Types of whisky
Malt whisky must contain no grain other than malted barley and is traditionally distilled in pot stills. Grain whisky may contain unmalted barley or other malted or unmalted grains such as wheat and maize (corn) and is typically distilled in a continuous column still, known as a Patent or Coffey still, the latter after Aeneas Coffey who refined the column still in 1831. While there are scores of malt whisky distilleries, only seven grain distilleries currently exist, most located in the Scottish Lowlands.
Malt whisky production begins when the barley is malted - by steeping the barley in water, and then allowing it to get to the point of germination. Malting releases enzymes that break down starches in the grain and help convert them into sugars. When the desired state of germination is reached the malted barley is dried using smoke. Many (but not all) distillers add peat to the fire to give an earthy, peaty flavour to the spirit.
Today only a handful of distilleries have their own maltings; these include Balvenie, Kilchoman, Highland Park, Glenfiddich, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Springbank and Tamdhu. Even those distilleries that malt their own barley produce only a small percentage of the malt required for production. All distilleries order malt from specialised malters.
Mashing & Fermentation
The dried malt (and in the case of grain whisky, other grains) is ground into a coarse flour called "grist." This is mixed with hot water in a large vessel called a mash tun. The grist is allowed to steep.
This process is referred to as "mashing," and the mixture as "mash". In mashing, enzymes that were developed during the malting process are allowed to convert the barley starch into sugar, producing a sugary liquid known as "wort".
The wort is then transferred to another large vessel called a "wash back" where it is cooled. The yeast is added, and the wort is allowed to ferment. The resulting liquid, now at about 5-7% alcohol by volume, is called "wash" and is very similar to a rudimentary beer.
The next step is to use a still to distil the wash - which will result in a purer form of alcohol.
There are two types of stills in use for the distillation: the pot still (for single malts) and the Coffey still (for grain whisky). All Scotch whisky distilleries distil their product twice except for the Auchentoshan distillery, which retains the Lowlands tradition of triple distillation.
For malt whisky the wash is transferred into a wash still. The liquid is heated to the boiling point of alcohol, which is lower than the boiling point of water. The alcohol evaporates and travels to the top of the still, through the "lyne arm" and into a condenser - where it is cooled and reverts to liquid. This liquid has an alcohol content of about 20% and is called "low wine".
The low wine is distilled a second time, in a spirit still, and the distillation is divided into three "cuts". The first liquid or cut of the distillation is called "foreshots" and is generally quite toxic due to the presence of the low boiling point alcohol methanol. These are generally saved for further distillation.
It is the "middle cut" that the stillman is looking for - it is the middle cut which will be placed in casks for maturation. At this stage it is called "new make". Its alcohol content can be anywhere from 60%-75%.
The third cut is called the "feints" and is generally quite weak. These are also saved for further distillation.
Once distilled the "new make spirit" is placed into oak casks for the maturation process. Historically, casks previously used for sherry were used (as barrels are expensive, and there was a ready market for used sherry butts). Nowadays these casks previously contained sherry or bourbon, but more exotic casks such as port, cognac, calvados, beer, and Bordeaux wine are sometimes used. Bourbon production is a nearly inexhaustible generator of used barrels, due to a regulation requiring the use of new, North American white oak barrels.
The ageing process results in evaporation, so each year in the cask causes a loss of volume as well as a reduction in alcohol. The 0.5–2.0% lost each year is known as the angel's share. Many whiskies along the west coast and on the Hebrides are stored in open storehouses on the coast, allowing the salty sea air to pass on its flavour to the spirit. It is a little-known fact, however, that most so-called "coastal" whiskies are matured in large central warehouses in the Scottish interior far from any influence of the sea. The distillate must age for at least three years to be called Scotch whisky, although most single malts are offered at a minimum of eight years of age. Some believe that older whiskies are inherently better, but others find that the age for optimum flavour development changes drastically from distillery to distillery, or even from cask to cask. Older whiskies are inherently scarcer, however, so they usually command significantly higher prices.
Colour can give a clue to the type of cask (sherry or bourbon) used to age the whisky, although the addition of legal "spirit caramel" is sometimes used to darken an otherwise lightly coloured whisky. Sherried whisky is usually darker or more amber in colour, while whisky aged in ex-bourbon casks is usually a golden-yellow/honey colour.
The late 1990s saw a trend towards "wood finishes" in which fully matured whisky is moved from one barrel into another one that had previously aged a different type of alcohol (e.g., port, madeira, rum, wine, etc) to add the "finish".
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottling number 1.81, for instance, is known by some as "the green Glenfarclas". It was finished in a rum cask after 27 years in an oak (ex-bourbon) barrel and is the colour of extra-virgin olive oil. This is in homage to the legendary "Green Springbank", also aged in rum casks. Another notable example is the "Black Bowmore", released in batches in 1993, 94 and 95 after 29, 30, 31 years in ex-Oloroso sherry casks. The name betrays the density of colour and complexity of flavour naturally imparted into what was orginally water-clear spirit in 1964.
With single malts, the now properly aged spirit may be "vatted", or "married", with other single malts (sometimes of different ages) from the same distillery. The whisky is generally diluted to a bottling strength of between 40% and 46%.
Occasionally distillers will release a "Cask Strength" edition, which is not diluted and will usually have an alcohol content of 50–60%.
Many distilleries are releasing "Single Cask" editions, which are the product of a single cask which has not been vatted with whisky from any other casks. These bottles will usually have a label which details the date the whisky was distilled, the date it was bottled, the number of bottles produced, the number of the particular bottle, and the number of the cask which produced the bottles.
Many whiskies are bottled after being "chill-filtered". This is a process in which the whisky is chilled to near 0°C (32°F) and passed through a fine filter. This removes some of the compounds produced during distillation or extracted from the wood of the cask, and prevents the whisky from becoming hazy when chilled, or when water or ice is added.
However chill filtration also removes some of the flavour and body from the whisky, which is why some consider chill-filtered whiskies to be inferior.
Scotland was traditionally divided into four regions: The Highlands, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown.
Speyside, encompassing the Spey river valley in north-east Scotland, once considered part of the Highlands, has almost half of the total number of distilleries in Scotland within its geographic boundaries; consequently it is officially recognized as a region unto itself.
Campbeltown was removed as a region several years ago, yet was recently re-instated as a recognized production region.
The Islands is not recognized as a region by the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) and is instead considered part of the Highlands region.
- Lowland — only three distilleries remain in operation: Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, and Glenkinchie.
- Speyside — has the largest number of distilleries, which includes: Aberlour, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet and The Macallan
- Highland— some Highland distilleries: Dalmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenmorangie and Oban.
- The Islands, an unrecognized sub-region includes all of the whisky producing islands (but excludes Islay): Arran, Jura, Mull, Orkney and Skye — with their respective distilleries: Arran, Isle of Jura, Tobermory, Highland Park and Scapa, and Talisker.
- Campbeltown, once home to over 30 distilleries, currently has only three distilleries operating: Glengyle, Glen Scotia and Springbank.
- Islay— has eight producing distilleries: Ardbeg, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. A new small distillery, Kilchoman, has recently begun production, but is not yet selling whisky.
Another version used by the Classic Malts Selection considers the Coastal Highlands as a sub-division of Highland Single Malts. This region includes Clynelish and Oban.
Types of Scotch whisky
There are two major categories, single and blended. Single means that all of the product is from a single distillery, while Blended means that the product is composed of whiskies from two or more distilleries.
- Single malt whisky is a 100% malted barley whisky from one distillery.
- Single grain whisky is a grain whisky from one distillery (it does not have to be made from a single type of grain).
- Vatted or Blended malt whisky is a malt whisky created by mixing single malt whiskies from more than one distillery.
- Blended grain whisky is a whisky created by mixing grain whiskies from more than one distillery.
- Blended Scotch whiskyis a mixture of single malt whisky and grain whisky, usually from multiple distilleries.
The majority of grain whisky produced in Scotland goes to make blended Scotch whisky. The average blended whisky is 60%-85% grain whisky. Some higher quality grain whisky from a single distillery is bottled as single grain whisky. As of 2006, there are only seven grain whisky distilleries in Scotland.
Vatted / Blended malt
Vatted malt whisky—also called pure malt—is one of the less common types of Scotch: a blend of single malts from more than one distillery and with differing ages. Vatted malts contain only malt whiskies—no grain whiskies—and are usually distinguished from other types of whisky by the absence of the word ‘single’ before ‘malt’ on the bottle, and the absence of a distillery name. The age of the youngest whisky in the bottle is that used to describe the age on the label, so a vatted malt marked “8 years old” may include older whiskies.
Blended Scotch whisky constitutes over 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland. Blended Scotch whiskies generally contain 10–50% malt whisky, blended with grain whisky, with the higher quality brands having the highest percent malt. They were initially created for the English market, where pure malt whiskies were considered too harshly flavoured (the main two spirits consumed in England at the time being brandy in the upper classes, and gin in the lower ones). Master blenders combine the various malts and grain whiskies to produce a consistent "brand style". Blended whiskies frequently use the same name for a range of whiskies at wildly varying prices and (presumably) quality. Notable blended Scotch whisky brands include Dewar's, Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark, The Famous Grouse, and Chivas Regal.
Most malt distilleries sell a significant amount of whisky by the cask for blending, and sometimes to private buyers as well. Whisky from such casks is sometimes bottled as a single malt by independent firms such as Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenhead, Murray McDavid, Signatory, and others. These are usually labeled with the distillery's name, but not using the distillery's trademarked logos or typefaces. An "official bottling" (or "proprietary bottling"), by comparison, is one from the distillery (or its owner). Many independent bottlings are from single casks, and they may sometimes be very different from an official bottling.
There have been occasional efforts by distillers to curtail independent bottling; Allied Domecq, owner of the Laphroaig distillery, initiated legal action against Murray McDavid in an effort to prevent them from using "Distilled at Laphroaig Distillery" in their independent bottlings of said whisky. Murray McDavid subsequently used the name "Leapfrog" for a time, before Allied backed off.
William Grant & Sons, which owns three malt distilleries, adds a measure of one of its other distilleries' whisky to each cask of malt it sells to independent bottlers. This prevents independent bottlers from bottling the contents of the cask as a single malt.
To avoid potentially sticky legal issues, some independent bottlings do not reveal the distillery of the whisky, using a manufactured brand name or a geographical name instead such as Old St Andrews.
Understanding a Scotch whisky label
Like most other labels, the Scotch whisky label combines law, tradition, marketing, and whim, and may therefore be difficult to understand. Because of variations in language and national law, the following is but a rough guide.
Scotch whisky labels contain the exact words "Scotch whisky"; "Whisky" is sometimes capitalised. If the word "Scotch" is missing, the whisky is probably made elsewhere. If it says Scotch whiskey or Scottish whisky, it might well be counterfeit.
If a label contains the words single malt (sometimes split by other words e.g., single highland malt), the bottle contains single malt Scotch whisky.
Vatted malt, pure malt or blended malt indicates a mixture of single malt whiskies. In older bottlings pure malt is often used to describe a single malt (e.g. Glenfiddich Pure Malt).
The label may identify the distillery as the main brand or as part of the product description. This is most likely the case for single malt. Some single malt whisky is sold anonymously or with a fictitious brand name. This does not indicate quality, but successive bottles may be completely different. The only reliable way to identify the distillery is to use a reference.
Alcoholic strength is listed in most countries. Typically, whisky is between 40% and 46% abv. A lower alcohol content may indicate an "economy" whisky or local law. If the bottle is over 50% abv it is probably cask strength.
Age is sometimes listed as well. If a bottle is, say, 12 years old, then all the whisky in the bottle was matured in cask for at least 12 years before bottling.
A year on a bottle normally indicates the year of distillation and one cask bottling, so the year the whisky was bottled may be listed as well. Whisky does not mature once bottled, so the age is the difference between these two dates; if both dates are not shown the age cannot be known from the bottle alone