The Scotch Whisky Association
would have you believe that there are
actually 5 different whisky categories.
Hardly helpful - but FYI, here they are;
- Single Malt Scotch Whisky
- Single Grain Scotch Whisky
- Blended Scotch Whisky
- Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
- Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
One of the few characteristics that they share is the fact that
Scottish law requires that the distilled spirit has to be matured
in a cask for at least three years before it can be called Scotch.
Now it's time to establish what all those fancy words in the whiskey world mean.
First of all: there are only two VERY different categories of Scotch whisky
(both usually spelled without the ‘e’); malt whisky & grain whisky.
We will get back to MALT whiskey and other
phrases shortly, but first I must stress that malt
whiskey and grain whiskey are really very different.
First of all, any type of cereal or grain can be used to make grain whiskey; corn / maize,
oats, rice, rye, wheat, etc.. For Scotch malt whisky, malted barley is used exclusively.
So, at first it doesn’t seem to make a lot of
sense that these very different spirits would
both be called ‘whisky’. Well, at least it does
not from the perspective of consumers...
Another key difference is the equipment that is used; malt whiskey is distilled in copper
pot stills during a batch process, while grain whiskey flows out of so-called column stills
in a continuous process. The chapter about distillation provides some more details,
but understanding the difference is crucial.
It makes a lot of sense for the producers,
though. When column stills were invented
in the 19th century, the people who already
owned capital or land could invest in them.
But there are dozens of malt whisky distilleries with ‘Gaelic’ names too.
Oddly enough, their names become easier to pronounce after you’ve
enjoyed a few ‘drams’ of the whisky that’s produced at that distillery.
Or at least it seems easier...
The fact that you are reading this suggests that you have at least
a basic grasp of the English language. This means that you should be
able to pronounce the ‘English’ distillery names like Highland Park or
Springbank - as long as you haven’t consumed too much whisky...
I’m assuming that you’re familiar with the ‘Tower of Babel’.
The budding whisky community of the late 1990s resembled the community from that old story.
When the Malt Maniacs emerged from the primordial ooze, everybody used their own notation
or ‘syntax’ to describe a particular bottling. Needless to say, this was confusing.
At the right you can find a ‘cheat sheet’ with some tongue twisters.
However, keep in mind that there are many local dialects in Scotland
and a few names have several socially aceptable pronunciations.
There’s one last topic that deserves attention in this
chapter on the words that we use to talk about whisky;
the various ways in which the very same expression
of Scotch malt whisky can be described.
There’s much more to tell, but I‘ll leave that for the Advanced Beginners Guide...
To improve our internal communications, we devised the ‘Uniform Scotch Syntax’.
It includes the name of the distillery, age statement, vintage, bottling year and a bottling name
(if aplicable). Other details like ABV, bottler, series and cask number are included in brackets.
For example, the lovely bottle of Brora depicted at the left can be described as:
Brora 22yo 1972/1995 (61.1%, OB, Rare Malts Selection)
Grain whisky is easier, quicker and
cheaper to produce than malt whisky.
A large part of the whisky buying public
indeed seems to like their whiskies to
be as cheap as possible - so it is not
surprising that whisky producers tried
to minimise their costs for the blends.
By far the most bottles of Scotch whisky that are sold are blended whisky - a 'blend' of malt whisky
and grain whisky. And while Scotch whisky distillation may appear very regulated, there are no
rules whatsoever for the proportions in which the grain and malt whiskies are mixed together.
While Scotch blended whisky used to combine roughly 2/3 of grain whiskies with about 1/3 of
malt whiskies (on average) during most of the 20th century, modern blends are less ‘malty’.
Tracking down an ‘antique’ bottle of blended
whisky might go a tad beyond the capabilities,
wallet or even interest of a relative) beginner
in the whisky world, but it would be worth it...
If you can find a bottle of blended whisky that
was bottled before +/- 1980, you really should
do a H2H or head-to-head tasting, comparing
it with a recent bottle of blended Scotch whisky.
Any brand will do - just as long as it’s recent.
By the way, did you notice the light color
of two out of the three bottles above?
Surely, this must mean that the third
has aged the longest - and is thus
the better whisky? No! I will explain
why that is in the Debunker Bunker.
(But that’s still “under construction”.)
On the other hand, blended whisky certainly appeals
to a large group of customers. Sure, an average blend
is much ‘blander’ than an average single malt whisky,
but not everybody likes their spirits TOO flavourful.
The folkloristic stories woven by whisky writers and PR people conjure up images of skilled
stillmen and experienced ‘master blenders’ weaving their mysterious Scottish whisky magic.
The reality is more prosaic these days. The ‘secret recipes’ of blended whiskies are dictated more
by practical factors like the prices of casks on the market and the company’s own stocks of whisky.
Most Scotch whisky producers own several distilleries and warehouses filled with maturing casks.
Possibly the biggest advantage of a ‘secret recipe’ is that you can change it when it suits you...
So, a blended Scotch whisky combines malt and
grain whiskies from different distilleries to produce a
a matured spirit (a minimum of 3 years) that appeals
to the tastes & wallets of as many people as possible.
However, all this talk about blends has already used up half of this page...
Let’s move along and proceed to the main topic of this chapter: the words that whisky people use.
In order to keep things understandable for the
(relative) ‘beginners’, I’ll keep most information
on other whisk(e)y types and ‘exotic’ whiskies
reserved for the Advanced Beginners Guide.
In the chapter on the geography
of whisky(e)y, I’ll try to illustrate
that the whisky world is far larger
than Scotland & Ireland these days.
This guide focuses on Scotch malt whisky.
There are many other types of whisky available and whiskey
made in other countries is often produced under different
rules and regulations. For example, American bourbon and
rye whiskey must be “aged at least briefly in oak”. So, that
might be a few days, as opposed to 3 years in Scotland.
Alcohol By Volume (percentage)
Maturation period (in years)
Grassy, leathery aromas
Fashionable piece of clothing
200 litre Bourbon cask
Malt of dubious origins
Mouth feel of a whisky
500 litre Sherry cask
Blend of different whiskies
Year of distillation
Work In Progress (unbottled)
Traditional Scotch drinking cup
First dram of the morning
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Proper nosing glass
No Age Statement
Official / owner bottling
63 liter sherry cask
ABV higher than 46%
Peaty, smoky aromas
Old system to measure ABV
450 liter Sherry cask
Massive sherry cask
225 to 275 litre cask
Tennis elbow for drinkers
Measurement of whisky (glass)
Fruity, flowery aroma's
After-taste of a whisky
Maturation in second cask
Dyslectic from Finland
Scotch malt whisky must be produced from
100% malted barley, fermented with yeast
and distilled batch by batch in traditional
copper 'pot stills'. Except for water, no
other grain products or fermentable
materials are permitted.
Within the 'malt whisky' category, there
are two sub-categories of malt whisky;
SINGLE MALT WHISKY (the product from
one distillery, not blended with any whisky
distilled at other whisky distilleries) and
VATTED MALT WHISKY (different malt
whiskies from more than one distillery.)
I have no problems with blending as such.
Mixing decent whiskies together in the right proportions can
produce something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
However, most grain whiskies aren’t halfway decent - while
I’m not afraid to use the word ‘indecent’ for some others.
The SWA likes the lines between malt and grain whisky as
blurry as possible, but I’ll keep using the word ‘vatting’ for
malt whisky and ‘blend’ whenever grain whisky is involved.