A Single Malt Is A Single Malt, Right?
No two single malts are the same though, and can range from complex, layered and bold, to exceptionally smooth, intense or mellow.
Their ages vary from Non-Aged-Statements to 40 years and beyond, with different wood finishes and styles expressing the master distiller’s personal touch in creating what he or she deems to be the ultimate single malt.
Although many believe that the flavour of a malt whisky is solely determined by the choice of wood for maturation, there are a number of other factors that need to be considered too.
During barley selection, the master distiller has a wide choice of different raw material suppliers, often from countries other than where the whisky will be distilled and matured. In addition, the choice is compounded by whether the barley is non-peated or peated at different levels ranging from light to full peated barley. The importance of fermentation, the backbone to the quality of the final spirit, pot still distillation and the optimal moment to draw the spirit off the stills, as well as the climate within which the whisky is matured, is often overlooked by avid whisky drinkers.
To be called a whisky, the raw materials can only be water, grains and yeast with nothing added, including flavour, and the spirit needs to be matured for a minimum of three years in wood. It’s during this maturation period that the spirit resting in wood absorbs flavours from the cask but more importantly interacts with the environment. The ensuing chemistry of the magical interaction between the spirit, wood and the air, moulds the final whisky. The higher the temperature the faster the interaction, ultimately leading to a higher loss of the “Angel’s Share”, the term used for when alcohol evaporates from the barrels.
In warmer climates such as South Africa, the volume loss per year is 4% to 5% for each maturation year, compared to colder climates with a loss of between 1% and 2%. Although the loss is far greater in warmer environments, the benefit lies in the final whisky being much smoother at a younger age, comfortably comparing with far older, cooler climate whiskies.
Three Ships Whisky Master Distiller, Andy Watts, says in the whisky making process the challenges of fermentation in a warmer climate and the impact on quality is paramount.
“I learnt very early ‘that one can’t distil a good spirit from a bad fermentation’ and that the challenge in a warmer climate is to keep the yeast in its optimum temperature range to enable ideal performance. However, it’s during maturation that the difference between warmer and colder climates are more evident in the final product.”
“As a young whisky producing country, just over 40 years now, we faced a number of challenges during those earlier days especially considering that we did not have a neighbouring distillery to compare notes with. We had to learn about the influence of the warmer climate and how to adapt, turning what initially was a challenge to our advantage.”
“By developing our own customised strains of dried yeast and understanding their optimum performance range, adding temperature control to our fermentation tanks, implementing a wood policy and insulating our maturation warehouses to keep temperature and humidity at relatively constant values. Understanding all of this has enabled us to craft internationally award-winning whiskies.”
The Three Ships Whisky 10-Year-Old Single Malt vintage 2006 is a fine example of the impact of the warmer climate. The whisky was distilled in 2006 and matured for 10 years in older American Oak resulting in an elegance associated with much older whiskies.
With natural colour, non-chill-filtered and bottled at a strength of 46.3%, the whisky is presented in its most natural form. Light copper in colour, beautifully balanced toasted malt, medium peat, leather, dried fruit, banana and pineapple notes unravel on the nose. Upfront flavours of fruit cake, shortbread and subtle smoke coat the palate, leading to a warm mouth-feel and smooth finish.
The Three Ships Whisky 10-Year-Old Single Malt 2006 vintage is available from www.threeshipswhisky.co.za, leading liquor outlets and retails for around R579 per bottle.