Whisky 101


INTRODUCTION

What is Whisky?
Well,  Whisky or whisky-like products are produced in most grain-growing areas. They differ in base product, alcoholic content, and quality.

  • Malt whisky is made primarily from malted barley.
  • Grain whisky is made from any type of grains.

Malts and grains are combined in various ways:

  • Single malt whisky is whisky from a single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. Unless the whisky is described as “single-cask”, though, it will contain whisky from many casks, and different years, so the blender can achieve a taste recognisable as typical of the distillery. In most cases, the name of a single malt will be that of the distillery (The Glenlivet, Bushmills, Nikka), with an age statement and perhaps some indication of some special treatments such as maturation in a port wine cask.
  • Blended malt whisky is a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries. If a whisky is labelled “pure malt” or just “malt” it is almost certain to be a blended malt whisky. This was formerly called a “vatted malt” whisky.
  • Blended whiskies are typically made from a mixture of malt and grain whiskies — often along with neutral spirits, caramel, and flavouring. A whisky simply described as a Scotch, Irish, or Canadian whisky is most likely to be a blend. A blend typically contains whisky from many distilleries so that the blender can produce a flavour consistent with the brand, and the brand name (e.g., Chivas Regal, Canadian Club) will usually not therefore contain the name of a distillery. Jameson Irish Whiskey is an example of an exception, as it comes from only one distillery.
  • Cask strength (also known as barrel-proof) whiskies are rare, and usually only the very best whiskies are bottled in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted or only lightly diluted.
  • Single cask (also known as single-barrel) whiskies are usually bottled by specialist independent bottlers, such as Duncan Taylor, Gordon & MacPhail, and Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, amongst others. Each bottle of a single-barrel whisky is from an individual cask, and often the bottles are labelled with specific barrel and bottle numbers. The taste of these whiskies may vary substantially from cask to cask within a brand.

Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the “age” of a whisky is only the time between distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies that have been bottled for many years may have a rarity value, but are not “older” and will not necessarily be “better” than a more recently made whisky matured in wood for a similar time. After a decade or two, additional aging in a barrel will also not necessarily make a whisky “better”.

Most whiskies are sold at or near an alcoholic strength of 40% abv, which is the statutory minimum in some countries – although the strength can vary, and cask-strength whisky may have as much as twice that alcohol percentage.

Scotch whiskies are generally distilled twice, although some are distilled a third time and others even up to twenty times.  Scotch Whisky Regulations require anything bearing the label “Scotch” to be distilled in Scotland and matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks, among other, more specific criteria.  An age statement on the bottle, in the form of a number, must reflect the age of the youngest Scotch whisky used to produce that product. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed age whisky.  Scotch whisky without an age statement may, by law, be as young as three years old.

The basic types of Scotch are malt and grain, which are combined to create blends. Many, though not all, Scotch whiskies use peat smoke to treat their malt, giving Scotch its distinctive smoky flavour. Scotch malt whiskies are divided into five main regions: Highland, Lowland, Islay,Speyside and Campbeltown.