The natural world’s fingerprints are all over our favourite drinks. “When you taste a wine, you can actually taste the terroir,” says Kelvin Low, owner of Fitzroy whisky bar The Elysian. So it makes sense that spirits like Scotch would also reflect their surroundings, right? Yes, but it very much depends on how you handle them.

We asked Low to take us through the key roles that nature plays in whisky production – and how they’re embraced or rejected to create the desired result.

Grain and barley
“Because whisky is pretty much grain, yeast and water, grain is one of the major components of whisky-making,” says Low. “Different grains give you different flavours. If you’re looking at Scotch whisky, most of that grain is malted barley.” In Scotland the most common grain has historically been barley, as it’s well-suited to Scotland’s unique climate. It contributes many of the rich flavours we love in Scotch. “Malted barley generally gives you that sweet vanilla, barley sugar character,” says Low. Deserving of a special place in any discussion of Scottish whisky are barley-to-bottle distilleries such as The Glen Grant, which practice the entire craft of whisky-making on site, from the steeping of the barley right through to the bottling.

Elsewhere in the general world of whiskies, you’ll find grains like corn, rye and wheat, many of which are similarly chosen for their local availability. “Rye grains add spiciness, a bit more acidity and a chocolatey character to the whisky,” says Low. “Wheat will give you a sweeter flavour and a more creamy texture.”

Historically, Scotch whisky distilleries like The Glen Grant were situated right beside natural streams. The reason is water is added to whisky several times across its production cycle. “Water is used in every part of making whisky,” says Low. “From mashing the grains to diluting the whisky and adding water to the barrel when maturing.”

So it makes sense that distilleries would need access to the purest water, particularly for dilution. “Water is added into the cask before they mature the whisky,” says Low. “Typically most barrels are brought down to 63.5 per cent [alcohol content] when they’re laid down [to mature]. [By the time] it goes into the bottle something like The Glen Grant will sit at about 40-43 per cent.”

When it’s first distilled, whisky is clear and not especially flavoursome. Maturating the whisky in a wooden cask contributes both flavour and colour, and the extent of both will be determined by the type of wood and the length of time.

“Apart from what the barley gives you, wood is the second most contributing factor to flavour,” says Low. These days, the most common type of wood in whisky production is American oak which has previously aged bourbon. These casks are prized because they contribute flavour without smothering the whisky. “We get vanilla from the American oak cask, but we can actually tell the distillery characters apart,” says Low. “[Some] will have a more pineapple character – The Glen Grant has more vanilla and orchard fruits coming through.” You’ll also often see port and sherry casks being used (typically these will be French oak), while modern distilleries are even using wood like jarrah, gum and cherry blossom.

Climate and time
Temperature makes a big difference to a whisky. Because countries and regions all experience different climates, it’s one element that truly gives a spirit a sense of regional character. “When whisky is ageing, oxygen is getting into the cask,” says Low. “As the weather warms up, the barrels expand, oxygen gets in and it extracts more compounds from the cask.” For warm countries like Australia, India and Taiwan, the cycle of expansion and contraction is very strong, meaning flavour and colour are extracted very quickly.

But the cooler temperatures in Scotland mean whisky takes longer to mature there – hence why some of the spirit’s oldest age statements come from that part of the world (see, for example, The Glen Grant’s 60-year-old Dennis Malcolm 60th Anniversary Edition, which was released last year in limited numbers). “There is something magical about time,” says Low. “If we allow these barrels to age longer, you get a more balanced product. You get to taste a lot of those sweeter orchard fruits coming through, whereas hotter climates will push out a lot more oaky characters, a lot more spiciness from the casks.”

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with The Glen Grant.