were determined to be baseless, and in a couple of cases that crazy guy himself was in fact culpable. There was a final determination that this had all been a big waste of time an effort, but crazy guy has now resigned (see the celebratory post below) and so hopefully his campaign against me is all a thing of the past.
So sipping a glass of congratulatory scotch, I decided to write about the item in hand, whisky. Which leads me to my next post...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fanny the pirate

One of my regular readers complained about how whiney I’ve been recently, and ask what happened to the educational stuff. So in penance, here’s some more pirate stuff, with an article on one of my favourite female pirates Fanny Campbell.
Fanny Campbell was from a rural community just outside of Boston, and was engaged to a local lad, a sailor, called William Lovell. Young William signed on to a merchant ship for a voyage to South America, but while sailing through the Caribbean his ship was attacked by pirates and the crew press ganged onto the pirate crew. William, however escaped when the ship docked in Cuba, but unfortunately the local authorities arrested him and some of his fellow escapees and he was imprisoned for piracy. After a year of imprisonment, one of William’s fellow convicts escaped and stowed away on a ship heading for Boston, and sent a message to Fanny telling her of her fiancĂ©’s woes.
Now, this is where it gets good - Fanny decided to take things into her own hands. She disguised herself as a man joined the crew of a merchant ship (as a ship’s officer) sailing to England via Cuba. Fanny had been taught how to sail and navigate by her beau, and used this skills to get herself a position. En route to Cuba, Fanny started rumors that the Captain of the ship was going to encourage the Royal Navy to press gang the crew (for his own personal profit of course) , and that the First Officer was in on the deal. As neither were liked by the crew (the Captain was particularly harsh), they believed her and she effectively led a mutiny. The crew decided to “go pirate” and chose Fanny Campbell (still disguised as a man) as their Captain. She turned out to have a very tactical mind and on route to Cuba they sighted, boarded and captured a British gunship. The two ships sailed into Havana, and a small team of the crew snuck into the jail and rescued William and a number of other captives, largely Americans.
Despite having rescued her beau, Fanny kept up her manly disguise, and continued commanding her small squadron of pirate ships, and quickly captured another British vessel. In addition to the plunder from the merchantman, they also discovered that America had declared war on Great Britain. This meant that British ships were fair game to American vessels and instead of pirates, Fanny’s largely American crew became a band of patriot privateers raiding, looting and capturing enemy vessels.
However, technically in order to be bona fide privateers Fanny’s squadron of pirate ships needed official letters of marque from the American authorities, and so they sailed to Massachusetts and not only filed their piratical paperwork , but Fanny and William also got married. Her cover now blown, and also pregnant, Fanny decided to stay in Massachusetts and began to raise her new family, while William went back to sea, now a legally recognize privateer in the service of the newly minted United States of America.
Although there does seem to have been an actual Fanny Campbell, a lot of the legend associate with Captain Campbell was embellished thanks to the book “Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain; A Tale of the American Revolution” published in 1844 (by Maturin Murray Ballou), which is about as accurate to history as “Braveheart”. Despite being exaggerated, the published tales of Fanny actually inspired many young women to disguise themselves as men during the American Civil war, several of whom ultimately became as famous as the fearsome Fanny.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I'm drawing a blank

For the umpteenth time, a student came into my office and launched into discussion expecting me to immediately know what they are talking about and in my head I was thinking (a) who are you and (b) what the hell are you talking about? Partly it may be because I think the human brain can only remember so many names and faces and each time you have  new classes in a new semester, some of those old students just have to be deleted to make space. Partly I think it's because for so many students today the world revolves around them, of course you must know who they are and what they are doing, because they are the center of the universe. But I often get students getting insulted and grumpy that I don't remember very tiny thing about their lives. To be fair we have over 1,800 students in the two majors I advise for at the moment, and can get 20 or 30 come through my door on a busy advising day.

As I discovered last week, I have the same problem in conferences. I have to do a lot of schmoozing and socializing in my job, but often has been the time when I've awkwardly tried to steer the conversation and avoid having to introduce someone, because, I just can't remember their name. Recognise the face, dimly, but who they are and what they do, well it's just a blank. Admittedly sometimes there are mitigating circumstances. For example (a) they have a foreign name or strong accent so I didn't get it; (b) I met them in a loud and rambuctious party and didn't hear; (c) I was drunk; or (d) they were so boring I just tuned out and was day dreaming about lying in my hammock/ dragons/ a new research project idea/ a crush or cutie/ beer. So if I'm at a party with you, and I'm politely chatting to an aquaintance, if I don't automatically introduce them to you, please don't ask me to ...

For those of you who sympathize, here's a song just for you ...

Monday, September 3, 2012

Ding-dong the witch is dead

I posted a week or so back about the problems I'm having with a crazy person hassling and persucuting me. Well they have finally succumbed/ surrendered without having to go to the matresses and hiring lawyers. That's an enormous stress off my shoulders. I got my first good night sleep in in don't know how long last night. Now life can go back to normal (ish) ... I hope.

Who am I?

This is just a quick post because several of my friends spoke to me over the past month about the Myers-Briggs test. I remember doing one when I was a kid and all I remember was that it came out as just in the introverted category. Well, I had a go and this is what I got

Extravert(27%) iNtuitive(62%) Feeling(25%) Judging(1%)

Intuitive didn't surprise me - I'm a big picture / strategic kind of thinker. The Extroverted part did, as a lot of the time I'm on my own and in my own head much of the time, and like my quiet time. But I am also huge attention-ho these days, so maybe that's it. Despite being a scientist, anyone who knows me would atest to teh fact that I'm not always the most logical. Spock I ain't.  what did intrigue me was that according to one website I am a close personality match for Anne (of Green Gables) Shirley, and if you've read my blog entries from the beginning, you probably know my huge teenage crush, and how that would tickle me.

That's it for now. I'm currently recovering from a manic week-long trip to Scotland, but have a few posts warming on the hob ...