Sunday, 6 May 2007

The magic of single malt (1)

When Andrew Usher created the first blended whisky in 1860, nobody could foresee what would happen years and years later.
Please consider this little article as just something issued from my own reflection and imagination, and not as something with any scientific background. This is just the opinion of a single malt passionate...
In the very old days, distillation of beer was a very good way to preserve it, as the hygienic conditions were quite different from now, and because the technology was not as advanced as it is nowadays. And people began to appreciate this uisge beata (water of life) made in the local distillery. Well very often the local distillery was just in their own kitchen. This was in the Middle Ages, where people were confronted with many plagues, but not yet with the taxes on alcohol... Well it is obvious that in those days, lots of other taxes made people's life hard, tax on salt and on everything people needed just for live... But alcohol was free of taxes in Scotland until some guys of the government realized that it could be a good source of revenues to support the many wars in those olden days... and of course they also saw the effect on the health of the population.
But all this has no direct link with Andrew Usher...
Scotch whisky was already very popular in 18th century, and the oldest distilleries in activity (or recently closed) date from this period. A time line on whisky-distilleries.info gives quite a readable chronology of the creation of distilleries, placed in their historical context.
Obvious was that people merely drank the local production. And very often ignored the whisky made in another region. The whisky had (just like now) quite a lot of character, and therefore was not really suited for export outside of the parish...
Things changed when Aenas Coffey (an Irish excise employee) patented his still making continuous distillation possible (after Robert Stein created the ancestor of that type of still for the huge Lowlands distilleries owned by his family). So tasteless whisky was produced for rectifying the English gin originally...
People of those times were just like people now... They do not like to be surprised each time they open another bottle... It must have exactly the same taste as the previous one. Nowadays, this still is the case, if one excepts some crazy single malt enthousiasts, who like surprises.
So why not rectify whisky as well? Why not create a whisky with a constant taste? This was the great contribution of Andrew Usher in the world of whisky. And due to an historic coincidence, this was the start of the international success of Scotch whisky. The coincidence was the little beatle called phylloxera which destroyed nearly all the vineyards in France at the same period. And the disparition of the grapes meant also the disparition of brandy which was very popular in those days...
(to be continued)

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