“Every distiller looks on making whisky as an art. There are books on how to drink, make and distil whisky; books on types of whisky and the history of whisky.” So began a talk by Frank Clark, a malt whisky expert, on Scotch whisky at the Nairn Book & Arts Festival.
Frank claimed that the Scots did not invent distilling, just as they didn’t invent tartans, bagpipes and haggis (all of which have distant cousins in faraway lands). The first people to use distilling techniques, mainly for the perfume trade and using rice wine, were the Chinese. Egyptians distilled a primitive form of barley. The Moors spread distilling techniques and eventually they reached the Scandinavian countries. St Patrick is said to have introduced whisky to Scotland and Ireland – as Frank put it “when you arrived with a whisky in one hand and a bible in the other we would probably have believed anything.”
The first written record of whisky in Scotland comes from the 1490s. Over the next few centuries whisky thrived until curbed by the introduction of distilling laws in the 1830s. In 1819 there were over 1,000 illegal stills in Scotland – and these were only the ones that were recorded...
Scotch whisky is distilled in onion shaped copper stills. The size and shape of the stills and the way they are heated affect the flavour of the final drink. Scotch whisky is distilled twice, whilst Irish whisky is distilled 3 times. Maturing takes place in oak barrels – American oak for most blending whisky. To be legally given its name Scotch whisky must be matured for at least 3 years and bottled under government supervision.
People have differing views as to the optimum age for whisky. Frank – who has tasted very old and very expensive whisky - believes the best whisky has been matured for 10-20 years, after which it may go downhill. Evaporation can take away spirit and whisky can start to lose its alcohol content; it can also taste more of wood than whisky if matured for too long.
Frank ended his talk by mentioning the fact that there was a distillery registered in Nairn from 1789-1799 by a John Clark; due to the short length of time of registration it may not have been fully operational. Ordnance Survey references indicate it is likely that it was on the site of the current Royal Bank of Scotland in Nairn.