In Part Steve Crotty aims to break down some of the terms used in whisky by the distillers to promote their whisky.
2. What does all this shit on the bottle mean? (Whisky Terms and definitions)
So you’ve bought your first whisky. You’ve put some of your hard earned cash on a fine bottle of malt. But you don’t understand what all this spiel’s about. What does single malt mean? What does aged in first fill bourbon casks mean? What does Scotland mean? Ok, so the last one was a joke but I will start with the major one; different types of whisky.
Single Malt Whisky
A single malt whisky refers to the fact the whisky comes from only one distillery. For example the Caol Ila single malt (shown) can only come from the Caol Ila distillery and nowhere else. It doesn’t mean it can only have come from one cask. Distilleries make thousands of casks and different styles and types, and any number of these can be put together to make a single malt whisky. Only if it specifically states that the whisky is also from a single cask on the bottle does it mean that only one barrel of whisky was used in the production.
A single malt will generally have an age marking on the bottle to indicate the number of years it has spent in the barrel, although this is not always the case as there is no law stating this must be done. It is generally accepted that if a single malt does not have an age statement it is less than the industry standard of 8 years, but again this is not always true.
Single malt distillers sometimes brag about their whisky in other ways as well. If the bottle refers the whisky being of a ‘natural colour’ it means that the colour of the whisky has only come from the barrel used in maturation. Often, in lower end whiskies, spirit caramel has been added to ‘up’ the colouring (usually to the detriment of the taste). Other terms include ‘cask strength’, meaning the whisky has been bottled at its natural strength rather than reduced to the typical level of 40%. As this is as unpredictable as nature itself, each different cask bottled at cask strength can be a different ABV. Finally, if the bottle refers to the fact that the whisky is ‘non chill-filtered’ this indicates that it hasn’t been reduced to about 0°C and put through special filters before bottling. This is done to improve the clarity of poorer whiskies, but as a result the whisky loses some of its natural flavour.
Blended Malt Whisky
Blended Malts are made in the same way as single malt, the only difference being that they (like the Cutty Sark above) are the product of more than one distillery. This is not to be confused with a Blended whisky (see below), although often is.
Single Grain Whisky
This is a whisky that is made primarily from grain such as maize or occasionally wheat instead of malted barley (a small amount of barley is still used to convert the starch present in the grains into sugar but it is not the principal ingredient). Again the use of the word single means that it can only have come from one distillery. Generally, grain whiskies are much rarer and therefore more expensive than single malts.
Blended Grain Whisky
As with malts, this refers to the grain whisky being the product of more than one distillery (e.g. Snow Grouse).
Here’s a fun game to play. Get someone who knows a little about whisky in the pub and buy yourself two single malts (not expensive ones for this purpose!) Proceed to pour them into the same glass and then ask the person what this new concoction is. If they say it is a blended whisky you have full permission to slap them in the face. As stated earlier this would be a Blended Malt and it is a mistake many people new to the whisky game make.
Blended whisky is made from a combination of malt and grain whiskies. It is a delicate balance that has been perfected over the years as there is no limit to the number of different malts that can be used (Johnnie Walker uses over 40 in its Black Label). Indeed some distilleries are used for the production of blends and rarely seen in their own right as single malts e.g. Glenburgie, which is mainly produced to go into the Ballantine’s blend.
Many blended whiskies do not carry age statements as they tend to be towards the lower end of the scale but if they do then the age shown refers to the youngest whisky that has been used. Older whiskies can also be used in the production but if it states on the bottle that it is a 12 Year Old Blend, then the youngest of any of the whiskies used has been matured for 12 years.
A final word about blended whiskies: these days there is a lot of snobbery about regarding the fact that a single malt will always be better than a blend. The people who believe this will tell you that because a single malt is produced only by one company from start to finish then it is given more time and attention to make sure it is the best that it can be, whereas blends are simply a cheap way to easily mass-produce poor whisky.
It may surprise these people to know that up until the early 1980’s single malt was regarded as inferior, with blended whisky being the more popular. In my own opinion, whilst it is true that there are more cheap blends that lack quality than there are single malts, the elitist nature towards blends is pure codswallop. A brilliant blended whisky is as good as an excellent single malt, and why shouldn’t it be? To take the point even further, a single malt distiller is limited to what they can do to the whisky. The blended whisky distiller has the benefit of all the sweets in the shop as they can add as many different whiskies as they like to achieve their end result.
The last part of this piece though goes towards the oft forgotten and much maligned Single/Blended Grain whiskies. Make the effort and go and find one and you will have opened a whole new whisky experience. They have a tendency to be a bit lighter, sweeter and softer in flavour than the malts (indeed this is why they were created), so therefore they make a perfect introduction to the world of whisky for any novice. Many are high in price now as demand for them is not as great as the malts and the majority goes into blends to reduce the potency of some of the higher strength malts but don’t let that put you off. You can pick up a bottle for under £20 and at that price they are a bargain that you may end up taking advantage of many times.
Part 3 – Whisky Regions of Scotland Coming Soon