The less said about GRAIN WHISKY
the better, if you ask me. It's made from a mash of
cereal grains (usually barley, wheat and maize). Both malted barley (barley which has
started to germinate before it was dried to stop the germination) and unmalted barley
(unsprouted barley which remains dormant) are used in the production of grain whisky.
Grain whisky is distilled in a continuous 'industrial' process, using so-called 'Coffey Stills'.
The black label of the (very young) 'Blackbarrel' grain whisky identifies it as a single grain.
Unless casked and aged properly, the end result often resembles the revolting Dutch drink
Jenever (gin). That being said, I've sampled a few old grain whiskies that were just amazing.
By far the most bottles of whisky that go over the counter at your local liquorist
are BLENDED WHISKY - a 'blend' of roughly 2/3 (and often more) grain whiskies
combined with about 1/3 malt whiskies from several different distilleries to form
a drink that applies to the tastes (and wallets) of as many people as possible.
The massive success of blends has proven that this approach worked great...
Now it's time to establish what all those fancy words in the whisky world mean.
First of all: There are three different categories of Scotch whisky; malt whisky,
grain whisky and blended whisky. One of the characteristics that all three share
is the fact that they have to be matured for at least three years; a minimum set
by British law. I'll go into blended and grain whisky before I'll deal with the malts.
Grain whisky is much cheaper
Even if you've never tried them, you've surely heard of some of the major international brands
like Johnnie Walker.
A handful of other examples are Bell's, Famous Grouse, Ballantine's, Cutty Sark, J&B, Chivas Regal, Teacher's, VAT 69,
Dimple, Grant's, Dewar's, Lochranza, William Lawson, House of Lords, Old Smuggler, Ye Monks, Te Bheag & Poit Dhub.
Blending was introduced in the 19th century because
many of the whiskies distilled in those days had just
a tad too much 'character' for the average Victorian
whisky drinker. There may be as much as 50 or more
different single malt and grain whiskies in a blend.
This allows the so-called master blender to compose
a fairly consistent product that's not likely to offend
many people. (Well, not too many of them anyway.)
Furthermore, the production of grain whisky is much
easier and cheaper than distilliation of malt whisky.
Most 'official' single malt bottlings are VATTINGS
(= blends) of different casks / barrels.
Vatting or blending various casks of whisky from the distillery together gives the master blender some control over the final product. From a portfolio of thousands of casks, the blender selects those (usually a few dozen casks, but sometimes hundreds) that have the desired character. The quality of individual casks can vary considerably from cask to cask. So, unless other people have made recommendations about a specific single cask bottling you'll have no guarantee that that particular whisky will have the 'distillery profile' you expect.
But that's part of the fun of sampling single cask bottlings - usually bottled by independent bottlers...
Anything younger than
A SINGLE CASK SINGLE MALT
(a.k.a. a 'single-single') is as exclusive as it gets.
It's the same as a normal single malt whisky, but all bottles are taken from one single cask of whisky.
When you realize that a bourbon barrel usually equalizes about 300 bottles of whisky (sherry casks are larger), the drinking of a single cask malt whisky like the Balvenie 15yo Single Barrel is quite a special experience. However, it can be risky business as well. Only plain water is added before it is bottled, and in the case of so-called 'cask strength' bottlings not even that. There are bottlings with an ABV (alcohol percentage) of well over 60% available! However, I couldn't really recommend those to any beginner - it would be better to start at 40% or 43%. But don't worry, there are plenty of single malts that I can recommend - and I will in chapter 9.
But first there is a lot more 'single malt theory' I'd like to share with you...
The character of a single malt is shaped (to some extent) by its environment, but I'll go deeper
into the importance of geography in the next chapter. Most single malt whiskies are distilled and
matured in Scotland, but I've enjoyed some very decent single malts from countries like Ireland,
Japan, Germany and Tasmania as well. Those are still exceptions, though. You may find a few
'deviant' bottles at your local spirit monger but many thousands of different single malt Scotch
whiskies are currently available in liquor-stores all over the world. There are about two dozen
major 'brands' like Glenfiddich and Balvenie - malts like Ardmore or Banff are more obscure.
The amazing complexity and variation
that can be found in single malts is caused by the
large number of variables that play a role in the production and maturation of the whisky.
Apart from the role of 'geography' or 'terroir' (investigated in the next chapter) some other
significant variables are the quality of barley sourced, the shape and utilisation of the stills
and the quality of casks used for aging. Yes, the shape of a still plays a very important role
(as does the type and size of cask), but I'll go deeper into these aspects in later chapters.
In fact, I think I've gotten a little side-tracked... The topic at hand was whisky vocabulary.
Knowing what the phrases and abbreviations in the 'Scotch Slang' column mean will come
in handy when you venture deeper into the world of single malts. So, learn them by heart...
Contrary to popular belief, the native inhabitants of Scotland don't speak Scotch.
Their language is called GAELIC and some single malts have names that seem unpronounceable.
The list of the major tongue-breakers below may prevent possible humiliation at the counter of your local whisky bar.
But hey, let's not forget that these pages are just a 'Beginner's Guide' to SMSW. Maybe we shouldn't worry too much
about how to order a single malt with style and sophistication, and focus on selecting the proper whisky first, eh?
Aberlour - Aber-lower
You can find the proper pronunciation
Finally, a few words about AGE STATEMENTS. Many independent bottlings (IB's, see chapter 6 for
more information) specify an age statement in years, a year of distillation and a year of bottling.
Sometimes details like cask number and wood type are provided as well - or even specific dates.
For example: Ardbeg 17yo 1974/1992 (43%, Signatory Vintage Special Old Selection, Cask #2026).
Most of the official bottlings (OB's) only provide an age statement, like the Ardbeg 17yo (40%, OB).
These official bottlings are not 'single cask' bottlings, but 'vattings' from many different casks of the
same malt. In these cases the age statement indicates the age of the youngest whisky in the vatting.
So, an age statement on the label of an OB gives you the MINIMUM age of the malt inside the bottle.
Theoretically, casks that are much older could end up in the bottle.
There's even a apocryphal story about the
Springbank distillery that used one or more
casks of very old (and dark) whisky to add
colour to a much younger vatting that had
turned out lighter than the previous batch.
It could be true, I guess - but knowing the
thrifty nature of some of the present staff
and management at Springbank I have to
admit that the charming little story almost
sounds just a tad too good to be true.
But then again I'm a hopeless cynic...
Whisky Tales (Charles MacLean)
So - I bet you feel a lot smarter already...
And that's just at the end of chapter 2 of the Beginner's Guide! Just imagine how smart you'll feel at
the end of the last chapter of the guide! If we are to believe mathematicians, that should be roughly
5 times as smart as you're feeling right now! It may boggle your mind now, but not after chapter 10.
So, hesitate not a single second longer than you absolutely have to and... click on!
A few of my personal favorite grain whiskies
were a Garnheath 1969 bottled for Olivier Humbrecht's father, as well as some
fantastic bottles of Invergordon in their 30's & 40's from independent bottlers like LMdW, Duncan Taylor and Gordon & Macphail.
There are thousands
So, it seems that all a grain whisky needs is time - and the love of a good cask...
Because the difference between the grain whiskies from different distilleries is fairly
small (compared to the differences between different single malt whiskies at least),
it never attracted the large 'cult' following that single malts did in recent years.
What's more, there are just a dozen different grain distilleries, versus more than
100 malt whisky distilleries. The convenient story about Scotland's 'terroirs' (see
the next chapter on geography) just doesn't really fit a generic type of whisky.
So, those were two main categories of Scotch whisky (blended whisky & grain whisky).
The third 'malt whisky' category is the subject of the rest of this chapter - and this Beginner's Guide to whisky...
My personal favourite type of whisk(e)y is MALT WHISKY, produced
from 100% malted barley, fermented with yeast and distilled batch
by batch in massive, traditional copper 'pot stills'. Except for water,
no other grain products or fermentable materials are permitted.
Within the larger 'malt whisky' category, there are 2 sub-categories;
SINGLE MALT WHISKY (the product from one single distillery, not
blended with that of other distilleries) and VATTED MALT WHISKY
(different malt whiskies from more than one distillery, which have
been blended together to make a consistent product). The SWA
is pushing the name 'blended malt' to help confuse consumers.
Like the name suggests, the focus of the Malt Madness website is firmly on malt whisky..
Malt whisky in general and single malt whisky in particular. Although vatted malts sometimes lack
the personality of a single malt, some of them offer excellent value for money. You can find great
vatted malts for less than 20 Euro's! So called 'bastard malts' are yet another category - they are
single malt whisky where the origins (i.e. the distillery where it was distilled) are not disclosed.
This guide and the website focus mostly on whiskies that I have sampled and that that are;
The (originally) 6 so-called 'Classic Malts' from industry giant Diageo (Dalwhinnie, Oban, Lagavulin,
Cragganmore, Talisker & Glenkinchie - as depicted at the left - are examples of single malt 'brands'.
Well known vatted / blended malts are 'Sheep Dip', 'Blairmhor' and 'Johnnie Walker Green Label'.
Scotch Slang: .
ABV - Alcohol By Volume (percentage)
Are you still with me so far? Good, because this is where it all gets a little confusing... There used to be three different 'main categories' of whisky -
malt whisky, grain whisky and blends. As if things weren't difficult enough for the novices in maltland, the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) introduced a whole new set of definitions in 2005. In their infinite wisdom the
SWA decided to improve
the lives of whisky lovers all over the world by 'simplifying' things.
is the Scotch Whisky
According Wikipedia there now are two major categories,
single and blended whisky. The word 'Single' means that
100% of the product is from one single distillery, while the
word 'Blended' means that the end product is composed of
whiskies from two or more different whisky distilleries.
Well, so far that makes sense - but they needed a further
subdivision, and that's where matters get a little trickier.
Once again I checked Wikipedia for the details and found;
- Single malt whisky = a malted barley whisky from one distillery.
- Single grain whisky = a grain whisky from one distillery (maybe not 1 type of grain).
- Blended malt whisky = a mix of single malt whiskies from two or more distilleries.
- Blended grain whisky = a mix of grain whiskies from more than one distillery.
- Blended Scotch whisky = a mix of malt & grain whiskies, usually multiple distilleries.
Does this make things easier? Hardly... Now 'blended' could mean malt, grain or
blend. The text PURE MALT on a bottle of whisky means about as much as the
text 'especially selected' or 'checked and approved' - remarkably little indeed...
Every Scotch malt whisky (whether it's a single or vatted malt) are 'pure' malt
whisky, produced exclusively from malted barley and by using copper pot stills.
If a bottle contains any kind of grain whisky whatsoever, it is a blended whisky
by definition. When it says 'pure' instead of 'single' on the label these days, it's
most likely a vatted malt. (Of course, this does not apply to antique bottles.)
A) Scotch (i.e. no Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky, Indian whisky, Bourbon or Rye whiskey, etc.), and/or
B) single (i.e. no blends / vattings that where produced by mixing different whiskies or other spirits together), and/or
C) malt (i.e. not made from other grains than 100% malted barley - like unmalted barley, maize, corn, wheat, rye, etc.)
Things are complicated further by the fact that, these days, almost all of the
communication around single malt whisky is handled by marketeers, PR people
and advertisers - instead of the people who actually produce the whisky and
know about the production process. And then there are the journalists and
editors of mainstream media who on occasion want to write about whisky,
but who don't seem to care to much about their facts and figures. As a result,
there can be a lot of misinformation among the creative copywriting in some
of the glossy whisky advertising and christmas publications of other media.