Whiskies – the basics

“There is no bad whisky. There are only some whiskies that aren’t as good as others.” – Raymond Chandler

Traumatic memories of a toxic Tesco branded whisky bought in Brighton in the 1980s oblige me to disagree.

You’re unlikely to encounter any whiskies quite that bad these days (signum crucis) but there are still a few budget blends that won’t inspire anyone to become a whisky buff. A session with one of the better blends on the other hand will make you realize that whisky isn’t just another shot – it’s a commitment. And once you’ve enjoyed a single-malt it’s hard to go back.

Whiskies are usually grouped by region, but of course they also vary according to their age and production methods – so in some cases there is more similarity between similarly produced whisky from different sides of the world than there is between high quality and poor quality whisky from the same distillery. The point is well illustrated by the shock of judges at a Burns Night whisky tasting competition organised by the Times in January 2010 when they discovered the “scotch” they’d awarded first prize was from Taiwan.

It would be truer to rephrase Raymond Chandler and say ‘There is no best whisky. There are only some whiskies that aren’t the same as others’ – because whisky is all about character.

No other spirit can match the range of subtleties that are captured in whiskies – from the soils and rocks the water flows through and the barley grows in, the climate, the much prized antique kegs, and the many subtle effects of the stills and the arts of the distillers. This is why it excites such passionate interest among connoisseurs and collectors and some bottles acquire legendary value. The whisky collector can experience the whole world from his armchair – from the salty smell of seaweed on the Isle of Skye within a Talisker to the tropical fruits of Taiwan captured in a Kavalan.

The Whisky Exchange will let you browse whiskies by flavour as well as region.

In most opinions, the final flavour of whiskies is determined more by the equipment and methods used than by the features of the geographical environment from which they come. Although tasting the region and climate through the drink is probably the supreme joy whiskies offer it’s important to understand something of those different methods first.

copper pot still
The copper pot still improves the taste

Types of whiskies

The following kinds of whisky may all be produced from a single distillery.

Single malts…

…come from one mash but may be from several different casks (the distiller will mix them to try to keep consistency in the final product. In the malt category, the name of the whisky is the name of the distillery that made it (this is not always true amongst blended whiskies where they may just be arbitrary trade-names).

Single cask malts…

single cask whisky
…come from one mash and just one cask. They’re sometimes called “single singles” – i.e. from a single cask and a single malt. There may be unpredictable differences between casks but if one seems to have particular character it may be highly prized.

Cask strength…

…means not diluted. The strength of different casks can vary and it can also be too high for the market (in warmer climates more water evaporates and the proofage in a barrel can rise). A whisky labelled cask strength is exactly as it came out of its cask. Most bottled whisky aims at 40% alcohol by volume (75-80 proof) but original cask strengths can be as much as double that. Yes, 160 proof whisky does exist!

Bastard Malts

In the 1990s, in particular, there was a surplus of single malt whiskies heading for the market. Rather than drop the price point of the quality brand names some distillers released surpluses (usually while they were still fairly young and immature) under made-up names and concealing their actual place of origin. This part of the whisky market has been nick-named “bastard” because the pedigrees are unknown.
black adder whisky

Names you may find include – Blackadder, Finlaggan, Ardnave, Bennachie, Ben Wyvis, Blairfindy, Cairnluish, Cockburn, Glenforres, Glen Foyle, Glentromie, Glen Gordon, Ileach, Inverarity, Lochindaal, McClelland’s, Smokehead, Stronachie, Port Askaig, and Vanilla Sky.

Quality is very variable but they’re certainly worth having a go!

Blended (or vatted) malt whiskies…

…can come from several different distilleries as well as different mashes. The distiller’s objective is still to get a consistent character in the result but because of the varied origins that character can be less than in single malts.johnny walker black label

Blends are not necessarily of lower quality spirits – and some brands specialise in them with pride. Some of the most famous whisky brands are not single malts from specific distilleries but ranges of blended whiskies -Johnny Walker, Ballantines, Chivas and Monkeys Shoulder are premium examples.

Some of these blends don’t carry a date because their constituents may have different ages, but others do, offering 12, 18 or 25 year old blends. Some have been much sought after – like Johnny Walker’s black label which was hard to get at one time. Top quality blends can be better than some poor quality single malts… or not. Other examples include Sheep Dip and Blairmhor.

Blended whisky…

…that does not specifically say “malt” may contain spirit made from grain other than barley. Sadly, the vast majority of the whisky served in pubs and bought from supermarkets and corner shops is from this category. Not that all non-barley “whisky” is without quality, but the chances are that the final quality of these “whiskies” will be lower. Blackbarrel and Invergordon are two better examples – there are hundreds worse.

Teachers, Bells and Cutty Sark are some of the best known budget blends. Kings Crest, The Antiquary, Claymore and Buchanans are other blenders worth a taste or two.

Scotch whisky without an age statement may, by law, be as young as three years old.

Grain whiskies

These are distilled from any available grain – including wheat and maize – without abiding by any of the rules that define a true whisky (the name is therefore a bit of a misnomer and we should perhaps just say “grain spirits” or “grain alcohol”). The kind of still used is different too – there is usually a permanent production line of coffey-stills, rather than batches from traditional stills.

With plenty of aging in a good quality cask, some grain alcohols can become very fine drinks in their own right. Really the problem is that manufacturers that have recourse to these methods are rarely in the business of trying to produce them.

AGING

As with wines, or even beers, they reach their best taste and condition at a particular age. More aging is by no means a guarantee of a better experience, however many old wines and whiskies continue to accumulate financial value due to their rarity. That’s not the same thing at all.

Balvenie 50 year old malt
A snip at only £30,000 a bottle

The age at which a drink reaches this optimum quality varies on many factors – including many that are very hard to control or to replicate such as the weather conditions during each growing season, qualities of the soil in which the grain, vines, hops or other ingredients grow, the chemical details of the water used in the brew – which is greatly affected by the rocks and soils through which it runs, the qualities of the oak barrels or other containers, and even chance occurrences such as differences in the bacteria or yeasts that get into the mix.

Some scotch whiskies are kept in their kegs for as long as 50 years, others are being drunk at the age of 3. Even genuine American barley-malt whiskies hardly ever make it past 10 years and popular “whiskies” like Jack Daniels much less. The Italians seem to have a strange disposition for young whiskies and Scottish distilleries are known to ship quantities there at three years old.

A warmer climate is often said to make whisky mature faster and whisky from tropical countries is therefore often sold younger. A keg in a part of the cellar that is just fractionally warmer will be slightly different to neighbouring ones after ten or more years.

A few good quality whiskies will state “NAS” which means no age statement. This is because the distillery prefers to decide precisely when it’s ready by tasting it – and yet put it out under a consistent brand name – “Makers Mark” is a well known example. So the absence of an “age” is by no means an indication of an inferior drink, necessarily.

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Daddio

posted by Daddio

Writer and philosopher

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