The visitor center is a modern, nicely put together facility with the history of Scotch laid out on museum-type panels. There is a scale model of a distillery that was lost in piles of rubble at the Glenkinichie distillery for decades. It was rediscovered and reassembled and is currently on display. Our guide Cameron was a young man who did not know much more than the script he was given. My questions challenged him and he tried his best, but I finally got to speak with an older gentleman who was much more knowledgeable. My question was as follows:
Q. How much of the stylistic differences in Scotch are attributable to what the French would call terrior, and how much is simply a stylistic choice? Put another way, can we pick up this distillery and place it in the highlands and still produce a whisky that is representative of a lowlands whisky?
A. While terrior had an effect on the stylistic differences in the past, it was much less than for wines. For example the lowlands don’t have a lot of peat and therefore the whiskies are not as peaty. The sea air was thought to impart saltiness to the finished product as they are stored in barrels which breathe the sea air as the whisky ages. Recent studies indicate that the saltiness is likely imparted from the peat itself, which, being from coastal regions, has more salinity. The water was thought to impart significant differences in regional whiskies. It is now known to contribute only 10% of the quality of the finished product. The largest two factors in the difference in a whisky’s qualities come from the still itself and the maturing of the whisky. Minor changes in the shape of the still can have a dramatic effect on the whisky. The shape dictates exactly which compounds make it into the finished product and in what quantities. The barrels have a major influence on the finished product. Are they sherry casks, bourbon casks, port, etc? How many times have they been used? The gentleman cited an example of a distillery in the highlands making whisky in the style of Islay for a period of time when
And that is what I learned about Scotch.