Whisky is made around the world and from a range of natural grains, but when it comes to the finest and most collectable, Scotland and Japan lead the way. These two nations have long, complex histories and traditions when it comes to the production of ‘the water of life’.
The production process
There are three primary ingredients involved in the production of whisky: water, grain and yeast. From their beginnings as a sweet, yeasty liquid, or wort, as it is known, the raw materials go on a fermented, and eventually oak-stained journey, which allows them to reach the market in the form that drinkers and collectors love.
The wort is fermented into a ‘wash’ — a sweet, funky beer which measures 6-8 per cent alcohol. The wash is then distilled twice — first, in a wash still, in order to separate the alcohol from the water and yeast. The product from this first distillation is known as ‘low wine’, and contains about 20 per cent alcohol by volume.
Then the low wine goes to the spirit still for the second distillation. This is where the real magic happens, and the pure spirit is created. During this second stage of the distillation process, however, impure, volatile compounds — known as ‘the heads and tails’ — are also produced; these are separated off to be re-distilled.
Only the centre cut, which is about 65 per cent alcohol by volume, runs to the spirit safe; this is what will one day become whisky. At this stage, this clear, potent-yet-fruity ‘new make spirit’ — which comes off the still — bears little resemblance to the deep amber, wood- and spice-laden final whisky product.
Ageing in oak
What follows is arguably the most important part of the process — ageing. Many connoisseurs suggest that somewhere between 70-80 per cent of a whisky’s final character comes from the ageing process and the oak barrels in which that process occurs.
Oak is always the vessel in which whisky is aged, but oak barrels come in many forms. Most barrels that Scotch whisky distilleries use for ageing are second-hand bourbon barrels. Hewn from American oak, these barrels imbue the whisky with sweet, fruity, vanilla and spicy overtones.
European oak is also used, primarily in the form of sherry butts (the standard-sized casks used for maturing sherry) from southern Spain. Thanks to the finer grained, slower growing wood, and the tannins in European oak, whiskies aged in sherry butts are darker in colour than those aged in American oak barrels, and are often defined by heady aromatics and intense flavours.
Japanese whiskies can be aged in American or European oak, and often are for at least some of the ageing process, but most are also matured in Japanese mizunara oak for a period of time. Mizunara is a rare Japanese wood that comes from the forests of Hokkaido. The oak is more irregular and porous than American or European oak, making it difficult to work with. Yet its high levels of vanillins bestow the delicacy and nuance of flavour that characterises Japanese whisky production — so much so that some American and Scotch whisky distilleries are now experimenting with this rare and expensive wood.
There are a huge number of superlative distilleries across Scotland and Japan, and indeed the world. Those below stand out as the undisputed leaders among the most collectable whiskies at auction.
No other distillery has the history, reputation and accolades that The Macallan distillery has achieved. Built in 1700 for Captain John Grant, Easter Elchies House is the spiritual home of The Macallan, located at the heart of the 390-acre Macallan estate in Speyside.
The Macallan uses some of the smallest stills in Scotland. Their unique size and shape give the spirit maximum contact with the copper, which helps to concentrate the ‘new make’ spirit and provide the rich, fruity, full-bodied flavours characteristic of Macallan whisky.
The exceptional quality of the oak casks at The Macallan is well-known across the world. The distillery is extremely selective in its attitude to wood, advocating that 80 per cent of the whisky’s character derives from it. The whiskies that are finally drawn from these casks are known for their rich, sherry-accented character, round mouthfeel and longevity.
Suntory’s Yamazaki — Japan’s oldest commercial distillery — was opened in 1923 by Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torii. Of all the great distilleries in Japan, Yamazaki has the longest tradition and track record, as well as some of the oldest mature stocks of single malt.
Its whiskies manage to attain a balance between power and elegance — the legendary Yamazaki 50-Year-Old is perhaps Japan’s most prized whisky. This masterpiece was vatted from unblended Suntory single malt whiskies and is the culmination of more than half a century of barrel-ageing. Only 150 bottles were released.
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Karuizawa is among the rarest malt whiskies Japan has ever produced. Today Karuizawa is a ‘silent still’ — a distillery that’s collectible but no longer in production. Karuizawa whisky was produced at the foot of Mount Asama in central Honshu from 1956 to 2000. The spirit, made with peated barley, was drawn from small stills and then transferred into sherry casks.
The stills of Karuizawa produced huge, textural whiskies that are thick, oily and resonant. When the distillery closed in 2001, the 300 barrels that were left maturing at the distillery were bought by a company that has gone on to bottle and release them to market. These are the bottles that most often come to market today, and which enthral collectors around the world. Although the supply is dwindling, the quality is still tremendous.