Water Of Life Society Tasting 14/2
Types of Whisky / More than Malt
The focus of our second tasting was an exploration through the different types of whisky produced in Scotland. Famous for its single malt whisky, Scotland produces much more than this.
Single Grain Whisky
All whisky is made from cereal grains. The contain a good store of sugars, packaged as complex carbohydrates (starch). This starch can be broken down into simple sugars that the yeast can then metabolise into alcohol. To break down the starch easily some grains such as barley come packaged with their own enzymes such as maltase, this can be activated by tricking the grains into growth by adding water and heat (simulating spring). Once the shoots appear the growth of the barley is halted by drying in a kiln (sometimes using peat) and the grains can be milled (crushed) to aid release of the sugars. Single Malt Whisky is produced entirely from malted barley, however single grain can be made from any cereal grain. To assist sugar extraction the mashbill (make-up of cereal grains) may contain a little malted barley, however mashbills of entire Maize or Rye are not uncommon. Apart from the utilage of numerous cereal grains, Grain Whisky is also distilled continuously. Column stills or continuous stills are descendents of the Coffey (or Patent) still (named after its inventor Aeneas Coffey, originally an Irish Exciseman, Coffey invented the continuous distillation method to increase efficiency of production over the traditional batch distillation in copper pot stills). New make from column stills typically reaches ~ 94% abv, which is reasonably pure alcohol and leaving minimal grain influence. This can be watered down and flavoured as Gin or Vodka or interred into oak casks and matured as grain whisky like the following:
Blended Scotch Whisky
Blended Scotch Whisky contains both Single Malt Whisky and Single Grain Whisky, usually with a high percentage (60-95%) of the cheaper Single Grain. Blended Scotch Whisky accounts for around 90% of the whisky output of Scotland and is both famous and popular worldwide. Originally constructed to use the cheaper sweeter grain whisky and harsher/spicier (often undrinkable) single malt whisky to produce a balanced highly drinkable, uniform and reproducible whisky product that could be marketed and shipped around the world. Blended Scotch grew to prominence at the end of the 19th Century in the latter two decades following the introduction of continuous distillation of grain whisky.
Blended Malt Whisky
Blended Malt, previously Vatted Malt or All-Malt Blends, is the relatively new term (since 2009) for Whisky that contains a mixture of single malts distilled at two or more separate distilleries. The term Blended was resisted at first due to it’s association with the inclusion of cheaper Grain whisky (as above) but is now accepted as industry standard (at least by the producers). Consumer confusion still abounds however though more products are coming to market that are Blended Malts (see the blending company Compass Box for example). Again the Blender’s skill is employed to select individual whiskies with beneficial characteristics and mix them together to create a whole that is superior to its parts. Monkey Shoulder from William Grant & Sons, contains Single Malt Whisky from each of their 3 distilleries: Glenfiddich, The Balvenie and the lesser known Kininvie, batch mixed to create just the right flavour profile. Mixture of different Single Grain Whisky also gives rise to the Blended Grain Whisky category.
Originally reviewed (Batch 27) 7th October 2013
Single Malt Whisky
Possibly the most highly acclaimed category by Whisky Afficionado’s, Single Malt Whisky is (perhaps wrongfully) considered the pinnacle of scotch whisky production. Single Malt Whisky is produced from 100% malted barley and is batch distilled in traditional copper pot stills. After this however things take a turn for the sinister. Batch produced new make is often collected over a period of a week or so to even out production variation. This new make is then interred into 100’s to 1000’s of oak casks of various types and styles. Ultimately the Single Malt Whisky is then constructed by vatting together a huge number of these casks to generate the specific flavour profile of the standard signature whisky from that single distillery (e.g. Glenmorangie 10, or Glenfiddich 12, etc.). In so doing the distillery can then deliver a reproducible/uniform product to the marketplace, whilst hoodwinking the lesser informed into thinking this is a hand-crafted, unique product. That said, flavour profiles from some distilleries have shifted noticeably over time with uniformity of production methods (especially the mechanization and computer-controlling many of the steps along the way) such that there are no longer good (or equally bad) still runs anymore just perfectly average uniform production all the way.
Originally reviewed 23rd August 2013 as part of Tomatin tasting Masterclass
Single Cask Whisky
Single Cask (Single Malt or Single Grain) Whisky is perhaps now growing to the forefront of whisky appreciation. Single Cask and Cask Strength Whiskies have certainly grown in availability and popularity over the last few decades. Single Malt production is now at the stage where most whisky produced is pretty drinkable on its own (without vatting), however once in a while a combination of spirit and cask get together and produce something truly unique and wonderful. Delivered by independent bottlers and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in the main, some Distilleries will offer Single Cask expressions and even occasionally release them to general sale. The problem is small batch sizes, especially from older casks. During maturation, evaporation (the Angel’s Share) takes its toll on the cask contents and the volume and abv both drop with time. The older the cask the less return, or number of bottles, and usually the relative increase in cost per bottle. Single Cask Whisky is unique and non-reproducible, so enjoy its unique-ness and if you come across one you like – buy as many bottles as you can as once it’s gone, it’s gone!