Whisky on the Rocks

A report in the UK this week on fraud in the whisky market brings to mind the role of geology in this important tipple as we head towards the festive season.

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As we hurtle towards the Christmas festivities, a favourite drink is in the news this week. An investigation by whisky broker Rare Whisky 101 (RW101) has found that more than one-third of vintage Scotch whiskies it tested are fake. Of 55 bottles of rare Scotch tested at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), 21 were deemed to be outright fakes or whiskies not distilled in the year declared.

SUERC measured residual concentrations of a radioactive isotope of carbon to establish the ages of the whiskies. RW101 said it was responding to growing concern surrounding the proliferation of fake whisky in the secondary market. The bottles had been selected at random from auctions, private collections and retailers. RW101 estimates that rare whisky worth about US$50 million is fake.

Although RW101's investigation targeted rare Scottish whisky, it will have implications for the whole market. This includes grain whisky (distilled using a mixture of barley and maize), malt whisky (produced solely from malted barley and usually derived from a single source) and Irish whiskey — the difference in the spelling comes from the translations of the word from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic forms.

The extra 'e' is also used when referring to American whiskies (bourbon), which are distilled from a mash containing at least 51% corn. Tennessee Whiskey (eg Jack Daniel's) is distinguished from bourbon in that it is filtered through sugar-maple charcoal after distilling. Rye refers either to American whiskey distilled from at least 51% rye or to Canadian whisky.

Two wonderful quotes about whisky come to mind. "One dram is alright, two is too much, three is too few", and "It sloweth age; it strengtheneth youthe; it helpeth digestion; it abandoneth melancholy; it relisheth the harte; it lighteneth the mynde; it quickeneth the spirite". The first is an old saying from the Highlands of Scotland, and the second comes from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Incidentally, the second edition of this work, published in 1587, is widely believed to have been used by Shakespeare as the source for most of his history plays, King Lear and for the plot of Macbeth.

The relationship between whisky and geology was explored in a Mining Journal article on December 14, 1990 (when I was joint editor of the weekly publication). Written by Stephen Cribb and Julie Davison (who co-wrote a book on the subject, 'Whisky on the Rocks', eight years later), the article focused on unblended, single malt, whisky.

The authors noted that, with the exception of Bushmills from Northern Ireland, all UK single malt whiskies originate in Scotland. These are traditionally divided geographically into five groups; Highlands, Lowlands, Islands, Islay and Campbeltown. The most famous and concentrated area of malt manufacture is Speyside, a subdivision of the Highland classification, within which over 45 distinct malts may be recognised.

In simple terms, malt whisky is distilled beer. Indeed, several distilleries started in the last century as rather unsuccessful brewing operations and it was only with the introduction of distillation that a nondescript brew was transformed.

An important difference from the brewing process is that during the kilning of the barley, when the germinated growth is arrested by heating, peat is used as the main heat source and the peat-smoke is allowed to permeate the malt. Two, and sometimes three, distillations of the wort take place in pot stills made of copper, the design of which has varied little since the early days of whisky making.

Cribb and Davidson wrote that it is generally accepted that the composition of the naturally-occurring ground waters utilised in the production of the distillable liquor is a major factor in the unique nature of each malt whisky. The chemistry of this water is dependent on the geological horizon from which it has arisen. Consequently, it is a fascinating exercise to look at malt whiskies from a geological rather than a geographical point of view.

Geologically, the oldest of the malt whiskies are the Precambrian Torridonian varieties from the shores of Lochindaal on the west coast of Islay. Bowmore and Bruichladdich derive their water from streams crossing coarse red, green and grey grits and arkoses. These smooth, golden coloured, dry spirits compare markedly with the deep amber, full-bodied liquors distilled on the southern shores of the same island. Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardoeg, utilise waters and seaweed-containing peats developed on, and derived from, the phyllites of the Lower Dalradian. These peats and the characteristic bare and exposed coastal locations of the distilleries result in the unique smoky, iodine-like pungency.

Cribb and Davison wrote that to the south-east of Islay, on the Mull of Kintyre, the renowned Campbeltown malts use water derived from the mica-schists and slates of the Upper Dalradian. Regrettably, the sweet and smoky whiskies of Springbank and Glen Scotia are all that remain from over 30 distilleries.

The full article ran to some 1,300 words (available on request), and ended its foray into the geological world of malt whiskies by noting that there are two that draw their water from the volcanics of the Tertiary Igneous Province in the Western Isles. These, said the authors, are the little known but surprisingly pleasing soft, golden and sweet Tobermory from Mull, and the highly respected straw coloured, dry and peat flavoured Talisker from the desolate north-east coast of the Isle of Skye.

Cribb and Davidson concluded that a "true and full appreciation of malt whiskies can probably only just be achieved in a single lifetime. However, there can be no better way to educate oneself than to line a dozen or so of these fine distillates in stratigraphic order and work from oldest to youngest". 

Perhaps next time we can ponder the best way to serve whisky!

Chris Hinde

Chief Commentator, Mining Beacon

Previously editorial director of Mining Journal, and more recently head of S&P Global Market Intelligence's metals and mining team, Chris is now Mining Beacon's editor-in-chief and lead commentator. He posts two blogs every week, one on Monday reviewing market conditions over the prior week, and a second on Thursday looking at issues on the global mining scene. There is also a quarterly blog on business opportunities in the sector.