With our short Whisky-ABC we offer interesting insights into and quite a few facts about the world of Scotch. We do not claim that our list is complete and will continue updating.
Ice or no ice?
The question if Whisky should be consumed with or without ice divides Whisky-lovers. The right way to drink Whisky depends on many factors. Ultimately it all comes down to the drinker. Whoever wants to cool their Whisky with ice can do so – everyone should be able to enjoy their Whisky in whatever way they please. However if someone wants to drink their Whisky “on the rocks” they should note that by cooling the Whisky the flavours are harder to decipher since the taste buds become less sensitive the colder the liquid. Additionally ice cubes hold the possibility of diluting the Whisky and therefore robbing it of its essential taste. For this reason many Whisky-lovers use so-called Cooling Rocks. These are cooled stones that temper the Whisky without changing it.
A drop of water
Concerning the alcohol percentage of bottled Whisky one can differentiate between the drinking strength and the cask strength. Whiskys in cask strength are bottled undiluted and almost always show a alcohol percentage of over 50 percent. When it comes to drinking strength the Whisky is diluted before it is bottled. Another variation lies between the simple drinking strength and the extended drinking strength, in which case it is often times very effective to add a few drops of water. Hereby the Whisky opens up and unfolds its flavours. When it comes to Whiskys with simple drinking strength however the addition of water rarely emphasizes the flavours.
The right glass?
In the past shallow drinking bowls named Quaich were used as drinking vessels for Whisky, nowadays it is primarily consumed out of glasses. However which glass is the right glass? For simple blends and Bourbon the venticrous Tumbler is highly qualified. A Single Malt however deserves a Nosing Glass. The glass is shaped like a tulip – venticrous at the bottom and narrower at the top. Thanks to its shape the Nosing Glass concentrates the flavours whereby a fuller taste adventure arises – since we can actually “taste” a lot with our nose.
Storage at home
How long a Whisky is durable at home depends first of all on the fact if it is open or not. Whisky should always be stored upright since the cork is not as tightly sealed as wine corks are and they should not be subjected to direct sunlight because this could lead to a bleached Whisky. (By the way, this is the reason why very good Whiskys are almost always sold in tubes) Also the Whisky should not have to endure temperature fluctuations. An opened Whisky changes its taste over time since the alcohol slowly evaporates and the air activates oxidation processes. The processes affect Whiskys with simple drinking strength more than Whiskys with extended drinking strength or cask strength. For this reason some Whisky-lovers are of the opinion that Whiskys with simple drinking strength should be consumed within twelve months, whereas the other Whiskys can survive longer, once opened.
Whisky and Whiskey: Types
Whisky or Whiskey
The correct way to spell Whisk(e)y alludes to the origin of the drink. While Whisky is produced in Scotland and Canada, Whiskey is distilled in the US and Ireland.
The designations Scotch or Irish however can only be applied to Whisk(e)ys with the respective origin, Bourbon always originates from the US.
For the manufacturing of Grain Whisky any grain can be used. More frequently wheat is used and sometimes barley. Nowadays the main part of Scottish Grain Whiskys is used for Blends. Unlike Malt Whisky, Grain Whisky is distilled through the Coffey Still process.
Bourbon is probably the most famous Whisky from the US and is known as the classic American representative of its kind. A Whisky becomes Bourbon when its mash has at least 51 percent of corn. Thereby the taste of Bourbon attains a special sweetness and softness.
Barley that has been ground into malt and then used as a grain is solely used for Malt Whisky. A Malt Whisky is distilled in Scotland with the Pot Still process.
Rye Whisky is distilled from mixed rye. It is most notably produced in the US and in Canada. So that a Whisky in the US can be called a Rye Whisky it needs to show 51 percent of rye. In Canada this regulation does not exist.
Manufacturing of Whisky
Malting and Torrefying
At the beginning of the Whisky production the barley is processed into malt. Hereby the barley is distributed and dampened in a warm surrounding so that the existing starch turns into malt sugar (maltose). This procedure takes many days and the final product is called green barley. After the malting the torrefying occurs where the green barley is dried at high temperatures. This process starts shortly before the barleycorn develops a bud. When torrefying the barley for Whisky a very important decision concerning the taste is made at this point: if one uses the hot smoke for the torrefying that arises from burning peat, the subsequent drink takes on a smoky-peaty note. In Scotland only very few distilleries torrefy themselves, these are for example Highland Park, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Springbank, The Balvenie and Tamdhu. However often times their capacities do not suffice so that many of these distilleries have their malt produced according to their own standards in other facilities.
Every distillery uses its very own water from a nearby spring. The taste of the water varies significantly from spring to spring which the Whisky reflects. Hereby the density of the mineral and alkyd content and the microorganisms living in the water play a crucial role when it comes to the taste of the Whisky.
Coffey Still Process
Whereas the Pot Still process is used for to produce Malt Whisky, the Coffey Still process is used for Grain Whisky. During the Coffey Still process the Whisky is continuously distilled in special burning pillars. The type of pillar allows a distillation in a closed system without interruptions. Robert Stein invented this process in 1826, which was then further developed by Aeneas Coffey in 1830.
Mashing and Fermenting
The dried malt is shredded and soaked in a mash tank with hot water. During many stages the malt sugar is washed out of the grit. The obtained liquid is usually pumped into wooden fermenting tanks. By adding yeast the fermenting process starts which usually lasts between 48 and 60 hours. During this time the yeast multiplies and transforms the sugar into alcohol. The resulting liquid has an alcohol content of five to eight percent and is called “Beer” or “Wash”.
Pot Still Process
During the Pot Still process the liquid won by the fermenting process is distilled twice and sometimes even thrice in large copper tanks. While in Ireland the distillation ensues thrice most Scottish Whiskys are distilled twice. The first distillation ensues in so called “Wash Stills” in which the alcohol dissolves from the liquid and residues of the yeast are removed. After the first distillation the liquid contains about 25 to 30 percent alcohol and is termed “Low Wine”. This distillate goes into a second burning tank, the so-called “Spirit Still”. Here the alcohol content rises further. In midway of this second distilling process the desired distillate (called “Heart”) can be found. The result is called “New Make” and has an alcohol content of up to 80 percent. A large proportion of the Scottish Whiskys are diluted with Water before the bottling so that the liquid reaches an alcohol content of 63%.
Only through storage does a Whisky obtain its full aroma and particular flavour. Hereby many factors play an important role for the maturation process of the Whisky: type of oak, size, previous use of the cask, geographical position of the distillery and the alcohol content of the distillate. Especially the length of the storage depends on the geographical position and the prevailing climate. The cask works differently depending on cold or warm temperatures. Even the position within the storage unit can have a noticeable effect on the maturation, since particularly in the summer the temperatures in the upper region are higher and this affects the maturation. To become a Scottish Whisky the distillate produced in Scotland must mature for at least three years and a day and is not allowed to leave the country.
Cask Maturation and Finishes
For the storage of Malt Whisky casks made of oak wood are used. For the manufacturing of the casks it is differentiated between the European Oak and the American White Oak. If one would use casks made of conifer wood the resin of the conifer would prevent the cask from breathing and would permanently influence the taste. Even though oak wood is tough and tenacious it can be used for cask production and can be bent without breaking. For the storage of Malt Whisky used casks are mostly (in Scotland exclusively) used. Ordinarily these are either old Bourbon casks from the US or old Sherry or Port Wine casks from Spain or respectively Portugal. The previous content of the cask has an enormous impact on the taste and colour of the Whisky.
Similar to the Ex-Bourbon-Casks the former Sherry Casks give their unique aroma to the Whisky. The casks of the Oloroso-Sherrys are usually used as Sherry casks since they add a sweet note to the Whisky. Likewise Pedro-Ximenez casks are desirable for the maturation process – for many fans this this bottling from a Sherry cask is one of the best types of Scottish Whisky.
Angel´s Share is the name for the part of a Whisky, which evaporates through the pores of the casks during the maturation process. While this part has one to three percent per year in Scotland, in warmer regions of the US it can almost be twice the amount.
The majority of Single Malt Whiskys are stored in Ex-Bourbon-Casks for the maturation process. Even if there is no remaining Bourbon in the cask, the wood of the cask still holds many flavours of the Bourbon, which the cask passes on to the Whisky.
Some Whiskys are siphoned into another cask after their first maturity so as to obtain additional aromas. These casks are called Boutique-casks since they give the Whisky special flavour nuances. For the Finish a wide array of casks are used. Hereby the Cellar men do not confine themselves to White or Red Wine Casks. Whiskys are also filled into Sherry, Port wine, Madeira, Rum and Cognac casks. In other words: The choice of cask for the Finish (almost) has no limitation. A Whisky can even mature in former wooden bier casks or Glögg-casks and ripen into an extraordinary taste.
Single Malt Whisky
A Whisky needs to fulfil two conditions to be called a Single Malt. Firstly it can only originate from a single distillery, so it can´t be a mixture of different Whiskys. Secondly solely malted barley can be used as a grain for its distillation. Similarly Single Grain Whisky can only originate from one distillery yet it can be made from any grain.
When a Whisky is bottled undiluted is receives the addition of “Cask Strength” which means that the Whisky shows its original cask strength, meaning the alcohol content, that remains after the maturation. Scottish Whiskys can have a cask strength of up to 60 percent or more alcohol.
For a standard Whisky usually many different casks are mixed. If the Whisky has a designated age none of the other casks are allowed to be younger. By mixing the casks a consistent taste is achieved. This way distilleries manage to have their standard bottlings taste the same over the years even though the content of every cask varies strongly. However if only one cask is opened and bottled it is called a single cask. Whereas when it comes to the mixture of many casks the end product is all that counts when it comes to Single Casks it´s all about opening especially perfect and decidedly successful casks and bottle these.
When a Whisky is called vintage then it refers to a specific batch of an age group. Meaning a mixture of Whiskys from different casks that were all distilled in the same year and matured in oak casks.
T-Spoon Whiskys are Single Malt Whiskys that have received a t-spoon of a different Single Malt Whisky. The t-spooned Whisky is strictly speaking a Vatted Whisky. They usually originate from distilleries that exclusively fill and market their own Whiskys. This way they can sell extraordinary casks to independent bottlers and simultaneously be sure that their names will not appear on the bottles. Famous distilleries that blend casks with a teaspoon from a different Whisky are for example Glenfiddich and Balvenie. The t-spooned Whiskys partly carry unusual names such as Wardhead or Burnside.
Nowadays many Whiskys are chillfiltered before they are bottled. This means they are cooled down to temperatures near freezing and pressed through a filter. This has the effect that any turbid materials are removed so that when adding water to the content or when temperatures change the Whisky does not become flaky or cloudy. At the same time however the Whisky is robbed of quite a few aromas and flavours which is why Whisky-lovers swear on un-chillfiltered Whiskys.
Most Whiskys that are available in commerce have been diluted with water after the maturation in the cask and before they are bottled, whereas a Whisky always has to have at least 40% alcohol content. 40% or 43% are therefore common – which has an effect on the liquor tax. Extended drinking strength is when a Whisky has 46% or more. These Whiskys are still strongly diluted however they are usually still more valuable.
The result of a mixture of contents from different casks is called a batch. No matter if two or two hundred. A batch alone is no indication of quality. Many distilleries frequently create special editions by mixing handpicked casks. These creations are often times termed “Small Batch”.
A blended Whisky is a mixture of Whiskys from different distilleries. In which case Grain Whiskys and Malt Whiskys are mixed. When it comes to Blended Whiskys one distinguishes between two types. The first type of Blend is mixed when the bottles are filled – a mass-produced Product, which most fans frown upon (of course exceptions prove the rule but these exceptions are rare and usually can´t be found in supermarkets). The second type of blend are Whiskys that were already united during the filling of the casks and matured in these together often for years. These blends are rare and carry together with their age the addition “Matured together”. Many times the label also suggests from what distilleries the different Single Grains and Malt grains originated from that matured together. The same thing applies to Vatted Whiskys (sometimes called VATs). The only difference to a Blend is, that no Grains Whiskys are included. Vatted Whiskys are also called “Pure Malt”.
Whisky regions of Scotland
The Highlands lie in the middle of Scotland and are characterized by their barren and rough landscape. Even though the Whiskys of this region usually have a strong taste it isn´t easy to find a common ground. For this reason the Highlands are often divided into four small regions: the Central Highlands, the Northern Highlands, the Western Highlands and the Eastern Highlands. Well-known distilleries in the highlands are, among others, Ben Nevis, Glenmorangie, Glendronach, Dalmore and Tullibardine.
The region of Speyside is besides the island Islay the Scottish Whisky paradise. In the Speyside area about 50 distilleries are located, meaning the majority of Scottish distilleries. The characteristic feature of the region is definitely the river Spey. The river runs from the Grampian Mountains and sidles through one of the greenest and fertile parts of Scotland. Here many distilleries settled down over decades, for example The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Tomintoul. These are only a few of the significant distilleries in this region of Scotland. Whiskys from this region are very multifaceted and often very malty and flowery. Rarely do distilleries produce smoky Whiskys since peat is hard to find in the Speyside region.
Admittedly Islay s “only” an island along the Scottish coast however as an independent region she has a special status concerning Whisky. There are eight known distilleries present on the island: Coal Ila, Ardberg, Bowmore, Bunnahabhain, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Burichladdich, Lilchoman. There is one thing that the Whiskys from these distilleries have in common: They are all very strong when it comes to their taste – be it slightly smoky or heavily peaty. This is due to the dark, brown peat, which can be found on the entire island and have always been used to torrefy malt. And even the water on Islay exhibits a slightly peaty, alkyd taste that is passed on to the Whisky during the production process.
The Lowlands are situated in the south of Scotland. While the region used to be known for its Whisky nowadays only few distilleries can still be found there. This is primarily because the Lowlands are one of the most severely industrialized regions of Scotland. Whiskys from this part of the country are generally known as light and fresh. This typical character arises because the distilleries use little to no peat to torrefy the malt. Today there are only a few distilleries in the Lowlands; amongst these are Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie.
Islands and Campbeltown
The sea air influences the Whiskys from these islands. It gives the Whiskys a slightly salty taste. Formerly the Whiskys were only distilled with peat, which gave the Whiskys a strong smoky note. Apart from that the Whiskys on the islands along the western and northern part of the Scottish mainland vary greatly. Well-known distilleries include Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Talisker and Tobermory. Located in the southwest is also the peninsular Kintyre with its capital city Campbeltown. During the 19th Century Campbeltown was known as the “Whisky Capital”: 30 distilleries were located there. Even if Campbeltown can no longer live up to its earlier days it still attends with many great Whiskys, for example Springbank and Glen Scotia.