Trapped between fact and fiction, history and myth, scotch whisky like the Gaelic culture which gave it birth emerges as a celebration of all that was best in that celebrated past.
Central to the product in every community was the ‘master of malts’, responsible for the production from brewing through distillation and then finishing in oak barrels. Often in early days, this art rather than craft, was passed from father to son developing in each area a product distinct from that of even close neighbours. In the earliest period only single malt whiskies were produced, blends being a product of later commercialisation. Even to this day the highest form of the art of whisky production in Scotland rests in the production of single malts, art over science in the hands of the master of malts.
Exactly how single malt whisky developed is lost in the mists of time. It is attested in early medieval literature that distilled liquor was produced in the highlands. Also attested is the import of claret (clairet) and sherry (sack) both in oak thus providing an ample supply of used barrels for storage.
The oak barrel is central to the finished quality of each single malt whisky and the responsibility for the selection of the barrels falls to the ‘master of malts’. But that is only part of the story. Every part of the process and the quality of every ingredient influences the nature of the finished product. Even the fuel used to fire the brewing or distillation can subtly influence the final flavour.
It rests with the master of malts to ensure the quality of the finished article and if necessary produce a variety of finished products by his unique subtlety of touch.
It is testimony to the art that every producer brings to the market a product distinctive of its place of birth but remaining distinctively Scottish. From the smokey single malts of Islay, through the dark highland varieties to the lighter touch of speyside the hand of the master of malts can be detected, not tradition for its own sake but tradition as the basis of excellence.
Each master of malts in his own unique way carries the burden of maintaining a tradition which reverberates down through the ages. The names of these earliest masters may not be known but the product is ample testimony to their art.
The best testimony to these unsung heroes is in savouring the flavour of these single malt whiskies in pleasant surroundings and affable company.