Single Malt Scotch for the American Football Fan

5 November 2014

The arrival of a new football season in America brings with it much fanfare and excitement. The NFL is rarely out of the news, for good and occasionally unfortunate reasons. As an avid sports fan and an expat Scotsman, this presents a whole new set of challenges — how to understand and interpret the complexity of American football, a sport quite alien to my homeland. To maximize my enjoyment of the coming season and to simplify things a little, I have looked to another of my favorite things — single malt whisky. So without further ado, here are my early thoughts on American Football and a wee guide to Scotch!

Whisky Regions – Scotland, depending on which school of thought you adhere to (there are a few) can be divided very nicely into different whisky-producing regions. The list includes the Lowlands, Highlands, Islands, Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay. Ostensibly these regions are a guide for us to anticipate the flavors that will be in our drams, based on the topography and terroir of that region. The classic example being Islay whisky, which will give you peat smoke flavors. However, the modern age of Scottish distilling has proven that different styles of whisky can be created in any part of the country. In fact some modern distilleries exist with the intent to produce any style their engineers desire (yet more controversy). Think of the regions in the same way you consider the separate football teams and their playing style. Imagine the way Green Bay will play a home game in January compared with a Miami home game in the heat. 

Distillery – That’s your team or franchise, and each one is unique. Once you pick that favorite you might never change — the same with Scotch Single Malt. The beauty of our distilleries is that each is completely different and we have a lot of them!

Water and Barley – The foundation of every distillery in Scotland and the starting point for a fine single malt. Water flows to our stills and mash houses from springs, lochs, rivers and in a few cases from the mains taps themselves! These sources — depending on their acidity, “hardness” (calcium content associated with limestone aquifers) and their microbial content —will have subtle, yet profound influences on the whisky, particularly during mashing and fermenting. Along with water, barley is your building block for great whisky. All single malt scotch is produced from a malted barley source, hence the name! If you include yeast, you have the three very natural components of every single malt in Scotland. It’s debatable how much influence the barley actually has on the final taste, but it can certainly influence phenolic content (smoky flavors), yield (how much spirit we make) and sulphur content (unpleasant and undesirable) related to high nitrogen content in barley. Accordingly, think of the water and barley source as your pre-season — you’re not going to mess everything up at this point, but you can set yourself up for greatness.

Distillation – Once we have mashed and fermented our barley we must distill to produce spirit. The technique derives from the Latin word “dēstillāre,” meaning “to trickle down or drip.” The word “uisge beatha” comes from Scotch Gaelic “Water of Life,” which takes its etymology also from the Latin “aqua vitae.” The origins of this process are in perfume and aromatics with early copper alembic stills being used to produce and purify fragrance, particularly at the height of the Roman Empire. Today our still men will only collect the purest part of the spirit, often called the heart, while the heads, tails, feints and impurities are redistilled until they are pure and clean enough to be collected. Imagine the process as very similar to the NFL Draft, only selecting the best and cutting the rest.

Ethanol – When we combine the water, barley, and add some yeast, that’s when the magic happens — we produce alcohol. The alcohol content of the whisky is going to determine the style and characteristic of the dram. Compare it to your quarterback, possibly better with age but not always. Better when they are stronger, but at the same time a light style can be more dynamic.

Whisky Flavors – There can be anywhere up to 90 identifiable flavors in a single malt scotch. The interplay between all theses flavors is what makes the whisky so complex and unique. Each flavor can be attributed to various organic components of the distillate, such as propanol (fruity), butanol (bananas), and furfural (nutty) or phenyl ethanol (floral) and ethyl butyrate (pineapple). Think of each of these different flavors as the players of your team. Each has a different role to play, but all come together for the good of the team.

The Malt Master – The person with the best job in the world is the Malt Master, whose job it is to create all the different expressions that a distillery can produce. They will oversee the entire process from grain to bottle, eventually selecting only the finest casks for each different edition. A particular focus for the Malt Master is cask maturation. Once they have made our Uisgue Beath, it will spend a minimum of three years maturing in oak barrels. This maturation process is going to be the biggest influence on style, flavor, color, and aroma and is monitored closely by the Malt Master. Think of them as your head coach — not only are many of them built like barrels, they are the biggest influence on how a team will play, the style and philosophy of the club.

Ice – Ice in your whisky has the same effect in your glass as it does at the football stadium - it reduces your enjoyment of the experience. So in the same way we huddle into our thick jackets to watch a ball game, the whisky literally reduces its size and contracts its flavors when it is chilled. Try your whisky with just the slightest drop of still spring water and see the flavors explode on you palette like a linebacker tackle.

Whisky Cocktails – Like cheerleaders, they look nice. But are they really necessary?

The journey into the world of scotch single malts is a dangerous one, because once you start on that road you may never stop. Think how passionately you follow your favorite team and you get the idea. However, always enjoy your whisky responsibly before, during or after the game, no matter how bad your team is playing (Jets fans take note) and enjoy the season ahead.