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10 Great Facts about Malt Whisky

Our 2015 World Class Winners are back from a trip to Drummuir Castle and the iconic Cardhu distillery, armed with the kind of experiences and understanding that will help build both new cocktails and their career. Whisky knowledge in our industry is better than ever before – but, from peat bogs to copper stills, we've tracked down 10 great facts you likely won't know about the drink of the gods.

Rome was built on seven hills; Dufftown stands on seven stills.

  1. Peat bogs take thousands of years to form. Most of Scotland's bogs date back to the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago: they grow just one millimetre every year. If left undisturbed for a few million years, they will eventually turn into coal.

  2. Single malt whisky sold in stores and bars, at scale, is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. Some distilleries can trace sales of their whisky back to the 1800’s, with records of Port Ellen being sold to customers in America in 1869. From the 1960s, single malts begin to be bottled for many more markets rather than being used for blends. However, it’s a striking fact that of all the single malt produced, 93% is sent for blending – the rest goes into single malt bottling.

  3. All whisky casks are handmade. The 14 full-time coopers at the Speyside Cooperage create 100,000 casks a year – that's almost 20 barrels per craftsman, every day. The casks can last up to 60 years, with repairs.

  4. Helen Cumming, co-founder of the Cardhu distillery outlived her husband, John, by 39 years, reached the impressive age of 98, and produced eight children and 56 grandchildren. When the customs man came knocking at her door, she would welcome him in, give him some dinner and even offer a bed for the night. While he was safe in her house she would hang a large red sheet on her washing line to act as a beacon to the local community to warn them that the customs man was in the area. Some call her devious, but to many she was a pillar of the community, described in 1893 as “a woman of many resources”.

  5. Altogether, there are 115 different distilleries covering five regions of Scotland for malt whisky production. These are Speyside, Islay, the Highlands, Campbeltown and the Lowlands. While Speyside is seen by many as the centre of whisky production in Scotland for its balanced, approachable and fruity malts, the strong, peaty flavours from the west coast such as Lagavulin and Talisker are incredibly popular.

  6. Several of Talisker's early owners went bankrupt, faced with the obstacles of making such a remote distillery profitable. The distillery didn't even have a pier until 1880: before then, all casks had to be floated out to ships. Today, it’s one of the world’s most renowned spirit brands, successfully promoting its image of a storm-lashed distillery producing deliciously peaty, bold and gregarious malts.

  7. Scotland's national poet, Robbie Burns, worked as an exciseman, combatting whisky smuggling and trying to make illegal distilleries pay taxes. He helped lead a team of soldiers that captured a heavily armed smuggling ship.

  8. An old local saying goes “Rome was built on seven hills; Dufftown stands on seven stills”. Today the town has five stills, more than any other town in Scotland, and reportedly makes more money for the government per head of population than anywhere in the UK.

  9. Specialist coppersmiths craft Scotland's whisky stills – and repair them. The work is done over the “silent season”, when distilleries shut down production for maintenance. Copper-pot stills get thinner every year, as distillation erodes them, so their thickness is carefully monitored. Today, professionals use an ultrasonic probe. Previously, craftsmen hit the still with a hammer and listened to see if it rang true.

  10. High-strength whiskies heat up slightly when water is added. It's a chemical reaction between the ethanol and water.