How They Made It: Discovering Scotch through Outlander
Welcome back to our occasional series, “How They Made It,” where we explore the food and drink of Outlander. This time we explore the world of scotch through Outlander themes. Slainté!
The Outlander scotch influence
One question I frequently see in the Outlander Cast Clan Facebook page is, “I want to try scotch. Where should I start?” There are so many different brands and expressions within the brands, it can be quite overwhelming at first. I should know…I myself started drinking scotch only after discovering Outlander, having never tried it before. Since then I’ve learned a lot about the world of whisky, and my own blog, ScotchandScones.com, is partially based on that continuing journey.
For now, let me give you a taste (pun intended) of what I’ve learned, and we can discover scotch through Outlander. I chose three expressions of scotch to sample, but first, I’ll briefly go over three aspects of scotch: whisky production, scotch regionality and single malts vs. blends. Consider this your Scotch Primer, as it were. Buckle up, friends…here we go!
How is whisky made?
We saw a brief glimpse of Jamie’s still this season (you know, right before he goes to beat up Roger). It looked like a series of tubes, ending with a pour into a mug. So what’s going on in there? Simply put, whisky is beer that’s grown up. More broadly, there are 3 major steps to making whisky:
- Malting & fermentation: take a grain (like barley), partially germinate it (soak it in water so it starts to sprout), then dry it out to stop germination. After grinding up the dried grain, add hot water and yeast and let it ferment. The yeast digests the sugars in the barley and converts it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process is, generally speaking, how beer is made (highly simplified, of course).
- Distillation: take that low alcohol liquid and heat it to separate the alcohol from the water (this is the part that happens in a still). Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, the vapor that collects at the top of the still concentrates the alcohol from the water and other impurities you don’t want. The vapor is then condensed by running it through tubes submerged in water (that’s that worm tub in the image above). This liquid can be distilled two times or more to purify and increase its alcohol content. At the end of distillation, the collected liquid is now new make spirit (what Jamie is pouring into his mug for a sample taste).
- Maturation: the new make spirit is put into wooden casks and aged over a period of time. This step is usually what adds color and many of the flavors to the whisky, depending on the type of cask used and the length of time the spirit ages.
Of course, the devil is in the details; how all these processes are executed is what makes the distinctions between all the different brands out there. For a closer look at how whisky is made, head to Back to Basics for a quick read.
Where it’s made matters
As small as Scotland is geographically, there are so many different micro-climates as to make regionality a factor in scotch production. Scotland is generally divided up into five whisky regions: Speyside, Highlands, Campbeltown, Lowlands and Islay. While each have their own characteristics, my tastings below represented two of the regions: Glenfarclas is from Speyside, which is located in the Highlands (where Jamie is from and where our story begins). This region features honey and heather flavors, and their peated scotches have more of a pine forest influence. Laphroaig is from Islay, an island off the southwest coast (representing the ocean voyage to Jamaica and America that our heroes take). Islay scotches are associated with ocean-influenced, peated whisky with smoky iodine flavors. If you want to dive deeper into the characteristics of Scotland’s scotch regions, I recommend taking a look at All over the place, and for a more in-depth look at peated whisky, try Where there’s smoke, there’s….
What’s the deal with single malt scotch vs. blended whisky? First, the term single malt means that the whisky used for a particular expression comes from a single distillery (not a single grain), while blends are whisky sourced from multiple distilleries. Put another way, most commonly known and widely available brands (like Johnny Walker and Dewers) are blends created from spirits acquired from various small distilleries selected to produce a consistent product. On the other hand, distilleries that combine products from selected casks that they have made on-site (like Glenmorangie and Ardbeg) are called single malt. Many people equate blends with cheap or low quality and single malts the better choice, but that’s not true; Compass Box is a great example of a line of fine-blended scotches and another is Clan Fraser Whisky (a blend I chose for obvious reasons). I first tasted the first Clan Fraser Blended Scotch Whisky in the middle of Season 3, and have been trying to acquire another bottle ever since (it’s not available in the US, so I have to ask friends who are traveling to Scotland to grab one for me). Luckily, a friend recently brought me back a bottle in time for Season 4. Score!
I think that’s quite enough to be getting on with…class dismissed! Let’s get to the heart of the matter now, how does scotch taste? Glad you asked! As I learned early on, everyone’s palate is different, and what I taste isn’t necessarily what you’ll taste (although the power of suggestion is very strong, grasshopper). Put another way, my tasting notes are just that, mine. Your mileage may vary.
Scotch through Outlander Tasting
Glenfarclas Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky 12yr
- Nose: heather, toffee, vanilla, clover honey, hint of pine brown sugar
- Taste: thick body, rich mouthfeel, caramel fudge, pine essences, cinnamon red hots rise and fall quickly, soft baking spices
- Finish: fades to caramel sauce and cinnamon, the pine forest character lingers on the tongue
- Comments: rich and sweet with a hit of heat that fades quickly, sweetness balanced by pine notes. A fine example of a complex Speyside expression; with water: nose is muted to brown sugar and basil, tasting much more of the clover honey, less cinnamon, orange marmalade notes appear, still have softened nutmeg and cinnamon in the finish along with the sweetness.
Clan Fraser Reserve Blended Scotch Whisky
Speyside blend, aged in charred oak casks, 40%ABV
- Nose: soft nose, hint of charred wood, green wood, dark brown sugar, lightly lemony, cooked fruit in the back
- Taste: starts caramel sweet, then hits of wood smoke, cloves, ginger, ripe plums
- Finish: the campfire smoke lingers, then replaced with fading cinnamon
- Comments: lots going on here, like a quick trip from a mountain campfire to a bakery kitchen; with water: nose has more brown sugar, the taste has less smoke but the char remains, brown sugar and peppermint, campfire is muted to bring out more plums and spice cake that lingers warm and pleasant
Laphroaig Lore Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Islay single malt, Master Distiller’s special blend, 48%ABV
- Nose: ocean salt spray, plums, raisins, vanilla fudge
- Taste: ocean waves, beach campfire ashes, walnut fudge, prunes and raisins, gingerbread, molasses
- Finish: the ocean breeze lingers along with gingerbread, molasses and walnut fudge
- Comments: one of my favorite scotch expressions, so many layers, need to really pay attention to all that’s happening, the strong ocean influence is tempered by the rich cooked fruit and spice cake; with water: the ocean waves in the nose are softened as hints of mint arise, hay, the taste stays beach campfire smoky, then menthol, raisins, and salt water taffy show up and linger, softly fades back to a cold ash after the fire has gone out
Two more quick notes: first, you might notice that I use the terms scotch and whisky interchangeably. I’m actually playing fast and loose with the definitions. While all scotch is whisky (specifically whisky is only produced in Scotland), not all whisky is scotch. Whisky can come from Japan and Taiwan, and whiskey can also originate in Ireland and America (you’ll note the change in spelling, but that’s a subject for another day). Second, you might notice that I mention the flavors “with water,” which means I added a few drops of water to my glass. Adding water “opens up” the scotch by diluting some of the alcohol to allow other flavors to emerge. How you take your whisky, either neat (without adding water), with water, or on the rocks (adding one or more ice cubes) is entirely up to you. There’s no “right way” to enjoy your scotch, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Discovering scotch through Outlander has been just the gateway into this vast world for me, and I’m still learning so much. There are many other types of spirits in that category to try…Irish whiskey, bourbon, rye, and American whiskey, just to name a few. Also, you know how I enjoy baking with whisky (like bread pudding or black bun from Hogmany), which marries my interest in whisky with my love of baking.
I hope I’ve inspired you to try something new or just want to learn more…we can share this journey together. After all, part of the appeal of scotch is its communal aspect. I enjoy going to tastings with friends, and Jamie and Lord John shared Jamie’s young spirit. I’d love to taste it with them…how about you?
Have you tried scotch (or another type of whisky)? What do you like and recommend?
Discovering Outlanderafter Season 1 first aired, Tammy quickly went down the rabbit-hole on social media and podcasts and found a world of like-minded fans who not only tolerated her obsession, but encouraged the madness! She combined her Outlander-inspired interest for scotch whisky with her continuing passion for baking and storytelling in her blog, Scotch & Scones…Explorations in a glass and in the oven. Joining the staff of Outlander Cast as the resident baker has brought Tammy full circle, from a podcast fan to a contributing writer. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest at @scotch_scones, and find her on Facebook at @scotchandsconesblog.