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Friday, January 13, 2012

Whisk(e)y 101: Scotch Whisky terminology, Part 1

Let's get these first two words straightened out.  Scotch whisky is whisky that is made in Scotland.  Thus all "Scotch" is whisky, but not all whisky is Scotch.  There's Irish Whiskey, Canadian Whisky, Swedish Whisky, Japanese Whisky, Indian Whisky, British Whisky, Dutch Whisky, Australian Whisky, Tennessee Whiskey, Kentucky Whiskey, Oregon Whiskey, and Korean Whisky just to name a few.  All of them are whiskies, liquors distilled from a fermented cereal mash and aged in oak barrels, but only the stuff from Scotland (at no less than 40% ABV) is Scotch.

Within the Scotch Whisky world there are different types of whiskies, here they are:

MALT WHISKY- A malt whisky is distilled from a mash of malted barley.  Now what does that actually mean?

In the past, the distillers grew their own barley.  The large distilleries today have found it more cost effective to purchase harvested barley from the market.  Sometimes it's Scottish barley, sometimes it's not.

The big batches of harvested barley grains are spread out thinly onto massive malting floors.  On these floors the barley begins to malt (or germinate), sprouting just a little bit out of their husks.  Within this little sprout, the grain's starches are becoming the sugars that will be fermented.  But before the fermentation, the malted barley is dried in a kiln (often using smoke from peat fires).  Once the drying is completed, it is ground up, then water is added creating the "mash".  With the addition of yeast, the sugars start to ferment.  After a few days something very similar to beer has been created.  This beer-like liquid (called The Wash) is poured into giant copper pot stills where the distillation takes place.
An Old Pulteney Pot Still

(For a deeper excellent explanation, please see Johannes van den Heuvel's awesome Malt Madness page on distillation.)

The result of this distillation is something called "new make spirit".  It's clear and has a very high alcohol content, like Scottish moonshine.  This new make is then poured into large oak barrels where it then matures for at least three years.  After that point, it is legally whisky, per the Scotch Whisky Association.

The whisky producer then decides what to do next with the product.  It's usually aged for a much longer time period.  Continued time and contact with the oak changes the flavors and scents, usually for the better.  Most of this malt whisky is then sold to blenders.  But some of it is not.

Distillery companies often choose to bottle some of their high quality product as a SINGLE MALT.  Thus a single malt is a malt whisky from a single distillery.  Except in some rare cases, it's made up of dozens of casks from that distillery.  When you see a single malt bottling with a year statement, like 12 years, that number refers to the youngest casked whisky in the mix.  Master distillers do all they can to keep the product quality high and consistent, but (much like wine) the flavors and scents can change from year to year.

Examples of Single Malt brands: The Macallan, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Springbank, Lagavulin, Bowmore, Talisker, Oban, Glenkinchie, Balblair, and Highland Park.

GRAIN WHISKY is distilled from a non-malted grain (barley, wheat, and maize) in a large column still.    Because it is not malted (though malt is sometimes added in for fermentation needs later) it skips the first parts of the process and the grain goes straight to distillation.  Unlike malt whisky's batch distillation process, grain whisky is distilled continuously.

Like malt whisky, grain whisky is also aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.  The production of grain whisky is considerably cheaper than that of malt whisky and creates a product much lighter and (debatably) of a lower quality than its malted cousin.  Its flavor profile can fall anywhere between vodka and bourbon, depending on how it was aged.

A very very tiny portion of this whisky is bottled as a SINGLE GRAIN.  If you see the rare bottle that says "Single Grain", it's simply a grain whisky that comes from a single distillery.  But almost all of the grain whisky in Scotland goes into blends.

Examples of Single Grain brands: North British, Port Dundas, Cameronbridge, and Cambus.

BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKY combines the two whiskies above, Malt Whisky and Grain Whisky.  Since grain whisky is cheaper and lighter than malts, it is used more generously (often around a 2:1 ratio) in blends to spread out the product and smooth out rougher edges in the flavor.

Blends were originally created by Scottish grocers in the 1800's.  The whisky business had been created by individual farmers doing their own distilling and bottling, and the grocers who sold the bottles in their local markets.  But because the farmers' product would vary in quantity and quality from year to year, grocers started blending the different farmers' malts in order to keep a consistent supply on the shelves.  The grocers (like the Chivas Brothers and Mr. Johnnie Walker) also learned that by blending they could wield some control over the whisky's flavor.  As these new creations were more consistently flavored and reliably stocked than the individual whiskies, the blends became big sellers.

Blends currently make up more than 90% of the Scotch market.  They are constantly engineered and tested to make sure that the flavor profile remains consistent.  So, like 200 years ago, consumers find them cheaper and of an easier flavor to depend on.

Examples of blend brands: Famous Grouse, Johnnie Walker, Chivas, Dewars, Grant's, Bell's, Whyte & Mackay, Cutty Sark, and Ballantines.

BLENDED MALT (previously known as "VATTED" or "PURE" MALT) are blends made solely from Single Malts.  No Grain whisky.  These whiskies are more expensive than regular blends due to the malt-only content.

Examples of Blended Malt brands: Compass Box and Johnnie Walker (Green Label only)

BLENDED GRAIN (previously known as "VATTED" or "PURE" GRAIN) are blends made solely from Single Grains.  No malts.  There aren't too many of these yet, but as the Single Grain market grows so will these Blended Grains.

Examples of Blended Grain brands: Compass Box (Hedonism only) and Snow Grouse.

That brings Part 1 to a close.  Have a great Friday and nice looooong weekend!

Sources: Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, 6th Edition (Jackson); individual distiller websites; masterofmalt.com; and the grand maltmadness.com).