Whisky 101 with Gerald Savigny

Gerald Savigny is the founder and educator of the European Wine and Spirits Management (EWSM), a craft beverage training and education company. According to its Facebook page, “EWSM primarily focuses on delivering Wine & Spirits Education – through international certifications, wine appreciation and workshops.” Sample course topics include Food & Wine Pairing, Bordeaux Versus Burgundy and Italy Wine Regions.

EWSM’s education opportunities come in easily digestable formats, with their shortest courses running at 1.5 hours and longest at 60 (for professionals in the beverage/hospitality industry). Take a look at their offerings and miscellaneous services below.

Originally focusing on wine (EWSM is a WSET Approved Programme Provider), Savigny is successfully branching out with workshops on other beverages such as whisky. I had the opportunity to attend Whisky 101. Here’s how it went.

Whisky 101

LIT Japanese Whisky BarThe course venue was LIT, a new Japanese whisky bar in Serendra. You can read more about LIT here.

EWSM partners with different venues to give clients a diverse view of the beverage industry in Manila. If you’re interested in any of their classes, you will probably enjoy their venue. EWSM selects exciting venues relevant to class topics in order to immerse participants in their subject. Learning about whisky at a whisky bar allowed me to talk to whisky lovers in the industry, such as Francis Hasegawa, one of the partners who started LIT.

Without giving too much away, below is a summary of what I learned. It was a lot of information, efficiently taught in a succinct two hours.

Distillation Essentials

The main whisky (sometimes spelled “whiskey” in America) producing countries are Scotland, Ireland, Japan and America (bourbon). There are three different ways to distill whisky, all of which rely on the same crucial element; water. Distilleries are all located near high-quality sources of water, since the flavors and purity of whisky are heavily affected by it.

The key elements of whisky production are:

  • Water
  • Grain (wheat, barley, corn)
  • The blender (equivalent to the winemaker in wine)
  • The still
  • The barrel (size and type of wood)

Whisky Production

Savigny went over a few different distillation processes, but I will only be doing a quick overview on malt whisky production.

  1. Soak barley in water for two or three days.
  2. Place the barley to dry on green malt for seven days. Barley will begin to germinate.
  3. Place into kiln to roast and dry the barley. At this stage peat was traditionally used to smoke and dry the barley. Peat is derived from a decomposition of plants, and occurs naturally in Scotland and Hokkaido. The smoke from the peat will give the barley unique flavors and aromas.
  4. Once the barley is dried, it’s now called malt. Mill and mash the malt to create a thick powder called grist.
  5. Blend grist with hot water in a mash tun. Fermentation occurs.
  6. At this point we get something called wort, which is placed in a washback approximately two days for further fermentation. Yeast enzymes are added to the wort to convert sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat.
  7. At this point, alcohol level is at approximately five to 10 percent.
  8. After this comes distillation, and the wash still and spirit still. In the wash still you have 25 to 35 percent alcohol.
  9. This stage utilizes something called a spirit safe, so the blender can taste and check the density of the spirits. The spirit safe calculates alcohol percentage, humidity, etc. so the blender can decide how to move forward. Usually the head (too strong) and tail (too weak) of the distillation are sent back to be redistilled, and the heart is placed into barrels to mature.
  10. Smaller casks age whisky faster, and larger casks slow down the process. In smaller casks, the liquid has more contact with the wood (which also contributes to the intensity of wood flavor in whisky).

Note: Anything high acid is easier to distill.

Whisky Producing Regions

Scotland has the most distilleries in the world, producing 700 million liters per year from more than 100 distilleries. Many distilleries are located in Speyside, but they have distilleries in other regions such as Islay, Campbeltown, Highland and Lowland.

The concept of terroir was introduced in the 80s and is popular in Scotland. Terroir refers to the harmony between the soil, climate and crop. Based on the terroir they’re in, certain distillers create different styles of whisky.

Scottish single malt whisky (sometimes called scotch) must come from a single distillery, be made in Scotland, the barley used to produce the whisky must be grown in Scotland, and it must be matured for at least three years in barrel.

Ireland is known for triple distillation. Their whiskys are elegant with high purity because they distill a total of three times. Peated whisky isn’t as popular there, nor is the concept of terroir. Their single malt whisky must be 100 percent malted barley, be grown and produced in Ireland and spend at least three years in wood for maturation.

There are four major distilleries in Ireland;

  • Midleton
  • Kilbeggan
  • Cooley
  • Bushmills

Because there are only four distilleries, Irish whisky is limited in quantity compared to countries such as Scotland and Japan. This is one of the reasons it isn’t widely found around the world. Jameson seems to have done quite well though.

Japan produces 68 million liters of whisky annually. The whisky in Japan doesn’t have a minimum maturation requirement, meaning they don’t have to age their whisky in barrels for a set number of years. The two main whisky companies are Suntori and Nikka. Japan’s eight distilleries focus mostly on grain whisky.

Savigny recently visited whisky bars in Tokyo and noted that a common choice to begin the evening is something called Mars Komagatake Pure Malt 10 years. (Pure malt doesn’t necessarily mean single malt, it means a blend of different malts). This whisky comes from the Hombo Mars distiller. Another distiller we touched on was the Chichibu, whose distillery is two hours from Tokyo.

In the United States of America, most of the whisky is produced in Kentucky and is known as bourbon. In order for it to be labeled as “straight,” no flavor or color can be added and it must spend at least two years maturation in wood. Bourbon is made primarily from corn, but also incorporates rye, wheat and/or barley.

America produces different types of whisky, including rye whisky, malt whisky, wheat whisky and bourbon whisky.

Whisky Tasting

Part of the whisky class was to taste different styles of whisky, including a blended, single malt and peat whisky. When sampling whisky, you want to look at the appearance, nose and palate.

Here’s an example of one of our whisky tasting breakdowns.

Appearance

Place your glass on a white background and observe the color. The first whisky we tried was clear amber. Not cloudy.

Nose

Medium intensity, aromas can be detected when glass is below lip level. In order to determine intensity of the nose, swirl your glass and place it under your chin, bottom lip and nose. If you notice the aroma when the glass is under your chin, it’s pronounced. Under your bottom lip is medium and nose is light.

Having a pronounced aroma is a sign of high quality.

This particular whisky smelled sweet, much like melted sugar. The group also got aromas of apricots, peach and marshmallows.

Palate

Take two sips of your first whisky, first to clear your palate and then to taste. Keep the whisky on your tongue for as many seconds as the whisky is years old. For example, keep a 10 year old whisky on your tongue for 10 seconds.

Observe the body and scale (is it light or heavy on the tongue?). The whisky we tried had medium sweetness and strong alcohol with a short finish. Finish refers to how long the flavors last in your mouth once you swallow, not the feeling of alcohol or acidity. A short finish is five seconds, medium is 6 to 11 seconds, and long is 12 seconds or more. Good length is also an indicator of quality.

Learn More

Contact Savigny at ewsmmanila@gmail.com or visit the EWSM Facebook page for updates on classes and events.

Tip: Use the restroom before you begin the class. You may end up drinking a lot of water, whisky, wine and other fine beverages Savigny chooses to feature.

Advertisements

Talk to me!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s