Due to popular demand I decided to share a collection of random notes I have assembled from various sources over the years on the topic of whisky – with a focus on Single Malts. Some of the trivia on specific whisky's or distilleries may be out of date at this point – leave a comment and I will update things as required.
Whiskey or Whisky?
Let's get this out of the way first. Which is it? "Whiskey" or "Whisky"? Well – bottom line is that these spellings are used interchangeably by most people. However to keep the semantically oriented happy I thought I better look into this a bit further. It seems that the Scottish maintain a clear distinction here. What they make is "whisky". What everyone else makes is "whiskey".
So there you go. I better use "Whisky" then…
Types of 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. Traditional practices define five types:
- Single malt whisky is a 100% malted barley whisky from one distillery, distilled in batches in pot stills
- Single grain whisky is distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley, with or without whole grains of other cereals; it must not meet the requirements of a single malt whisky
- Blended malt whisky is a blend of 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 whisky is a mixture of single malt whisky and grain whisky, distilled at more than one distillery. Blended Scotch whisky constitutes over 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland. Notable blended Scotch whisky brands include Dewar's, Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark, J&B, The Famous Grouse, and Chivas Regal.
By law, all Scotch whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks; though many single malts are matured for much longer. The whisky continues to develop and change as it spends time in the wood, and maturation periods of twenty years or more are not uncommon. The selection of casks has a profound effect on the character of the final whisky.
A common source of casks is American whisky producers, as U.S. laws require that bourbon and Tennessee whisky be aged in new charred oak casks. Bourbon casks impart a characteristic vanilla flavour to the whisky. Sherry casks are also commonly used. This practice arose because sherry used to be shipped to Britain from Spain in the cask rather than having been bottled, and the casks were expensive to return empty and were unwanted by the sherry cellars. In addition to imparting the flavours of their former contents, sherry casks lend maturing spirit a heavier body and a deep amber and sometimes reddish colour. Stainless steel shipping containers, however, have reduced the supply of wooden sherry casks, to the extent that the Macallan Distillery builds casks and leases them to the sherry cellars in Spain for a time, then has them shipped back to Scotland.
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".
Each year spent in the wood results in the evaporation of between 0.5 and 2% of each casks' contents, depending on the ambient conditions at which the casks are stored. Because alcohol is more volatile, the alcohol content of the remaining whisky also drops over time. The 0.5–2.0% lost each year is known as the angel's share.
Cask strength whiskies are rare and usually only the very best whiskies are bottled in this way. They are bottled from the cask undiluted. Rather than diluting, the distiller is inviting the drinker to dilute to the level of potency most palatable. If you are "nosing" a cask strength whisky, it's best to add a little water to help release the flavours and to avoid anaesthetising your nose.
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.
This means that the whisky has been aged in three separate casks. For example The Macallan Fine Oak range is initially matured in European second fill sherry oak casks which help to impart a rich character with hints of dried fruits, spices and chocolate orange. The whisky is then transferred to American second fill sherry oak casks to help add delicate hints of citrus lemon, coconut and a toffee-like sweetness. The final maturation period is in ex-bourbon American oak casks which help to deliver floral aromas and sweet notes of vanilla and fresh fruits. This unique triple cask combination delivers an rather extraordinarily smooth but delicate and complex Single Malt whisky.
Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation matter. Peat forms in wetlands or peatlands, variously called bogs, moors, muskegs, pocosins, mires, and peat swamp forests. By volume there are about 4 trillion m³ of peat in the world covering a total of around 2% of global land mass (about 3 million km²).
Under the right conditions, peat is the earliest stage in the formation of coal. Peat may contain traces of heavy metals such as mercury. The source of mercury may be related with methane upwelling that migrate from great depths and of interacts with the peat. Peat is soft and easily compressed. Under pressure, water in the peat is forced out. Upon drying, peat can be used as a fuel. It has industrial importance as a fuel in some countries, such as Ireland and Finland, where it is harvested on an industrial scale.
In many countries, including Ireland and Scotland, where trees are often scarce, peat is traditionally used for cooking and domestic heating. Peat fires are used to dry malted barley for use in Scotch whisky distillation. This gives Scotch whisky its distinctive smoky flavour, often called "peatiness". Bruichladdich Octomore is the most heavily peated whisky ever produced. There has been two batches, one produced in 2002 and a second one in 2003, even more peated than the first batch. The 2002 batch of 6000 bottles was sold out before it was released.
Distillation is used to increase the alcohol content and to remove undesired impurities such as methanol. 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 malt whisky distilleries distill their product twice except for the Auchentoshan distillery, which retains the Lowlands tradition of triple distillation. Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown is unique in that it distills two and a half times. This is achieved by distilling half the low wine (1st distillation) for a second time, adding the two halves together and then distilling the complete volume a final time. Note: From my experience other distilleries will triple distill select batches or ranges of whisky (eg Macallan does this).
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. Most distilleries use different water sources in the various steps, and this becomes a crucial part of the character of the end product.
Today only a handful of distilleries have their own maltings; these include Balvenie, Kilchoman, Highland Park, Glenfiddich, Glen Ord, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Springbank, Tamdhu, and Edradour. 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 maltsters.
Whisky can also be "chill filtered". Chill filtration is a process whereby naturally-occurring fatty amino acids in the whisky are grouped together by chilling the whisky, and then filtered out. Most whiskies are bottled this way, unless specified as "unchillfiltered". Unchillfiltered whisky will turn cloudy when stored at cool temperatures or when cool water is added to them, and this is perfectly normal. Unchillfiltered, cask-strength whisky is generally regarded as whisky in its purest form.
No Age on Bottle
If Scotch whisky is from more than one cask, and if it includes an age statement on the bottle, it must reflect the age of the youngest whisky in the blend. Many cask-strength single malts omit the age as they use younger elements in minute amounts for flavouring and mellowing.
Originally, The Macallan was only matured in oak sherry casks brought to the distillery from Jerez, Spain. Beginning in 2004, The Macallan introduced a new main product, the Fine Oak series, with the whisky mellowed in bourbon oak casks as well as sherry ones. In 2007, a bottle of 1926 vintage The Macallan was sold at a Christie's auction for $54,000, making it one of the most expensive bottles of liquor ever sold. The Elegancia, a 40% ABV (as opposed to 43%) 12-year-old, is available only at duty-free shops. The Macallan is one of the ingredients of The Famous Grouse blend. The Macallan Distillery builds casks and leases them to the sherry cellars in Spain for a time, then has them shipped back to Scotland.
Classifying Single Malt Whisky
The conventional way to classify Scotch malt whiskies is by region – Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown. But knowing where they are made doesn't explain how they taste.
Some whisky writers try to assess the "quality"of single malt whiskies – they award marks-out-of-ten and construct league tables of "top" whiskies. They are often looking for depth, balance, layered complexity and length of finish – criteria that are very personal to them. But your tastes may be different – you may actually prefer lightly peated, fruity and fresh malt whiskies, in which case their ratings may not be very helpful. It's an anachronism that the best-selling malt whiskies are generally not rated very highly by these pundits.
The Whisky Flavour Map
A relatively new and innovative way of classifying single malt's is using a "flavour map". The map has four quadrants based upon tastes – smoky, rich, delicate, and light. It has different single malt's ranked by taste. This is a great way to choose a whisky you might like – or even to add whiskies to the map as you try them and categorise them yourself.
"If I like this malt whisky, what other whiskies might I also enjoy?"
A classification of single malt whiskies has been developed which attempts to answer this question: http://www.whiskyclassified.com/classification.html
- Cluster A – Full-Bodied, Medium-Sweet, Pronounced Sherry with Fruity, Spicy, Malty Notes and Nutty, Smoky Hints: Balmenach, Dailuaine, Dalmore, Glendronach, Macallan, Mortlach, Royal Lochnagar;
- Cluster B – Medium-Bodied, Medium-Sweet, with Nutty, Malty, Floral, Honey and Fruity Notes: Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Ben Nevis, Benrinnes, Benromach, Blair Athol, Cragganmore, Edradour, Glenfarclas, Glenturret, Knockando, Longmorn, Scapa, Strathisla;
- Cluster C – Medium-Bodied, Medium-Sweet, with Fruity, Floral, Honey, Malty Notes and Spicy Hints: Balvenie, Benriach, Dalwhinnie, Glendullan, Glen Elgin, Glenlivet, Glen Ord, Linkwood, Royal Brackla;
- Cluster D – Light, Medium-Sweet, Low or No Peat, with Fruity, Floral, Malty Notes and Nutty Hints: An Cnoc, Auchentoshan, Aultmore, Cardhu, Glengoyne, Glen Grant, Mannochmore, Speyside, Tamdhu, Tobermory;
- Cluster E – Light, Medium-Sweet, Low Peat, with Floral, Malty Notes and Fruity, Spicy, Honey Hints: Bladnoch, Bunnahabhain, Glenallachie, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie, Glen Moray, Inchgower, Inchmurrin, Tomintoul;
- Cluster F – Medium-Bodied, Medium-Sweet, Low Peat, Malty Notes and Sherry, Honey, Spicy Hints: Ardmore, Auchroisk, Bushmills, Deanston, Glen Deveron, Glen Keith, Glenrothes, Old Fettercairn, Tomatin, Tormore, Tullibardine;
- Cluster G – Medium-Bodied, Sweet, Low Peat and Floral Notes: Arran, Dufftown, Glenfiddich, Glen Spey, Miltonduff, Speyburn;
- Cluster H – Medium-Bodied, Medium-Sweet, with Smoky, Fruity, Spicy Notes and Floral, Nutty Hints: Balblair, Craigellachie, Glen Garioch, Glenmorangie, Oban, Old Pulteney, Strathmill, Tamnavulin, Teaninch;
- Cluster I – Medium-Light, Dry, with Smoky, Spicy, Honey Notes and Nutty, Floral Hints: Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Glen Scotia, Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Springbank;
- Cluster J – Full-Bodied, Dry, Pungent, Peaty and Medicinal, with Spicy, Feinty Notes: Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Talisker.
The Taste Experience
Describing a Whisky
The aromas sensed in whisky can be categorised as follows:
- Phenols – peat and smoke
- Esters – fruity or solvent
- Floral – grass and flowers
- Cereal – malty, yeasty smell
- Winey – sherry and nutty
- Woody – vanilla and toast
- Sulphury – gas and rubber
- Feinty – tobacco and leather.
It is very difficult to put words to a smell or taste – especially if we are not used to doing so, and are not familiar with the vocabulary typically used to describe smell and taste. We may find we tend to use similes and metaphors. Or we may use words such as "heavy", "light", "smooth", "fresh" – but these terms are relative to what?
One accepted method used today is to describe aromas and flavours is to use the language and terms as defined in "The Whisky Wheel" (image shown). The wheel has eight segments and three tiers. Begin from the outside rim, with the kind of vague aroma description which often arises spontaneously during a tasting, and then work inwards to the core aromas on the first tier, or vice versa.
Adding water to even regular strength whisky before drinking will help to stop the strength of the whisky anaesthetising your senses and reducing the taste you will enjoy.
Add a little water at a time to get the right dilution. Expert tasters recommend diluting most whisky with a fifth water or more, although this can be too much for old whiskies. Individual tastes will vary, so experiment with what you prefer – some whiskies will be best without any water.
The water you use to add to the whisky is not too important, with a few exceptions. Make sure that the water is still rather than carbonated and not chilled (cooling the whisky prevents the release of flavour). It is ideal for the whisky to be at room temperature. Try to avoid chlorinated tap water if it tastes too much of chemicals – in this case still mineral or even distilled water might be a better option.
If you haven't added water to a cask strength before drinking it, it's worth trying a little to see how it tastes. The strength of the alcohol might not allow too much flavour to be tasted – a little water will help to make the drink less fierce. Take a little into your mouth, swirl it around and concentrate on the sensations. There are three elements to look out for if you really want to evaluate the whisky.
- The taste itself is perhaps the most obvious element – does the whisky taste sweet, bitter, salty or sour?
- The 'mouth feel' which occurs before the whisky is tasted – is the whisky astringent, drying, fizzy, mouth watering?
- Finally there is the 'finish' of the whisky – does it leave an aftertaste; how long does the flavour last for?
Letting it Breathe
One often overlooked question is that of how long you should leave your whisky to breathe; that is letting it sit it the glass for a certain period of time, undisturbed.
It may seem an unusual concept but it soon becomes obvious that this little consideration can have a large effect on the taste of your whisky. Oxidisation, the process that occurs when your whisky is exposed to the air can dramatically change the initial taste from the moment you pour until you drain the last dregs in your glass. Many whiskies can come into their own just by being allowed to sit for a little while before being tasted. On the other hand another whisky can reach its peak very early after pouring and will not benefit from the extra exposure to the air.
It's difficult to predict how each whisky will behave, but fun to experiment!
If you have any other trivia you think I should add to these notes please leave a comment and let me know.