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Scotch Whisky

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Bottles of bourbon and whisky.

There are two completely different types of Scotch: not blended and malt, as is frequently thought, but malt and grain. Grain whisky makes up by far the majority of production in Scotland, but strangely from the fewest number of distilleries.

Malt or Grain?

The main differences are that malt whisky is made using exclusively malted barley, water and yeast, and is then distilled in a pot still (more about that later). Grain whisky is distilled in a patent or coffey still, using malted barley, unmalted barley, rye, wheat and corn.

The two distillation processes are completely different. Pot distilling involves distilling a fixed quantity of liquor in a closed 'kettle'. This process, repeated two, or even three times, is long-winded, labour intensive and inherently difficult to control. However, it does end up producing the kings among whiskies. Patent stills are enormous, industrial platforms which can produce large quantities of high quality, neutral grain alcohol, quickly, efficiently and economically. However, the taste often leaves something to be desired.

Legal Definitions Regarding Scotch Whisky

Take the phrase 'single malt Scotch whisky', and break it down (in reverse order):

  • Whisky - From the gaelic uisque beatha meaning 'eau de vie' or water of life.

  • Scotch - To be called Scotch, the whisky must have been distilled in Scotland and aged in wooden barrels, within Scotland itself, for a minimum of three years.

  • Malt - The only cereal used in the manufacturing process has to be malted barley. (Alternatives to this are 'grain', a grain whisky from a coffey still, or 'blended', a mixture of grain and malt whiskies.)

  • Single - The product of a single distillery. (Though not necessarily a single distillation).

Alternatives include 'vatted' or 'pure' malts; these are usually a mixture of several different single malts. The idea here is that certain distributers want their own unique malt whisky but are unable to buy or commission a distillery to produce their own recipe.

Alternatively, some pure malts for the export market seem to be a collection of all the odd barrels, leftovers, forgotten, substandard etc... sold off cheaply and thrown together to sell to unsuspecting Frenchmen in supermarkets.

The Age

When an age is quoted in 'years old' on a bottle, it is the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. When a year is marked on the bottle it indicates the year of distillation.

A note on whisky aging; Scotch whisky, like all spirits, will only mature while in a wooden barrel; once in a bottle it is 'dead,' with the possible exceptions of bottles with bad seals which will eventually 'go off'. So, if you have a bottle of 1946 whisky which was bottled in 1956 it is still only ten years old; there is no point in keeping bottles of whisky in a cellar hoping that they will improve with age.

Most bottlers who put a year of distillation of the bottle will also state the bottling year (in very small print) somewhere on the bottle. This will give you some idea of the quality of the contents of the bottle.

The Ideal Age for a Bottle of Whisky?

In short, there isn't one. Whisky is like wine in this respect; different whiskies require different lengths of time to mature. This is dependent on two main factors:

  • The style of whisky - Heavier Islay, peaty whiskies often take longer to mature than much lighter and subtler Lowland whiskies

  • %ABV (Alcohol by Volume) at which the whisky is barrelled - Whiskies are matured at their natural strength of between 65% and 70% ABV. As a rule of thumb, the lower the degree of alcohol, the quicker it will mature.

This means that when a distillery wishes to produce a batch of whisky to be matured for a very long time it generally tries, by changing the temperature of the still, to increase the %ABV produced. However, some of the greatest whiskies ever produced were certainly by accident. The stillman nips out of the distillery for a quick cigarette, the temperature in the still rises, unnoticed, and all of a sudden, they discover they've got a batch which is far too strong. The only way round this would be to either sell the batch off for blending (what a waste!) or leave it in barrels for 25, 30 or more years and see what happens.

Alcohol Content

Nowadays, spirits in the UK are marked with the %ABV. This is a relatively simple system giving the quantity of alcohol as a percentage of the total volume of the bottle at 20°C. There are two other systems which you may run across:

  • The American proof system - Very simple, take the %ABV and multiply it by two, so 40%ABV = 80°proof USA

  • The UK proof system - This is a very complex system, the measurement of which involves mixing the spirit with gunpowder and seeing if it exploded on contact with a flame (honestly!).

Here is a quick guide to certain common markings:

  • 105° Proof = 60% ABV
  • 100° Proof = 58% ABV
  • 80° Proof = 46% ABV
  • 75° Proof = 43% ABV
  • 70° Proof = 40% ABV

Maturing Whiskies

Scotches are always matured in oak barrels; this is what gives the colour and part of the taste to the otherwise clear liquid. The whisky is usually aged in 'second hand' barrels, which have been previously used to age another liquid, usually bourbon or sherry. Occasionally port, brandy, wine or even rum barrels have been used.

The official reason for ageing Scotch in this way is that the tannin in the wood has been removed by the barrels' previous contents. The unofficial reason is a little different. In years gone by, sherry was imported from Spain in barrels. These barrels, once emptied, were ideal for whisky (and not too expensive to buy). After a while, however, the Spanish came to the conclusion that it would be more profitable to sell their sherry to the English in bottles, so the stock of sherry butts hanging around in British ports dried up.

Along came the Americans. One of the regulations covering the production of bourbon (American whisky) is that it must always be matured in a brand new barrel, thereby giving the bourbon its tannic-vanilla flavouring and deep colour. The Scots bought up these barrels once they had been discarded by the Americans. In certain cases, the Scots even commission a cooper in the US to make them some barrels. They then rent these barrels out to the bourbon industry, therefore repaying the manufacturing costs, and then take them back across the Atlantic.

As previously stated, the two main types of barrels used are ex-sherry and ex-bourbon, the results of aging in each type of barrel are as follows:

  • Ex-sherry - Gives the rich red colour and a fruitier, rounder taste. Unfortunately, the winey taste left over by the previous contents can sometimes hide the subtler aromas and tastes of a whisky.

  • Ex-bourbon - Gives a drier taste and much lighter colouration. Some people find this a little aggressive after being used to sherry-aged whiskies.

Most bottlings of whiskies are made using a percentage of sherry and a percentage of bourbon aged casks; very few distilleries bottle their own product as having been exclusively aged in a single type of barrel. (Macallan is an exception that springs to mind.)

The Price of a Bottle of Whisky

As you may be aware, although governments worldwide love to tell us that alcohol is bad for our health, that doesn't stop them from taxing us for its consumption and thereby making a lot of money.

If you've ever wondered why the English flock to France to buy their booze, the answer is as follows.

In England (at the time of writing) the price of a bottle of whisky (70cl 40%ABV) costing £20 is broken down as follows:

Bottle Price £11.56
(at 17.5%)
Customs and Excise duty
(£19.50 per litre of pure alcohol)
Final Price£20.00

The same bottle in France:

Bottle price£11.56
Customs and Excise duty
(95F50 per litre of pure alcohol)
Social Security Tax
(8F40 per litre of liquid)
Final Price£17.71

Thus, the same bottle is £2.29 cheaper in France than in England.

For those who can still buy 'duty free,' the price you should be paying is the UK bottle price (£11.56). However, most duty free shops are forced to work with bigger profit margins in order to pay the extremely high rents demanded by airports, etc.

How to Make a Single Malt Scotch (Quick Recipe)

  1. First, make your malt. Take a field of barley, cut it, thrash it and recover the grain.

  2. Leave this to soak in water until the grains begin to germinate.

  3. Dry it in an oven (kiln). This is one of the first things that determines the flavour of the final product - whether the grain was dried in a modern oil-fired kiln or a peat-fired kiln, the peat giving the distinctive 'smoky' aroma to many whiskies.

  4. Grind the grain.

  5. Add to hot water at about 75°C and leave to 'mash' for a couple of hours.

  6. Cool the resulting sugary liquid, add yeast, and leave for 4 or 5 days to ferment, producing an alcohol similar to beer at approx 7 or 8% ABV.

  7. Take this liquid, pour it into a large copper kettle (still) and heat it up to around 85 - 90°C. The alcohol will evaporate before the water, so collect all evaporated liquid by condensation. The output will be a liquid at about 25% ABV.

  8. Take this liquid and run it through a second still, raising the ABV to 65 - 70%.

  9. Throw this liqueur into a barrel and wait.

  10. When you feel that it is old enough, after thorough testing, take the whisky, add water to lower the ABV to around 40%, and pour into bottles.

  11. Drink with moderation.

Why Do Whiskies all Taste Different?

Speaking here of single malt whiskies, there are many reasons why each distillery produces a completely different whisky:

  • The Malt - The malting method will change the aroma, smoky, if cooked over a peat fire, less notably so if a coal, wood or oil fired kiln is used.

  • The Water - In certain areas of Scotland the source is heavily charged with peat, which in turn transfers its taste to the finished product.

  • The Still - Depending on the size and shape of the still, the end product can vary enormously; a very tall still will generally produce a fine, elegant and subtle alcohol, while a smaller, short and fat still will produce a much more robust alcohol, richer in secondary tastes and aromas.

  • The Barrel - A barrel which has been used for sherry, and which still has the lees floating around, will quickly turn a whisky ruby red and give it a strong, fruity, winey taste. A bourbon barrel will age much more slowly, preserving the clear colour of the whisky and allowing the tastes and aromas introduced by the still, water, malting, etc, to shine through.

  • The Environment - During maturation, the barrel will 'breathe'; this will impart a specific flavour to the whisky, depending on the atmospheric conditions outside. A barrel which is stored in salty, sea air will produce a whisky with a hint of iodine (TCP antiseptic). The variations in local temperature also affect the ageing process. A barrel subjected to large swings in ambient temperature will age much more quickly than one stored in a more stable environment.

  • The Age - There is such a thing as a whisky which is too old. Some expensive bottlings are not necessarily the best, and if the liquid spends too much time in the barrel it becomes woody. (If you're wondering what this is, try chewing the end of a pencil; the dry feeling in your mouth is identical to that of drinking a whisky which is too old.) Too young can be strongly alcoholic and aggressive.

Whisky or Whiskey?

As previously stated, the word whisk(e)y is a corruption of the Gaelic phrase for 'eau de vie', the two different spellings of the English language version are basically a historical spelling mistake. However, nowadays it has become standard for certain countries to use one or other of the spellings on their products:

Whisky: Scotland, Japan, Canada, USA (Bourbon)

Whiskey: Ireland, USA (Rye)

Whiskies of the World

USA - Bourbon

Bourbon must legally be distilled in the USA and aged in a brand new oak barrel for a minimum of four years, as opposed to Scotch, which is always aged in second hand barrels. This means that the levels of tannin are much higher in bourbons, giving them their characteristic vanilla flavouring and woody feel. Also, legally a bourbon must be manufactured using a minimum of 51% corn (the rest of the cereals used can be a mixture of barley, rye and wheat). The distillation process for bourbons is similar to that of Scottish grain whiskies - a continuous process in an industrial patent or coffey still.

Japanese Whiskies

What? Japanese whiskies, never!

No, really. The Japanese are one of the largest export markets for Scotch, although they do have their own distilleries, one of which (Suntory) has the largest whisky distillery in the world. Japanese whiskies are manufactured in the same way as Scotch, using grain and malt whiskies to make up blends. However, some of their single malts are of quite high quality. The best of these are shipped, in barrels, back to Scotland to be matured in the cellars of Scottish distilleries, just to acquire that 'genuine Scottish taste', before being returned to Japan for bottling.

Thai Whiskies

No joke, see Sang Thip and Mekong Whisky, and please, be careful.

French Whiskies

Surprising, yet true. The story behind French whisky is that at one time, the Japanese were imposing differing levels of import duty on different countries depending on each countries imports from Japan. A Frenchman, noting that the Japanese were drinking lots of Scotch, and that, in Japan, excise duties were lower for products manufactured in France than for those manufactured in the UK, decided to build his own distillery.

Welsh Whiskies

These are really a bit of a cheat; they are whiskies which are distilled in Scotland, then driven down the M6 to Wales in a tanker, decanted into barrels and aged in Wales.

Irish Whiskies

These really deserve their own entry, but briefly, Irish whiskies are made in the same way as Scotch. The majority of Irish whiskies on the market are blends, however there are a few single malts available. They are characterised by their lighter bodies and aroma of violets, this is because of the triple distillation method2, where the whisky is passed through three pot stills instead of two (the case for the majority of malt Scotches). This third distillation removes even more of the 'impurities' which give Scotch much of its body. Peaty whiskies are almost unheard of in Ireland.

The major problem with Irish whiskies is the lack of choice. Over the years, the distilleries have been merged, taken over and closed down, until, today, the biggest producer of Irish whiskey, (Irish Distillers) owns 90% of the brands on the market (Paddy, Bushmills, Tyrconnell, Tullamore Dew, etc). Irish Distillers themselves are owned by the French company Pernod Ricard.

One Connoisseur's Top Ten Favourite Whiskies

  1. Springbank (if you can find a bottle)
  2. Dallas Dhu (alas no more)
  3. Port Ellen (also closed down)
  4. Macallan
  5. Ardbeg
  6. Clynelish
  7. Rosebank
  8. Glenfarclas (but only the 30-year-old, for expensive tastes)
  9. Mortlach (apparently Winston Churchill's favourite tipple!)
  10. Anything at all bottled by Adelphi (except their Irish whiskies)

This cannot be the definitive work on Scotch, as there is too much information to include in a reasonably sized entry. If the reader has any questions, please do not hesitate to post at the bottom of the entry, and an expert will be only too pleased to answer.

1Calculation of duty is as follows:
Duty Rate * %ABV * Size of Bottle
£19.50 / Litre * 40% * 0.70 L = £5.46
2A brief note on triple distillation: Ireland is not the only country to use this method; certain Lowland malt Scotches are produced using the same method.

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