Multiprocessor or multitasking systems need a mechanism to coordinate inter-processor or inter-task communication.  In shared memory architectures the lowest level parts of this mechanism are usually called semaphores.  These can be used to request a resource such as I/O.  Typically this is a memory location that is tested to see if the resource is free and then set to lock out other actors.  Unfortunately an interrupt or separate processor might intervene between the test and set.  Some, but not all, processors have implemented test-and-set instructions that cannot be interrupted.  This protects against other tasks but the test-and-set instruction must also work with dual port memory and cache systems to hold off other processors.  The main problem is allowing multiple actors simultaneous write access to the same memory location.  Various solutions have been tried.  Some years ago, the UNOS operating system developed by Charles River Data Systems implemented eventcounts for low level signaling.  These 32 bit objects could only be incremented, preventing some of the problems with test-and-set semaphores.

For real-time industrial control a much more robust solution is necessary that satisfies a set of requirements.  1. Semaphores must be deterministic without the possibility of race conditions or ambiguity.  2. The solution must not require special processor features to allow portability.  3. Each semaphore is an entire smallest memory object that is written with a single memory cycle, usually an 8 bit byte or alternately 16 bit word for pure 16 bit memories.  4. Semaphores are provided in Query (Q) / Response (R) pairs. 5. Only one client actor may write a Q semaphore and only a single different server actor may write the associated R semaphore.  6. Each resource, be it a memory buffer, I/O, master state machine, or other is under the control of a single actor.  7. Enough distinct Q/R pairs are allocated to each client/server channel to unambiguously control all transactions.  8. At system configuration, and later as needed, semaphore pairs are assigned to client/server channels to establish the required communication channels.  9. Different processors or tasks may be servers for different resources.  10. Query and Response actions are performed in a single memory cycle.

As an example, when a channel is inactive, Qa and Ra are equal.  The specific value is irrelevant.  The client compares Qa and Ra.  If they are equal, the client may place a Query to request access to a resource such as a shared memory buffer by writing the logical complement of Ra into Qa.  When the resource becomes available the server copies Qa into Ra which signals the client that the buffer is available for reading and writing.  When the client finishes its data/control access it sends a query to Qb by writing the complement of Rb to it.  This signals the server that the client is finished with the buffer.  The server copies the Qb to the respective Rb to signal that it has regained control of the resource.  Note that this last is useful as otherwise the client might think the buffer is already requestable since Qa = Ra.  Bidirectional control transmissions may be passed from the server back to the client using additional Qc/Rc, Qn/Rn, … semaphores where Q is the server side.

Alternately, the above transaction could be

Client: [Qa = not Ra] ->

Server: [Qc = not Rc] ->

Client: Access …  -> [Rc = Qc] ->

Server: [Ra = Qa]

Note that in either case, the source of the query always sets the semaphore pair to a different value and the responder to the query always sets the semaphore pair to the same value.  In other words, an actor is not allowed to change its mind.  An abort request must be handled by a separate Q/R pair.  This is absolutely necessary for deterministic behavior.

This strategy works well in main memory for separate tasks and threads, shared memory for multiprocessors, and in hardware for handshaking to control communication buffers.

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Knurling on a Small Lathe

First a short note on lathe safety.  Modern industrial CNC lathes and machining centers have comprehensive safety systems including guards and light curtains.  Hobby and bench lathes are a completely different animal.  While a table saw or band saw will take off fingers, carelessness with a lathe will kill you.  Do not wear long sleeves or jewelry to include rings, bracelets, wristwatches, or necklaces.  Do not wear gloves.  Do not wear a tie, Bolo, or scarf.  Tie your hair back if it’s long.  Do not wrap crocus or emery cloth around your fingers to polish a moving part.  If you’ve had a drink, put off the lathe work until tomorrow.  Operating a lathe requires continuous attention, concentration, and clear judgement.  If you are interrupted or distracted, disengage the feed and step away from the lathe before turning to address the issue.

Knurling on a lathe is usually performed with a push type toothed roller tool as shown in figure 1.  The tool is pushed into the rotating part using the cross-slide.  This works fairly well on 12 – 14 inch and larger lathes.  Scaled down versions are traditionally supplied with smaller 6 and 7 inch lathes.  Figure 1 illustrates the tool supplied with the 6 inch Atlas lathe.  Using Atlas as an example, the 6 inch lathe looks just like the 12 inch, only scaled down.  The problem here is that a 6 inch lathe is not adequate to press regular knurls into harder materials like steel or brass.  The lantern tool holder and the cross-slide are simply not strong enough.  While it looks like it ought to work,  for proportional cross sections, a 12 inch lathe is 8 times stiffer and stronger in bending and 16 times stiffer and stronger in twisting than a 6 inch.  On YouTube, mrpete222 (tubalcain) has videos (#333-#336 ) about making a new 6 inch Atlas cross-slide to replace a broken one that obviously had too much force applied to the tool post.  I speak as someone who has broken a 6 inch Atlas/Craftsman lantern, although not while knurling.  The one in figure 1 is a slightly beefed up O1 replacement tempered to RC50.

Figure 1

Another problem with push type knurlers is that the stock has to be strong enough to resist bending under the knurling force and may need to be supported with a live center or steady rest.

A solution to both problems is the pinch style knurler shown in figure 2.  In this style the part is trapped between an upper and lower roller.  Depending upon the model, the diameter is adjustable from 1 or 2 inches down to zero.  Since all the knurl force is due to the pinch between rollers there are no unbalanced forces against the work piece or the tool holder.  This allows knurls on unsupported long parts without difficulty.  The cross-slide simply centers the knurl wheels on the part and the carriage travel is used to make longer knurls.   As a result deep knurls on steel are easily produced even on the smallest lathes.  The remaining difficulty is that to start the knurl, the work piece needs to be turning while the clamping knob is tightened to the desired depth.   On short parts to be knurled near the chuck the small clearance between the spinning chuck and the hand adjust knob creates a major safety problem.  Figure 2 shows a stock tool.

Figure 2

Here is the solution I came up with for my lathe.  A 3 inch extension of the clamp knob moves my hand far enough from the chuck for comfort.  I am not suggesting that you do this, just reporting on my solution to a perceived hazard.

Figure 3

I used a through tapped spacer from McMaster-Carr for the thread as I didn’t have a deep hole M6 tap and didn’t feel like counter boring all the way from the top.

This is pretty mundane but now there’s one less thing for me to worry about.  By the way, the 0XA quick change tool holder as shown works well on the Atlas 6 inch.  Cutoffs are WAY better.  You will need to cut rabbets on the plate that comes with the tool holder as can be seen in figure 2.  A single piece of steel the thickness of the T-slot is not strong enough for a solid tool holder lock-down.  It flexes and doesn’t have enough thread engagement.

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Staying alive on Venus

The most hostile place in the entire solar system that it is possible to land on is the surface of Venus.  The airless sun-baked surface of the Moon only gets to 260°F during daylight.  The surface of Mercury, closest to the Sun, peaks at 801°F.  But the surface of Venus is at 872°F both day and night with a corrosive atmospheric at a pressure of 1350 psi or 93 times the Earth’s.  The Russians, famed for rugged equipment, have landed probes on Venus at least 11 times.  The record for lander survival was set by Venera 13 on March 1, 1982, at 2 hours and 7 minutes.  Venus survival is so difficult that NASA is soliciting outside ideas with their Venus Rover Design Competition.  They are looking for ways to control and maneuver rovers without computers or electronics.  The main problem is that modern electronic devices cannot stand this kind of heat and die completely at 400°F or so.  It is completely infeasible to try to refrigerate the sensitive electronics and sensors because of the power requirements and the very high thermal gradient any refrigeration system would have to fight through. Not just the semiconductors and processors, but even current insulation and substrates, will not work at anywhere near these temperatures.  Nor will ordinary power sources.  Any lander will be accompanied by one or more orbiters that can receive information if it can be gathered.  Some creative ideas involve radar reflective panels that can be moved mechanically to change the lander albedo to signal data to an orbiter.  Others involve purely mechanical means for using extended probes to steer around holes and obstacles.

If you assume a pressure vessel, so the internal parts of the lander can be maintained at low or zero pressure to eliminate corrosion issues, the remaining problem is temperature.  While 872°F exceeds the working temperature of most engineering technology, this environment is actually within the reach of the amateur.  A typical self-cleaning kitchen oven runs at 900°F for a 4+ hour cycle.  Not as fancy as NASA’s Venus Surface Simulator but useful for testing magnets, bearings, insulators, and mechanisms.  One proposed solution to the power source problem is a windmill.  While the average wind speed on Venus is only 3 MPH, the air density is 93 times higher than on Earth, providing plenty of power for a windmill.  The main problems are bearings and power transfer.  There are hybrid ceramic and carbon sleeve bearings which are rated for these temperatures although not these pressures in this atmosphere.  Magnetic bearings eliminate friction and corrosion issues.  Unfortunately, the current top magnet material, Neodymium-Iron-Boron, loses its magnetism at such temperatures.  The next best, Samarium-Cobalt, has some high temperature versions that will only lose part of their strength.  These can be preconditioned at temperature and then used.  The older ALNICO 9 is able to work at Venus temperatures but starts out with about 1/3 the strength of Samarium-Cobalt.  It’s not clear which of an ALNICO or SmCo solution would be lighter and/or smaller.  Power could be transferred into the pressure vessel through a magnetic coupler consisting of a permanent magnet rotor surrounding an internal stator/generator separated by a nonmagnetic stainless steel cup in the wall of the pressure vessel. The overall idea is to figure out how to accomplish the science goals with technology that can operate at 872°F.

While NASA is looking into silicon carbide semiconductors, there are other possibilities.  One possibility is old tech: vacuum tubes.  In 1959 RCA invented the nuvistor, an advanced 0.4”x0.8” subminiature metal/ceramic vacuum tube.  While the kinds of glass subminiature tubes used in the AN/PRC-6 “walkie-talkie” radio might work at these temperatures, the cialis canada generic technology would be a better starting point.  One interesting feature was the RCA “dark cathode” that operated 630 degrees cooler than standard filaments.  The reduced heater operating temperature resulted in greatly increased tube life and reliability.  Starting at Venus temperatures would significantly reduce filament power.  More advanced materials might allow a Venus ambient temperature cathode without heater power.  The main problem is thermionic emission leakage from the grid, which limited the maximum temperature for the nuvistor.  In an advanced design, vacuum depositing a silicon dioxide film on the grid might produce an analog of an insulated gate, suppressing grid leakage.  There are metal-ceramic transmitter tubes like the 4CX150 that could be used as a starting point for developing high-temperature transmitter finals.  Circuit connections would need to be welded rather than soldered.  Most components would need to be rethought since traditional insulators will not work.  Capacitors could be air, glass, mica, or suitable ceramics.  Resistors could be metal film on ceramic or wire-wound on ceramic cores.  Inductors would be printed on ceramic laminated substrates or air-wound on ceramic spacers.  This is mostly existing radio technology.

One application would be small instrument packages that could be dropped in large numbers, consisting of a few simple sensors, a vacuum tube transmitter, and a solid electrolyte battery.  These are batteries already in use by the military.  They are extremely rugged and are completely solid and inactive at room temperature.  They are intended to run at temperatures in the Venus range where the electrolyte melts and becomes active.  Normally these batteries are actuated by pyrotechnic charges in artillery shells, rockets, or such but they could be part of a constellation of small Venus probes reporting temperature, seismic activity, or other data over wide areas for a limited time.  They would easily survive a multi-year space flight prior to insertion.  Multiple waves of probes could be used for longer data sets.

A long-term lander with a wind power source could support a wider range of sensors over a longer time frame.  With a method to generate high enough voltages and development of a high temperature photo cathode, it should be possible to use an image or line orthicon to transmit spectra.  Sapphire, ALON, or quartz windows would allow light sensing and slow-scan imaging.  Decades of television before the 1960’s demonstrated that this is well within the range of tube technology.  Mechanical scanning from an even earlier era is another possibility.  With magnetic bearings in a vacuum environment the scanner power consumption could be very low.  An idea brought up by various people is that you don’t need a computer or controller on the surface; you just need a receiver and transmitter in the lander with a control computer in the orbiter or orbiters.  Kind of like a really expensive drone.

Although NASA is looking into making processor chips out of silicon carbide, a non-trivial task, for over a decade computers were designed with vacuum tubes.  All logic functions, nand, nor, register, etc, can be handled by tubes, which in modern guise could be very small and very low powered compared to the best of the tube era, the nuvistor. While the original tube computers were monsters, they needed to run fast to solve major problems in a reasonable amount of time.  You don’t need much of a computer to miss a rock or transmit some data.  Specifically, a one-bit architecture like the PDP-8/S, WANG 500, or Motorola MC14500B with a little memory can compute anything with a minimum of physical hardware.  While it would be slow, it would minimize size and power consumption while providing adequate control for the lander.  A high temperature version of the Mercury computer program store could be a possibility here.

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A23 Panel Mount Battery Holder

If you decide to use an A23 battery (small cylindrical 12V) in a project you will discover that there are no A23 panel mount holders available.  If you don’t want to open your enclosure to change batteries, here’s a suggestion.  The A23 fits in a Bussmann HPF fuse holder but is slightly too short.  You can use a 3/8″ (or 100 mm) diameter brass disk,  0.280″ (or 7.1mm) long, dropped into the panel side of the holder to extend the back contact.    Insert the negative end of the battery into the cap where it is held by friction and screw in the cap with the battery positive end against the brass spacer.  The internal spring will compress about 0.035″ as the cap is screwed in to maintain battery contact.  The Bussmann terminal labeled “LINE” will then be the +12 terminal.

Bussmann makes variants of the HPF holder for non-standard fuses that still require a (shorter) brass spacer but the plain HPF is the most common and easiest to find. had by far the best price for these I could locate.

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We live in a world of plastic consumer goods held together with screws.  These are thread-forming screws with sharp threads that cut threads into unthreaded holes in the molded plastic parts with the intention of never being removed.  Unfortunately sometimes removal is necessary for repair or, increasingly, simply to replace batteries in inexpensive goods.  The problem is that simply screwing the fasteners back in cuts new threads each time, destroying the integrity of the plastic threads and the strength of the joint.  All is not lost, however:

There is a technique to reinstall thread-forming screws without damage.  Place the screw at the start of the hole on the end of your screwdriver.  Using the tips of your fingers loosely on the shaft of the screwdriver, turn it backwards, i.e. counterclockwise, with only the weight of the screwdriver pushing on the screw.  Since the screw is turning backwards the sharp threads will not cut into the plastic.  Turn until you feel or hear a light click – immediately stop.  This means that the screw thread has dropped into the start of the original plastic thread channel.  Now turn the shaft gently forwards, clockwise, to make sure the screw threads slide in smoothly.  If so,  run the screw in.  Do not over torque it.  When you feel it bottom out, stop turning.  That will be firm enough for most plastic assemblies.  If it does not turn easily or feel smooth,  back off and turn backwards feeling for the click and try again.  Some screws are called double lead or hi-lo and have two thread heights.  In that case you will get two clicks, one lighter and one harder.  The harder click is the proper thread channel.  In general it is a good idea to turn backwards at least a full to turn to find the most definite click.  This can also make the best of an already compromised hole.

This technique works as well for reinstalling wood screws without damaging the threads in the wood.  It also works well to avoid cross threading things like wide-mouth cosmetic jars and threaded photographic filters, especially ones made from aluminum.

While I’ve done this for decades, I was reminded that it is not a universally known technique while working on my Dyson vacuum.  These are pricey vacuums with the subassemblies held together internally with screws that you really want to be careful with.  The subassemblies themselves snap to each other.  Dyson only sells subassemblies on their web site that can be replaced without removing and replacing screws.   As all I needed were beater bars and not the entire floor head I kept looking.  I found the smaller parts I needed at for much less than the assembly cost.  After carefully removing the old parts and installing the new screwed on parts without damage I realized why Dyson only sold snap-on parts to consumers but sold smaller parts to dealers.  They did not want consumers to inadvertently  damage their units trying to repair them, but assumed repair shops would know how to do this safely.

Hence this post.  I hope it helps you with future plastic and wood repairs.

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Small Arms Resistant Spotlight

The United States has not fought a symmetric war of front lines and maneuver since Korea.  From then on our actual opponents have not had artillery, tanks, or attack aircraft for more than a few days.  Symmetric warfare has been replaced by asymmetric warfare with the enemy using small arms, IEDs, and infiltration in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East.  The current response involves fortified bases with cleared fields of fire and targeted operations launched from those bases.  While night vision technology gives US tactical forces a big advantage at night, illumination of the base surroundings makes infiltration harder and aids target identification by troops without NVDs.  The main problem is that conventional spotlights and searchlights are both fire magnets and extremely vulnerable to ordnance.  While economical and very useful for general surveillance, conventional lights can be taken out by snipers at the start of an attack and need to be backed up by something more resistant to small arms that can reasonably survive a short firefight.  Small arms resistance should be sufficient as heavy weapons like artillery, tanks, and attack aircraft will have already been taken care of by the Air Force.  Also it should be possible to keep RPG teams beyond effective range with an adequate field of fire and enough light.  Conventional spotlight weaknesses fall into two categories.  Reflector surfaces are often silvered glass which shatters at the first hit.  A tougher reflector directs ricochets toward the light source, be it a light bulb, arc electrodes, or LED’s which are all easily destroyed by small arms projectiles or shrapnel.  “Bulletproof” glass is not very effective here as high velocity hits will craze it, reducing illumination, and ultimately break through, especially 12.7mm rounds.

The only light source which is truly bulletproof is an illuminating gas flame.  Properly armored reflectors and burners could provide a robust back-up to conventional lighting.  A typical illuminating gas would be acetylene burned in air which produces a bright white light.  Acetylene is readily available and is a normal part of the military supply chain.   Alternately, acetylene could be produced by generators at the light by reacting calcium carbide with a controllable water source.  Other illuminating gas mixtures could be optimized for the application.  Acetylene has been used for some lighthouse lamps from 1896 to the present.

The illustration is for an acetylene tank version with a 3 foot diameter dish.  A carbide version could mount the generators on the back of the dish and eliminate the gas controls except for water shut-offs.

Since any light will be a fire magnet, it is critical that this be remotely operated with perhaps a covered manual override.  The tank is installed below grade or certainly under RPG proof cover.   The idea is to provide four redundant gas channels with separate nozzles, fed through unions in the pitch pivot.  The control modules consisting of the flame arrestor, regulators, and control valves for each channel would reasonably be mounted in the turret and move with it.   Each channel and the main tank would have a zero back pressure shut-off valve so that if a line is severed, flow to that line automatically shuts off.  A possible reflector would be 3/8″ of 17-7 PH stainless steel formed to the desired profile, hardened, and polished to a mirror finish.  This would be bolted to a curved backing plate giving full support made out of armor plate.  The plate would be bolted to the pitch/yaw mechanism.   The burner head would bolt to the mount and contain four separate o-ring sealed passages running between receivers in the mount and the burner nozzles.  Like all parts this would be a plug-in, bolted assembly to facilitate field repairs.  Flame ignition would be electrical or possibly catalytic depending upon gas choice.  A rear mounted chimney of a refractory material would direct the gas exhaust up and away from the mechanism.  This would avoid darkening the reflector with soot and spilling light onto the defenders.  The top of the burner assembly would have a sufficient thickness to resist small arms and have a conical top to deflect ricochets away from the dish surface.  Ricochets from the main part of the dish would pass though the flame without effect.  Near the center, a glacis would deflect shots safely that would otherwise ricochet into the gas nozzles.  The redundant gas channels and auto shutoffs would allow the spotlight to continue operating after losing nozzles.  The illustration is scaled for 7.62×39 but could easily be adapted for heavier weapon resistance.

Body Mass Index

After losing 40 pounds over several years my BMI is now the same as it was when I was in the Army … 50 years ago.  BMI is a formula* used to classify people as underweight, normal, overweight, or obese.  These classes are used as predictors of health, originally intended as guidance for physicians.  When I was in the Army I was in the best shape of my life.  Since I now have the same BMI I should be perfectly healthy and (after 50 years of a sedentary career) should fit into the same clothes.  Of course I do not.  My waist size is still 3 or 4 inches larger and I no longer have the same muscle mass.  While reasonably accurate for mass sedentary populations, BMI treats fat just like muscle and is biased against taller, younger, and athletic people.  Many champion athletes and action movie stars rate as overweight or even obese under the BMI.

*   BMI  =  kg / m²   =  10,000 x kg / cm²  = 703 x lb / in²     Note that this formula requires access to a weight scale, more math than some people are comfortable with, and needs a correction factor depending upon the units used.  Proposed new formulas suggest a 1.3 multiplier and raising height to the 2.5 power, not the kind of thing everyone understands.  Other tweaks include things like multiplying your BMI by your serum albumin level in grams per liter.

BMI is a crock.   It is also an inferior predictor of health outcomes.  This is not news.   The main social problem is that it has evolved from guidance for physicians into a absolute mandate for the bureaucrats who run our children’s lives and is used to bully athletic school children who have more muscle and less fat than their compatriots.

A much better metric is the waist-height ratio.  Measure your waist and divide by your height.  Simple.  All you need is a tape measure.  It doesn’t matter if it’s in inches, centimeters, or old Russian vershoks.  WHtR does a far superior job of accounting for muscle versus fat.  A 2010 study that followed 11,000 subjects for up to eight years concluded that WHtR is a much better measure of the risk of heart attack, stroke or death than the more widely used body mass index.

In any case, unlike BMI, waist-height ratio sorts people into a reasonable order:

0.3359   Marilyn Monroe

0.4240   Female college swimmer

0.4280   Male college swimmer

0.4580   Bodybuilder

0.4920   Female at increased risk

0.5000   General healthy cutoff

0.5100   Risk equivalent to BMI of 25

0.5360   Males at increased risk

0.5700   Risk equivalent to BMI of 30

0.5770   Obese

0.5820   Substantial risk increase

As for me, my WHtR tells me I have a ways to go yet.


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One shortcoming of older small lathes is the lack of a carriage travel calibration unlike on the cross slide.  An X-axis DRO solves this problem but they are not made specifically for older lathes and are often difficult to adapt as the bed and saddle castings did not envision them.  The compound may be used for small, precise X-axis moves but the travel is limited and the compound angle must be indicated in for accurate work.  Older lathes like the Atlas/Craftsman do not have a parallel surface on the compound which makes this quite difficult.  When using the milling attachment which does have a Z-axis dial, there is no alternative as it replaces the compound.  The simplest solution is to use a 1″ or 2″ dial indicator but it is often difficult to mount appropriately using regular indicator holder hardware.  Here is a simple, inexpensive solution:

An adequate magnetic base is under $16 at Amazon or Shars.  The rest of this can probably come from your scrap bin.

This is simply an “L” shaped piece of 1/4″ aluminum with an 8mm hole for the bolt and washer attaching it to the magnetic base and a pinned-in 1/4″ stud to attach and tension the indicator with a nylon lock nut.  The back of the stud is flush with the back of the plate.  In addition to the washer under the nut as shown, there is another washer on the stud under the indicator to provide clearance for the plunger travel past the vertical plate.  Note that the narrow leg is about 1/16″ below the bed so the indicator can sit squarely to be aligned with the carriage travel.  This design works best on flat bed lathes like the Atlas series but can be adapted to others.

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Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.  Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.  The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. — Calvin Coolidge

Single Malt Scotch

This is not so much a review as a guide to anyone just starting out with single malt Scotch.  A large liquor store may have up to 100 different single malts and in total there have been over 1500 brands which makes a newcomer feel lost.  Unlike bourbon or brandy or a particular wine like sauvignon blanc the various Scotches are completely different.  There is very little useful guidance; most review sites appear to like every kind of Scotch which doesn’t help much in choosing your first couple of bottles.  If you ask random Scotch drinkers they will recommend something like Talisker or Glenrothes or Laphroaig, which you may or may not like, but it won’t help much at the store when you look for the next bottle to try.  I’ve found that choosing at random is a bad idea.

A little quick background will help you understand some of the differences.  For millennia Scotland has been a very poor country.  Most of the Scotch distilleries today started out as illegal bootleg stills in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s with limited access to resources.  Scotch is made from malted barley like beer without the hops.  The barley is moistened to allow it to just germinate (malt) and then is dried with heat to stop the malt.  Here is the first problem; most of the trees in Scotland were cut down hundreds of years ago for firewood.  The usual solution is to dig up peat from various bogs and fens and burn it which dries the barley but also adds often strong flavors that vary by local.  The malted barley is mixed with water in vats and allowed to ferment producing ethanol.  The result is distilled multiple times.  The water comes from a local stream or lake which adds its own flavors.  Most operations were set up near streams with particularly suitable water.  The raw alcohol from the still is not drinkable and needs to be aged in wood casks as is the case for most distilled spirits.  Here is the next problem; new casks were too expensive for the Scots to afford.  The solution was to buy used Kentucky bourbon casks from America or used sherry casks from Spain.

The use of peat, coal, or other fuel for process heat, the type and handling of the Barley, the water source, the details of the stills, the second fill casks used for aging, and even the conditions in the cask house affect the taste of the final product.

By Scottish law Scotch must be aged in the cask for at least 3 years.  As a practical matter commercial Scotch is almost always 8 or more years old.  The “age” refers to the time spent in the wood casks.  Once bottled, the Scotch stops aging.  The older Scotches are not just batches that were left longer in the casks.  They are individual barrels that were identified by the Master of Malt or equivalent at an early stage as especially promising and held for a longer aging cycle.  There may only be a few casks a year good enough to benefit from aging for 18 or 25 years.  A 40 or 50 year old Macallan candidate cask may only be identified once in a decade or so.  The price has nothing to do with taking up space in the warehouse and everything to do with a very limited supply of a great whisky.

The most distinctive discriminant of Scotch flavors is the taste described as smokey, peaty, medicine, or iodine produced by phenols from the peat and possibly sea air.  This taste ranges from very strong in Scotches like Laphroaig to nonexistent in Auchentoshan and Glengoyne which don’t use peat in their process.

By the way, bourbon is whiskey, Scotch is whisky.  Many single malt brands peak in terms of interesting flavor in the 15 to 18 year range.  Younger malts are a little rough and older Scotches seem to pick up more flavors from the cask than from the original process.  For instance I like Macallan 18 ($300) better than Macallan 25 ($1700) and the Macallan 15 ($140) is perfectly nice.  On the other hand while Glenfarclas 17 ($85) is good, Glenfarclas 25 ($160) is wonderful.  Scotch snob warning:  While the Scots usually put a little water in their Scotch, the custom elsewhere is to drink it neat and at room temperature.  If you drink it with ice or even in a chilled glass the cold ruins the taste you paid for.  The Scots also use single malts for cocktails.  It makes me shudder but I suppose that’s what they have.  If you want a Rusty Nail, a Rob Roy, or a Godfather use a blend like Chivas, Johnnie Walker, or Dewar’s and don’t waste your single malt investment.

Like wines in France, Scotland has several Scotch regions with their own typical character.  Unlike French regions where all the white Bordeaux from the Entre-Deux-Mers region is similar, Scotches from each region can vary widely.

Islay is an island west of the mainland and home to Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Bruichladdich (bruke-laddee) most of which are strongly peated.  Laphroaig prides itself as “The most richly flavored of all Scotch whiskys” and is very smoky.   Talisker is another highly peated Scotch from the Isle of Skye that reportedly gets its character from the sea environment.

Campbeltown is on the Kintyre peninsula near Islay which once had 30 distilleries.  It is now known for brands like Springbank, Hazelburn, and Glen Scotia.  These are somewhat smoky but less distracting than the Islay malts.

The lowland malts like Auchentoshan are very mild.  It features the tallest stills of any distillery which may account for the smoothness.  Glengoyne 18 is very flavorful in an interesting fruitly way and one of my favorites.  It prides itself as being unhurried since 1833, and “the patience we take over the slowest distillation in Scotland”.  (It’s also the closest distillery to my ancestral home.)

The highland malts are separated into Speysides just south of Moray Firth and the rest of the highlands.  Speysides are very drinkable mostly with limited peat.  Some of the most recognizable brands are Glenlivet, Glenfiddich (-dik), Longmorn, and Macallan.  The Glenfiddich 18 is very smooth while retaining some character.  The Glenlivet verges on bland and since most chain restaurants just carry Glenlivet and Glenfiddich , I always pick the Glenfiddich for the better finish.  Recently Glenlivet moved to perk up their offerings by coming out with a 15 year French Oak Reserve aged in NEW French oak barrels.  This makes a big difference and produces a really rich fruity flavor.  Others have copied this like Balvenie and Glen Garioch (geery) with less successful results.  Macallan has been rightly described as the Roll-Royce of Scotches.  Their products are consistently good with rich flavors, low smoke, and the traditional long finish.  While I usually drink the 15, they have started coming out with annual limited edition versions and the most recent, number 4, is perhaps the best Macallan I’ve tasted yet.  Macallan only uses the first 16% of the ethanol that distills off the barley mash in their whisky.  Distilling for too long produces higher alcohols and other impurities.  Macallan is willing to waste more mash than some for a superior product and is able to charge more to cover the cost.  Longmorn is a good pick but hard to find.  The Scotches I like have a nice aroma and Aberlour A’bunadh has one of the nicest and most intense.  It is bottled at cask strength, 120 proof, and is intended to be mixed 4 parts Scotch to 1 part distilled water to bring it down to 86 proof for drinking.  Don’t cheat here: the distilled water makes a big difference.  It doesn’t work right with bottled drinking water.  The Glenrothes 15 is good but smoky enough to take some getting used to.  A note here is that the way you are feeling, how tired you are, or what you’ve been eating has a surprising effect on how a given Scotch tastes on a given day.  The complexity of some like Glenrothes is more sensitive to this than some others.

Glenfarclas is one of the few privately owned family distilleries in Scotland.  It is currently being operated by the 6th descendant of the original owner.  He is selling Scotch that his grandfather distilled and is distilling Scotch that his grandchildren will be selling.  He takes very great care with what he leaves to them.  The Glenfarclas 17 is tasty; but as I mentioned before, the 25 is wonderful and at $160 it is far more accessible for drinking purposes than the 25 year old Macallan at $1700.

There are over 40 Speyside distilleries that overshadow the 30 or so other highland products but some of the latter are very interesting.  Oban on the Firth of Lorn in the west highlands is good but fairly smoky.  Scapa and Highland Park are only about 5 miles apart on the Orkney Islands north of the Scottish mainland but are completely different.  Scapa is a very smooth Scotch similar to some lowlands brands while Highland Park is more like the heavily peated Islay Scotches.  Macduff which produces Deveron is the easternmost operating distillery in the highlands.  The Deveron 18 is excellent with a nice finish and is not too smoky.  Dalwhinne is the highest distillery in Scotland  —  if nothing else their stills boil at the lowest temperature of any in Scotland.  Their whisky is very smooth even if slightly smoky and is known as “the gentle spirit”.

My current favorite is Glen Morangie 18 (rhymes with orangy).  It has a very nice rich fruity flavor, good finish, and is very smooth.  When I started on single malts, Glen Morangie prided itself as being a small local operation with their whisky “Handcrafted by the 16 men of Tain” for decades.  Tain is a village on the south side of Dornoch Firth about 25 miles north of Inverness.  In the past 30 years Glen Morangie has justifiably become very popular and grown accordingly.  While they still keep the original small distillery running, they have become a major producer and their bottles now say “Perfected by the 16 men of Tain”.  The end product is as good as ever.

Here is a Wikimedia map of the distilleries in Scotland.

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