Uisge beatha. ‘Water of life’.
Those of you out there who are already highly-knowledgeable on the subject of all things whisky will likely gloss over at such a high level overview of our beloved libation. My hope here is to provide a little bit of a background and a few of the basics to those out there with a little less…experience. Let’s face it, folks…in the ever-evolving world of whisky (somewhat ironic with such rigidly enforced guidelines), there will always be the opportunity to learn more. Your nosing and tasting abilities will improve, granting new life to drams you’ve tasted previously; new whiskies will enter the marketplace; new whisky-producing regions will enter the spheres; and your forays into whisky education will change the way you appreciate your dram.
There is something almost mystically fascinating about a drink so pure and rigidly defined. I think that is one of the reasons why so many individuals develop such strong passions for it. At the end of the day, what most of us are sipping on is simply a malted barley distillate aged in oak. How many flavor profiles can you expect to see from that? Well…innumerable, actually. The more time you invest in whisky (ahem…not in inebriation), the more you’ll develop a nose and palate able to discern all of the nuances that define certain brands and regions. These subtleties are imparted through the most ‘osmosis-like’ ways imaginable…peat smoke drying of barley; briny ocean air; dark and damp earthen warehousing; cask characteristics (and previous contents), etc. More on some of these later.
One final note…
Forgive my devoting much of this writing to Scotch Whisky. It is where my heart lies, and what most of us drink. Perhaps the future will see more articles dedicated to bourbons, Canadian and world whiskies. We’ll see.
Let the label on the bottle be your guide. Whisky labels should tell you the details you need to make a (relatively) well-informed purchasing decision. You should be able to find Distiller, bottling, age (though not always), alcohol by volume (% abv), notes on whether it has been artificially colored or chill-filtered and often a few notes on the profile of the whisky.
So…Let’s get our whisky categories down first, shall we? This should help a mite when wondering the aisles at your local liquor barn.
Malt Whisky – A distillate made purely from malted barley in a pot still (more later).
Single Malt Whisky – Single Malt Scotch Whisky is distilled in pot still batches exclusively from malted barley, and aged for not less than three years in an oak cask. All whisky marked as Single Malt must be comprised of whisky from only that distillery.
Blended Malt Whisky – Also known as a Vatted Malt or Pure Malt. The SWA has handed down its edict that, much to the chagrin of many, the official term is to be Blended Malt. The reason many are up in arms is simply to ensure clarity. We now have Blended Malts and Blended Whiskies. Alas…it is semantics. The end product is what it is. To qualify as a Blended Malt, the mixed single malt whiskies which constitute the whisky must be matured in the barrel for at least one year, after which time the age of the new whisky is that of the youngest whisky in its composition. A Blended Malt made of a few 30 year old whiskies and one 15 year old whisky can only be given an age statement of 15 years.
Grain Whisky – Though relatively rare in bottlings in and of itself (though some brilliant specimens do exist), it has long been mixed with malts to create Blended Scotch Whisky. Grain whiskies may contain barley or other grains (malted or unmalted) and are typically distilled in a continuous still (again…more later).
Blended Scotch Whisky – Blended Scotch Whisky, believe it or not, constitutes about 90% of Scotland’s whisky output. It is a mixture of Single Malt and Grain Whisky from different distilleries. The average Blended Whisky is comprised of about 60%–85% grain whisky (though this is not a rule).
Single Cask Whisky – Single cask whiskies are malts bottled directly from the cask without being married to any other whisky. By nature, of course, these are very limited runs, generally a couple hundred bottles or less. They are usually labeled with distillation and bottling dates, cask number and bottle number. They also tend towards very distinct characteristics and higher value. If you find one you like…better stock up. You’ll never get the same whisky again.
Cask Strength Whisky – Ahhh…the nectar that makes your knees weak. Both in terms of swooning adoration and knock you on your ass intensity. Scarcity and $ make many cask strength whiskies relatively prohibitive, but do your homework. This is the way whisky should all be bottled.
Independently Bottled Whisky – An interesting topic, and one certain to polarize. Independent bottling is a somewhat controversial enterprise wherein casks are purchased from the distillery by an independent third party and then sold exclusive of the original distiller, though most often still under the Distiller’s name, sans branding.
Scotch Whisky is a fiercely protected entity that is governed by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). Strict regulations govern what can and can not be labeled as Scotch Whisky.
To be called Scotch whisky the spirit must conform to the standards of the Scotch Whisky Order of 1990, stating that it:
“1 Must be distilled at a Scottish distillery from water and malted barley, to which only other whole grains may be added, have been processed at that distillery into a mash, converted to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems, and fermented only by the addition of yeast,
2 Must be distilled to an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8%by volume so that it retains the flavour of the raw materials used in its production,
3 Must be matured in Scotland in oak casks for no less than three years and a day,
4 Must not contain any added substance other than water and caramel coloring and
5 May not be bottled at less than 40% alcohol by volume.”
Producing Scotch Whisky:
Malting takes place as barley is submerged in water for about 48 hours, and allowed to germinate. Germination converts the starch in barley into fermentable sugars. These germinating barley seeds are then spread across the malting floor and kiln-dried to halt the germination process and impart those smoky notes that characterize most whiskies.
Mashing and Fermentation
At this point the dried malt is ground to a coarse flour (known as ‘grist’), and mixed with hot water in a large tank known as a ‘mash tun’. The steeping period that follows allows this newly created mixture, known as ‘mash’, to continue converting barley starches to sugar. What you end up with is a sweet, sugary liquid, now known as ‘wort’. From here the wort is moved into a ‘wash back’ (another large tank) where it is cooled, has yeast added and will begin to ferment. This fermentation will eventually result in a rough beer-like liquid, with an alcohol content of somewhere around 5-7% abv. This is now called ‘wash’.
You can think of the next step, distillation, as a purification. The ‘wash’ is moved into stills in order to filter undesirable qualities and to boost the alcohol content.
Generally Scotch whisky is double-distilled (though as you’re likely picking up by now, there are very few rules and many more exceptions). The first distillation takes place in what is known as a ‘wash still’. The ‘wash’ is heated to boiling. As alcohol boils at a lower point than water, the alcohol evaporates up the still, down the ‘lyne arm’ and into a condenser. Here it is cooled and condensed back to its fluid origins. No longer ‘wash’, this new product is known as ‘low wine’ and has an abv of around 20%.
The second phase of distillation takes place in a ‘spirit still’. The resultant product is divided into three ‘cuts’: the foreshots, middle cut and feints. The foreshots tend towards toxicity, while the feints tend to be quite weak. The middle cut is now known ‘new make spirit’, or simply ‘new make’. This is what will be casked, and eventually make its way to your glass.
Lance has put up a page on stills here.
This ‘new make spirit’, young and lacking in flavor and character (much like vodka at this point), is moved to oak casks for extended periods of maturation. As mentioned earlier, in order to be labeled as Scotch Whisky, this spirit must be aged in oak for no less than three years and one day. Time spent in the wood helps mellow the spirit, and impart those flavors we all know and love, so as you can imagine, not many distillers bottle their whisky at three years. At the time it is casked, this new make is most likely about 60-75% alcohol. This does not mean it will stay that way however. As the casks are porous enough to allow breathing, there is bound to be evaporation. The resulting loss, known as the ‘angel’s share’, can be as a high as a couple percent annually, and affects both volume and strength.
The maturation process is where a large part of the whisky’s personality comes from. In the case of peated whiskies, the peat smoke used for drying the malted barley has already imparted some flavor, however the majority of the whisky’s profile is determined by what happens now.
Cask selection is the first determinant. Typical cask choices for extended periods of maturation are ex-bourbon casks or ex-sherry casks. Aging in bourbon casks tends to result in a lighter straw colored whisky, while aging in sherry results in a deeper amber colored whisky. The more time spent in the cask, the more color the whisky develops. There has been a rising trend toward what are called ‘wood finishes’ in whiskies. This means that after an extended maturation in traditional casks, the spirit is transferred to another cask for a brief finishing period. These finishes are somewhat contentious. More to follow on finishes.
The length of maturation is one of those key elements we trust the master distiller with. Periodic checks on the whisky will help determine just how ripe it is for bottling.
* It is important to note that maturation ends when the whisky is removed from the cask. It is no longer taking on flavor notes. A whisky that was bottled at 15 years will always be a 15 year old whisky…even if you don’t drink it for another 30 years. Older whiskies are inherently scarcer, however, so they often command significantly higher prices.
Chill-filtration and Coloring
The Regions of Scotch Whisky Production:
It is important to note that though we may speak of certain characteristics one may often find that seem to define a region’s whisky, there are usually more exceptions than rules.
Islay – Ahhh, Islay. The home to which I’ve never been. Whisky producing region most notable for being the home of most of those big smoky peated whiskies we all love. The distinct Islay characteristics are derived from the strong salty breezes and heavy use of peat for drying malted barley. (Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroiag, etc.)
…Oh…and please? Islay is actually “eye-la”, not “Izlay”.
Speyside – Once considered a part of the Highlands, Speyside is home to more than half of the distilleries in Scotland. Often characterized by a more floral and fruity nose, these whiskies tend to have a sweet honey note as well. (Glenfiddich, Glenlivit, Aberlour, etc.)
Island – Sort of a sub-region, more than a recognized region unto itself (by the SWA anyway), the Islands are considered a part of the Highlands. Island whiskies are those produced on the islands of Scotland, exclusive of Islay, which is a region unto itself. Notes of peat and salt are not unusual, but also not the rule. (Talisker, Highland Park, Isle of Jura, etc).
Highland – It is hard to pinpoint flavors characteristic of the highlands, as the region is so sweeping. By reputation they tend to be complex and deep. Usually sweet, fruity, and malty…but generally mellow. (Glenmorangie, Oban, Dalwhinnie)
Lowland – Lowland whiskies tend to be quite delicate. Soft, grassy, light and malty. There are currently only three distilleries producing in the Lowlands right now (Auchentoshen, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie).
Campbeltown – Campbeltown whiskies may have a bit of a peat punch, strong fruit and a salty side. Again, only three distilleries operate in Campbeltown at this time (Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia). This was not always the case, as Campbeltown was once home to more than 30 operation distilleries.