Scotch Malt Whisky
Uisge Beatha, Vital Water
Scotch whisky was formerly made only from malted barley. Today, a bottle containing spirits of just about any common grain may be labeled as Scotch whisky, so long as it is all distilled and aged in Scotland. The scope of this article is concerned only with traditional Scotch malt whisky.
This article was revised on October 31, 2013
The Elements of Single Malt Whisky
Barleycorn, Water, Peat, Yeast, Distillation, Pot Stills
Strength, Aging, Oak Barrels, Water Source, Regions
Blended Whisky and Blended Malt Whisky
Whisky has come a long way since 1494, when the immortal Friar John Cor received a royal order to make aqua vitae, or as it was known in Gaelic, uisge beatha. That is the earliest historical reference we have concerning whisky, a Scottish word originally spelled uisge, and most likely pronounced “OO-ish-ga.” By the 1760s, the spelling had evolved into its present form. When referring to similar distilled spirits of Ireland and America, an e is added to spell whiskey.
Scotch malt whisky ranks high among the most popular beverages of all time. It can have a beguiling aroma that evokes sense memories of spring gardens, or roaring fires, tropical islands, or storms at sea, savory feasts, or gourmet confectionery, sometimes all from the same glass. “Complex” hardly does justice to the taste of a great whisky, with its myriad layers revealing themselves over time, as more arrive to mingle with or supplant those first on the scene. And it can leave behind an aftertaste, opulent beyond that of the finest cognac, haunting the nose and tongue like the sensual imprint of a most marvelous event.
As with most distilled spirits, the making of whisky began in small, home-based operations, which developed over centuries, despite being outlawed at times, depending upon the whim of the contemporary authorities. By the late eighteenth century there were many legal stills in operation across Scotland, and many more illegal ones. But it wasn’t until the Excise Act of 1823 that the modern distilling industry took shape. Today, for whisky to bare the label of “scotch” it must be distilled in Scotland and aged in an oak barrel for at least 3 years.
At present, this charismatic drink comes in three officially recognized forms:
Single Malt Whisky – A bottle of 100% malt whisky that all comes from the same distillery is known as “single malt whisky” or “single malt Scotch whisky”, and may be labeled as such.
Blended Malt Whisky – A bottle of 100% malt whisky produced at more than one distillery must be labeled “blended malt whisky” or “blended malt Scotch whisky.” This new and unfortunate designation has replaced “vatted” whisky and “pure malt” whisky in any official capacity, and shall henceforth and forever be confused with the term “blended whisky.”
Blended Whisky – A bottle containing a combination of malt whisky blended with whisky distilled from other grain, such as wheat, rye, or corn (maize) must be labeled “blended whisky” or “blended Scotch whisky.” Whisky other than pure malt whisky is referred to as grain whisky. In fact, grain whisky made in Scotland often contains barley, or even malted barley. But its chief ingredient is corn, which yields a more bountiful crop than the wheat used for grain whisky in previous eras.
There are currently 98 active distilleries in Scotland that make only malt whisky. Most sell their product in casks, at the minimum legal age of 3 years old, during public auctions where it is purchased by various liquor companies, who then age it further, for use in blended whisky. While some distilleries are revered for their bottled single malts, most are virtually unknown to the general public, but are prized within the industry for their contribution to prominent blends like Bell’s, Dewar’s, Chivas Regal, and the Famous Grouse.
Single Malt Whisky
Worldwide, some 88% of all whisky sales consist of blended scotch, which allows drinks companies to offer a uniform product that appeals to the widest possible audience. Outside of Scotland, single malts were known previously to only the most esoteric devotee. But in the second half of the twentieth century, more and more drinkers came to appreciate whisky from specific distilleries. In nations with a penchant for individualist endeavors, like Australia, Canada, and the United States, the idea of a small outfit creating spirits distinct from all others proved appealing. Single malts harken back to a time before industrialized mass production replaced the peerless master craftsman, and homogenization became the norm.
Today, they are appreciated for their individuality in much the same way as the wines of Europe, or the regional brandies made from them. Single malts are frequently packaged and priced as deluxe, gourmet delicacies touted as superior to all but the most exclusive blends. As a result, paying large sums for untasted single malt is a bit of a gamble. Even the celebrated labels do not appeal to everyone. On the other hand, an obscure bottle from a modest, cardboard box may hold exceptionally rewarding malt whisky.
Single malts are typically named after their home distillery, but some are given marketing brand names. Many appeal to a wide audience and are hugely popular around the globe, while others have cults of devoted fans who acquired a taste for the eccentric flavor of that particular single malt.
People might assume the contents of a bottle of single malt all come from the same cask. In reality, the distiller will mix and marry the contents of multiple barrels, frequently adding older whisky to younger, to craft a final product. In recent years, bottles filled from only one barrel have become commonplace, but they tend to be marketed as “single cask” and priced at a premium.
Although many distilleries do not offer their product for sale in shops, there is a venerable tradition held by small companies known as independent bottlers, who buy casks of 3-year-old whisky at auction with the express purpose of ultimately making it available to the public as aged single malt, and usually in single cask expressions. Often, this is the only way to sample the single malt of certain distilleries, or to experience well-known malts at unusual ages or from an individual cask. The unknowns involved in such bottlings make for a greater gamble than an official distillery release, but the jackpots often compensate for occasional disappointments.
The Elements of Single Malt Whisky
It is often said that whisky is made from just three ingredients, malted barley, pure fresh water, and yeast. If that were all there was to it, every whisky would taste basically like all the others. In reality, the product of every distillery tastes different from even that of their nearest neighbor. For that matter, the contents of every whisky cask tastes different from any other filled from the same still run. There are countless factors that determine the character of a single malt whisky, and there are many that make single malt whisky from Scotland stand apart from all the rest. Here are but a few essentials:
Barleycorn – Barley was one of the first domesticated crops and a staple food from Ancient Egypt to Tibet, and throughout Europe, where it was the primary source of bread for the peasant class. It thrives in cool, temperate climates like Scotland, where the archaic two-row variety proved ideal for fermented beverages, as it is lower in protein but higher in carbohydrates than other cereal.
Water – Water is used at all points in the process of whisky production. So a distillery must have an abundant and uninterrupted supply of clean freshwater. All consider the water source of prime importance to the taste of their final product.
A general rule is that water with pH values near but below that of pure water is desirable. Soft water is also preferred, but there are notable exceptions as some of the most popular brands are made from water with higher mineral content.
Water is at the heart of whisky. It is also at its start, as the raw barley grain is steeped in water and spread out upon a floor where it is frequently raked and exposed to warm air. Some distillers now employ machines called drums, which are filled with moistened barley and keep the grain moving and well aerated. In either case, it is all done to encourage the barley’s germination.
Sprouting triggers the process were starches break down into sugars needed for fermentation. At a certain time, based on the season, the germination is halted by drying the grain in a kiln over increasing levels of high heat for up to two days. The overall process is known as malting.
While many distillers acquire barley from a centralized malting facility, several continue to malt their own barley at the distillery, because it gives them more control over the process that contributes considerably to the flavor of the finished whisky. This is because the exact type and combination of fuels used in the kiln fires add to the phenolic flavors in the malted barley that can remain all the way to the scotch served in the glass. It is where the famous “smoky scotch flavor” comes from. Traditional malting fuels include wood, coal, anthracite, and peat.
Peat – Peat is the spongy, stratified remains of vegetable matter harvested from bogs and moorlands across Scotland, often containing considerable quantities of heather, a common wildflower. In a largely treeless environment, it has been cut from the soil in bricks and burnt for centuries in household hearths, and to heat boilers and ovens throughout the trades. “Peated whisky” is made from grain that was malted over smoldering peat fires, resulting in an evocative smoky scent and pungent flavors. Some companies who converted to modern heating will operate a second furnace, just to add peat smoke for flavoring. Even when a distillery never uses barley that was subjected to peat smoke, the water involved at all stages in the making of a whisky might come from wells or natural springs that provide conspicuous amounts of raw peat particles. It remains debatable as to how much peaty flavor comes through as a result.
While the terms smoky and peaty are used interchangeably when describing the aroma or flavor of whisky, they are not always synonymous. Peat smoke may be responsible for both, but peat itself provides an earthy taste of musty vegetation and damp soil. In addition, the actual plant life that formed the peat may offer its own ghostly contribution in the sense of grassy, mossy or even honeyed notes.
The location where the peat was harvested matters, as it determines much of its flavor enhancement. For example, peat from the Speyside area of the Eastern Highlands contains the remnants of primeval pine forests, whereas the Hebridean island of Islay spent much of its distant past under the ocean waves, so Islay peat contains desiccated seaweed. And the peat from the Orkney Islands north of Scotland is younger and has a high heather content. And peat from all three locations has been exported at various times to distilleries in other regions.
When it comes to the scent or taste of actual smoke in a particular whisky, it is determined by the level of organic phenols absorbed into the barley during malting. The taste can be similar to that of smoked cheese, smoked pheasant and so forth. However, no one would ever say a scrumptious smoked cheddar tasted peaty. Obviously, some whiskies benefit from a more charcoal-like smoke effect, while others retain properties of the actual peat burnt in the furnace, and some exhibit a certain ratio of both.
Lovers of smoke in whisky may be surprised to learn that the longer a whisky is aged, the less smoky it becomes. While peaty notes may remain, smoke phenols begin to break down in a barreled whisky as it reaches a certain point in time, known to veteran distillery employees as “crossing the Rubicon.” Whiskies exposed to peat smoke for longer time periods, like Laphroig and Ardbeg, do not reach this point until around 30 years of age, most peated whiskies reach their own particular Rubicon between age 22 and 25.
Yeast – An overlooked but vital contributor to the flavor of malt whisky is the yeast introduced at the beginning of the fermentation process. Strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae are used by brewers and distillers throughout the world, but the exact strains of S. cerevisiae used to make Scotch whisky exist nowhere else. Although the yeast specifics are part of the formulaic secrets of the various distilleries, by the advent of the twenty-first century almost all scotch distillers were employing only one or two strains of yeast, with Macallan just dropping a third strain quite recently.
The malted barley is ground to grist and brewed repeatedly in water at sub-boiling temperatures in a large mash tun, to create sugary, weak ale called “wort.” The wort is transferred to a washback, a containment vessel of wood or stainless steel, where the yeast is added and begins feeding on the maltose and other sugars, converting them to ethanol in what is now called “wash”, the teeming solution that is distilled to make whisky. This happens primarily through the process known as fermentation. Wild yeasts and bacteria native to the particular location will also establish a presence in the wash, and a great many chemical compounds come on board during fermentation that will show up as aromas or flavors at the end of the line.
Distillation – On its way to becoming scotch, single malt whisky went through a system of at least two connected pot stills. The fermented wash is boiled in the larger of the stills, sensibly known as the wash still. The resulting distillate, named the “low wines,” is then brought to boil in the spirit still, also called the low wines still.
Only the middle part of this second distillation makes its way into a liquor bottle. As heat is applied to the pot, the most volatile chemical compounds vaporize and are the first to leave the spirit still. These are the foreshots, deemed unsuitable for human consumption. The final portion of the stills’ output, the feints, vaporize under high heat and contain other volatile compounds including those with the most intense odors and tastes.
In between the foreshots and the feints is found the precious middle cut that is taken and stored for aging. It will contain a small amount of foreshots and a larger portion of feints. The goal is not to include too much of either. And just where in the foreshots the still operators decide to begin the middle cut and where to end it in the feints has a lot to do with the amounts of various flavor-producing congeners that end up in the whisky barrel. While based upon the level of alcohol, some distillers make their cuts by timing the run. Others choose to do it the old fashioned way, by sipping samples. In any case, about two and one half hours after the foreshots, the middle cut is ended. The remaining feints make up nearly half of the spirit still’s output, and they are mixed with the foreshots and diluted with 99% water before being added to new batches of low wines for further distillation.
A small number of malt distilleries have employed three stills, similar to the process used in Ireland. And some even distill their whisky two and a half times, meaning a substantial measure of the distillate is channeled back through the spirit still for further refinement. Each distillation results in an increase in alcohol content, and a decrease in both the heavier and more volatile chemical compounds.
Many other considerations are taken into account by the distillers, such as the amount of wash put in the first still, and how much heat is applied to the second still to regulate when certain compounds reach their boiling points.
Pot Stills – Scotch malt whisky must be created in pot stills made of copper, each being handmade and unique to its distillery. Copper reacts with many chemicals and nullifies some of the sulfurous compounds inherent in the fermented malt, particularly in the wash still, and it continues to affect the spirit’s composition throughout the distilling process.
The shape of the stills is also significant. Basically large kettles with swan-like necks, some have the shape of onions, and others resemble an upside down golf tee. In general, those with short necks produce heavy, robust whisky, while others, with tall, narrow necks produce whisky typically smoother and lighter. Alcoholic steam rising in the still contains ingredients of varying density. The longer the neck the greater the percentage of material that falls back into the pot, known as reflux, while the lighter, purer vapors escape from the neck and enter the lyne arm, a slanted, copper tube that channels the vaporized distillate to cooling condensers, where it liquefies and ultimately drips into a collection vessel.
Many stills include exclusive features, like bulbous or constricted sections in the neck, to further influence what combination of pure ethanol and flavorful impurities makes its way into the fledgling whisky, known as new make spirit. New make spirit is then aged in oak casks to create single malt scotch.
Strength – By law, Scotch malt whisky must be distilled at strengths below 94.8% alcohol by volume (ABV), but 72.5% is typical. It is then diluted with water before aging. A trend has developed where most new make spirit is cut to 63.5%. Modern science determined this to be the optimum strength to get the maximum benefit from the cask, wherein a whisky interacts with the wood’s chemical compounds, greatly increasing the congeners and enhancing those most responsible for the finished flavor. As the contents age, the alcohol is reduced due to the “angels’ share” evaporaing through the porous oak, leading to a strength around 60% by the time the mature single malt leaves the cask for bottling.
Scotch is diluted again at the time of bottling. Legal requirements limit this to a minimum strength of 40%, but 43% is often used for the U.S. market. Many single malts, however, are bottled at 46% on upwards to over 50%. Others are bottled at cask strength or a little below. It is assumed that Scotch whisky of higher ABV will have a splash of water added to it at the time of drinking.
Almost every whisky can benefit from the addition of water in the glass. It opens up the bouquet and brings forth otherwise hidden flavors. The water breaks the surface tension, allowing more of the bouquet to rise from the whisky. But the addition of water also begins an immediate oxidation that breaks down various long-chain molecules, transforming the chemical composition in certain sugars and alcohol esters present in the spirit, like those responsible for various fruity aromas.
The amount of added water is a personal preference. It was not unusual to find a stately Scottish laird cutting his whisky down to 50/50, saving on expensive scotch while reducing the heady effect of the alcohol to tamer levels. But most people add a small amount of water, and some even use eyedroppers to avoid over dilution.
Many of us longtime malt drinkers enjoy experimenting with taking our whisky neat, with varying measures of water, or on the rocks. Malt whisky purists may frown upon the use of ice, or even chilled water, as both inhibit the malt’s aroma and alter the flavors. While suggestions may be welcome, never let someone else tell you how not to enjoy your whisky. I have found several malts to be refreshing and delicious on the rocks, particularly during the summer months.
If one is accustomed to the major labels at 40% or 43%, cask strength whisky might be deemed too hot and high-octane. But we who seek out labels with higher ABV lament that 40% is set as the standard dilution. While 40% works quite well for the better blends, too often is the case when a bottle of otherwise outstanding single malt is excessively cut, leaving only a faint impression of its true body and soul.
One can always add water, and professional nosers tend to prefer a strength of 35% to 50% alcohol. But it cannot be removed to return a whisky to its original character. Then again, I would rather buy single malt at 40% from a small distillery that needs to stretch out its availability, than not be able to buy it at all.
Aging – For much of its history, the only whisky drank at anything like a mature age would have been found in the private cellars of the very wealthy who could afford stocks large enough that they took years to deplete. Over time it became obvious that keeping scotch in its oak barrel for many years had a profound effect upon the smoothness and the complexity of the whisky’s flavor.
Unlike wine, the positive effects of aging on whisky only apply to the oak cask. After scotch is bottled, any changes will be negligible for many years, and only apply to bottles never opened. Once opened and air introduced, whisky can go a little flat after several months, but it takes decades for it spoil.
Today, blended whisky will often contain immature spirits, but single malts rarely appear in shops younger than 8 years of age. In either case, if a scotch bottle displays an age statement, for example “12 years old,” it is a “guaranteed age” whisky. This means the youngest whisky in the bottle remained in the cask for that long. The bottle will often contain quantities of older whisky.
Aging scotch is a tricky business. The longer it remains in the cask, the mellower and more complex it becomes, losing the harshness that ordinarily characterize younger whiskies. But the longer it ages, the more influence the oak barrel has on its contents. The oak adds depth and dryness to the many flavors within the scotch, but eventually a woody bitterness emerges that is relished by some connoisseurs, yet avoided by others. Barreled whisky reaches its peak at different ages, and that can vary from cask to cask, even within the same distillery.
Whisky 25 or 30 years old costs considerably more than younger scotch, but that does not mean it is suited to every taste. One finds many whiskies around age 18 that have attained a mature level of complexity, but before the oaky tannins from the cask begin to assert themselves. However, when the opportunity arises to indulge in the sheer depth and grownup palate of a malt whisky aged over 20, or even 30 years, it should not be passed up.
Oak Barrels – To be labeled as Scotch whisky, the spirit must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years, and the species of oak can influence the taste, due to its chemical composition and how porous the physical structure. The two most common types of oak used in the production of Scotch whisky are pedunculate oak from Europe (Quercus robur), also known as Spanish oak, and white oak from America (Q. alba). Even the size of the barrel matters, as the larger the vessel, the smaller percentage of aging spirit will be in direct contact with the oak.
While malt whisky is a uniquely Scottish invention, it has been greatly enhanced by wine and spirit makers around the world on its way to becoming one of the most popular drinks on the planet. When a tax was levied on new barrels in the nineteenth century, the thrifty Scots started buying used barrels. It was discovered that whisky aged in barrels that had previously contained Spanish sherry took on color and flavors unlike other scotch.
By the turn of the century, “sherried” scotch was most popular. Sherried whiskies may offer lush flavors of stone fruit and toffee, while some take on a sulfurous aroma and a sharp, drier palate, and others possess intricate combinations of all such attributes. Barrels that held rich Oloroso sherry are most commonly used, but varieties from dry Fino to the sugary Pedro Ximenez are employed as well.
In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War caused such a disruption in the availability of sherry barrels that scotch distillers turned to the use of American oak barrels that had previously held bourbon from Kentucky or similar spirits made in Tennessee. Following the Second World War, the British Empire’s clout as a trading power was greatly diminished, and Spain rebuffed the Anglo insistence on importing sherry in bulk and bottling it in the UK, further reducing the number of available barrels. Finally, public consumption of sherry declined dramatically in recent decades, so American bourbon barrels were adopted as the standard container for aging Scotch whisky.
Since American law dictates that whiskey makers may only use a barrel once, long-term agreements exist between the American distillers and their Scottish counterparts. The Americans char the inside of barrels before aging bourbon in them and then ship the used barrels to Scotland where they may age multiple batches of whisky. Scotch aged in American barrels tends to have a sweet, vanilla quality, also obtained from French oak (Q. petraea,) which was popular in previous eras. But with American oak come other spices and the frequent notes of tropical fruit, like coconut, pineapple or banana.
A small number of distilleries continue to produce scotch that was aged entirely in sherry barrels. But few use only first-fill sherry barrels, which imbue greater influence on the final product, compared to barrels that have previously aged malt whisky. Macallan is one such company. They contract sherry makers in Spain to season barrels of Spanish oak that help give their classic Speyside whisky its signature fruitiness, just as Glenmorangie owns a forest in the Ozark Mountains of America, to make white oak barrels that are leased to American distillers like Heaven Hill, and Jack Daniels, on their way to aging that vanilla-rich highland single malt. And Highland Park has their own American oak forest, but those barrels end up in Spain, where they are saturated with sherry rather than bourbon, before making the trip to the northernmost distillery in Scotland.
It is now typical to find single malts aged in bourbon barrels that are then “finished” in sherry barrels for a year or longer. Over the last couple of decades, scotch distilleries began offering single malts finished in barrels that originally contained all sorts of wine and spirits, from Caribbean rum to Italian Marsala. Sometimes a distillery will vat together single malt that came from a combination of what may have been first, second and even third-fill barrels that originally contained bourbon, sherry, or other wine, and then the entire batch will be left to marry in a cask for several months before bottling. And successful single malt expressions have recently appeared that were aged in barrels of virgin oak, which had not held any other liquid, a common practice in the earliest days of Scotch whisky production.
At no time since scotch distilleries first received legal sanctions to make whisky has there been so much innovation and experimentation, and with such good results. What began as an adaptation out of economic necessity has evolved into a specialized and highly valued process where raw materials from divergent climates and even different continents meet and coalesce in Scotland, to help make some of the finest liquor ever created.
By Land, Sea and Air – the Terroir of Scotch Malt Whisky
The region of Scotland where a whisky is distilled matters a great deal. The small nation is surrounded by the sea and composed of microclimates separated by mountainous terrain. The finer details of why a specific whisky tastes like it does can have less to do with how it was made, than where it was made.
The Water Source – Scotland’s limestone, sandstone and pervasive granite mineralize freshwater to varying degrees, so the softness differs across the country. The composition of the water is central to the chemistry of distilling, and the exact location of the water source is of prime importance when it comes to making a unique whisky.
For example, freshwater of the Lowlands is least acidic and contributes to the production of whisky with a delicate complexity. Springs and burns in the Highlands contain micro amounts of salts and organic matter that can vary from one glen to the next. Island whisky is often made with freshwater that has high peat content, and is further influenced by seawater saturating the briny air that nourished the peat used for malting, and later permeates the oak casks as they age in a seaside warehouse.
The Regions – The single malt from a particular distillery will have its own distinct characteristics, yet it may exhibit qualities similar to whisky from nearby distilleries within the same geographic region of Scotland. The primary regions are as follows. These style assessments are broad, and there are exceptions in every case.
Highlands – flavors of wood spice and heather characterize the highland malts, be they the fresh and flowery ones from the eastern Highlands or the full-bodied varieties from the northern and western Highlands. Renowned scotch from the Highlands includes the smoky tang of Oban from the west coast, and the vanillin spice of Glenmorangie from the northeast (pronounced like “orange-ee”.)
Speyside – More than half of all malt distilleries in Scotland reside within this compact region, found in the eastern Highlands along the Spey River and its tributaries such as the rivers Livet, Fiddich and Elgin. Speysiders tend to be elegant, civilized spirits. Some have a fruity palate, while others have toffee-like flavor, or a crisp and spicy taste. Definitive labels representing Speyside scotch include the Macallan, the Glenlivet, the Balvenie, and Glenfiddich.
Lowlands – only four malt whisky distilleries are found in the southern Lowlands, and their whisky is delicate and floral. The most famous single malt from the Lowlands is the triple-distilled Auchentoshan, traditionally light, fresh and zesty, while the gently peated Glenkinchie has recently gained popularity in the U.S.
Campbeltown – based near the tip of the Kintyre peninsula, in southwest Scotland, the area surrounding Campbeltown was home to so many different whiskies that it was considered to be its own region. For a time, they were reduced to one distillery, Springbank. But now, there are three distilleries, producing whisky under five labels, enough to retain the official regional designation. This out-of-the-way peninsula is one short glacier slice from being Kyntire Island of the Inner Hebrides. As such, the hardy Campbeltown style with its distinctive combination of earthy peat, spiced fruits and whispering sea salt has more in common with the island distilleries than those from the nearby lowlands.
Islands – Many coastal distilleries benefit from their proximity to the ocean, and a pinch of sea salt is often the reward. But scotch of the Isles has the sea in its soul, be it a tangy trace along the edge of the finish, or a downright briny emulsion deep within its heart.
The same governing body that brought you “blended malt whisky” has also failed to designate the islands as a separate whisky producing region. Instead, they are lumped in with the Highlands, except the island of Islay (pronounced “EYE-luh”), which has eight active distilleries. Their vigorous character lends Islay whiskies the opportunity to absorb high amounts of peat smoke without it overwhelming other flavors. Popular examples include Bowmore, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. Islay scotch is an acquired taste, if ever there was one, but it has an earthy intensity embraced by a notably seaward pull that many find irresistible.
Other island whiskies of stellar reputation include Talisker, from the Isle of Skye, a peaty malt with a sumptuous character that falls somewhere between an Islay scotch and some highland varieties. And from the Orkney Islands comes Highland Park with its complex yet balanced flavor that is prized by single malt drinkers and master blenders alike.
Blended Whisky and Blended Malt Whisky
Of all the factors that can alter the flavor of a whisky, none are as complicated as the art of blending. Scientists have identified over 400 separate flavors in Scotch whisky. Not all of them are compatible. The slightest variation in the ratios of the contributing spirits, as well as the influence of age and environment upon each, can alter the taste of a blended whisky, for good or ill.
Medieval distillers were considered to be alchemists. The same could be said of today’s master blenders. They combine elements of various origin and composition to create an entity different from and at times greater than the sum of its parts. The blender will employ certain whiskies to make up the body of a recipe, while others are added sparingly, like finishing herbs dropped across a savory dish. Flavors, complementary or offsetting, are balanced and unified. At times a blended scotch will conjure up flavors undetected in the individual whiskies brought together to create it.
The master blender holds a most highly respected position in the business, one that requires a vast knowledge, strong intuition, and an exceptionally nuanced sensory perception. Theirs is a craft developed through apprenticeship, experimentation, and lucky accidents. The panache of each new blender adds to the collected wisdom handed down through generations of Scotch whisky makers, and is embodied in the results of their labor, whether it be the vatting of pure malts, or blending them with grain whisky.
The grain whisky of Scotland begins as a neutral spirit produced at around 98% ABV in continuous column stills. This is substantially higher an ethanol content than the bourbons and ryes of America and Canada. The grain distilleries that contribute to blended scotch number less than 10, yet they make almost twice as much whisky in a year as the combined output of the nearly 100 distilleries producing single malt. But, unlike much of the world’s grain alcohol, such as vodka and American moonshine, Scotch grain whisky is aged for years in oak casks that add considerable flavor, albeit lighter, softer and sweeter than pure malt whisky.
A modern-day blend may contain only 10% single malts and still qualify as “Scotch whisky,” so long as it is distilled and aged in Scotland. This is one reason it has a reputation in America as a coarse, hard drink. The lower-priced well scotch can have a harsh burn. There is less pure malt whisky in it, and what is there is usually quite young in age. But blended scotch of higher quality and reputation is made up of around 40% aged malt whisky, while some high-end blends tip the scales at 60%. The remainder consists of quality grain whisky aged as long as or longer than the malts.
Blending became popular in the late 1800s, when scotch was being consumed around the world for the first time. The original distillers were farmers who converted their excess barley to whisky. The original bottlers were grocers who acquired casks of whisky as trade goods from local farms, and then combined them.
They had considerable experience blending tea, to compensate for the uneven quality in shipments coming from the Far East, and eventually developed their own house recipes. So, they applied the same principal to blending whisky. Single malts can have strong, individual characteristics, and taste somewhat different from one barrel to the next. And since some stills produced robust whisky while others produced lighter varieties, formulas were invented that take advantage of the best qualities found in any number of complimentary malts.
Patriarchal names like Dewar, Buchanan, the Chivas brothers, and Johnnie Walker each developed a distinctive and consistent collection of house blends with broad appeal. Indeed, as the grocers advanced the art of blending, they inspired the farmers to perfect their own product so that it offered a desirable taste found nowhere else. It is therefore with some irony that the blending houses gave rise to the single malt industry.
It was common to find blends of 100% malt whisky prior to 1900. Over time, more blenders included grain whisky to take the rougher edges off their mixture, and provide a pleasant, underlying canvas for the more colorful malts. Or, to use a different metaphor, one could look at the various whiskies in a blend as separate bands on an electronic stereo equalizer, and it is the skill of the master blender that brings into line the extreme peaks of the malts employed, to end up with a smooth and unified arc that flows easily from the first taste to the lingering finish. But even when including grain whisky in the solution, it is the specific malts present that determine a blend’s exclusive flavor profile and brand identity. Many such formulas are considered trade secrets to this day.
To illustrate the blender’s craft, let’s take a look at some commercial offerings from one of Scotland’s esteemed whisky makers, Johnnie Walker.
Red Label reputedly contains 35 malt and grain whiskies. Intended for mixed drinks, this peppery blend was Churchill’s choice for whisky and soda.
Black Label is a blend of approximately 40 whiskies, the youngest being aged 12 years. It has a velvety malt palate, with a discreet peaty influence.
Double Black is a new, smokier version of Black Label. Made from the same cast of characters, but featuring the peatiest whiskies – noticeably Caol Ila – at least some of the components were aged in freshly charred casks.
Green Label is Johnnie Walker’s only blended malt whisky. It is comprised of just four ingredients, representing the two most popular styles of single malt scotch – Cragganmore and Linkwood of the Speyside region, and Caol Ila and Talisker from the islands. The youngest whisky in Green Label is aged 15 years. Rich, yet, balanced, this fusion of malty sweets, toasted nuts, dried fruit, and honeyed heather has a touch of peat in its smoky depths.
Gold Label is based on a recipe from the late 1800s, and includes some 15 whiskies, centered on Clynelish from the northeast coast and Talisker from the northwest. Sporting an age statement of 18 years, the floral and citrus complexity of this civilized, mature blended scotch is braced by a dash of highland spice and laced with smoke that arrives with subtly, yet lingers on and on.
Sadly, Green Label and Gold Label are being phased out. But there are large supplies of both available for sale.
Blue Label is the paramount Johnnie Walker blend. It contains no age statement, but is likely created with spirits of considerable maturity. While the contents of this luxuriously smooth elixir are a highly guarded secret, it is accepted that the many malts used include some from Islay, like Lagavulin and Caol Ila, as well as two of the smallest distilleries in Scotland, Royal Lochnagar in the eastern highlands, and Speyside’s Cardhu, which, in a younger form, is the nucleus of Black Label.
New premium blends have recently come to market from Johnnie Walker, and other venerable names such as Douglas Laing, and Chivas Brothers, as well as newcomers like Compass Box. New single malts and blended malts arrive as well, from new distillers and those who have been in business a century or more. It is a most fortuitous time to be a whisky drinker.
However it was spelled or translated across Europe and Scandinavia, aqua vitae was the distilled essence of the local berry or farmable grain. In Scotland, that meant barley.
But in no other place on Earth is found the same combination of environmental factors that contributed to the evolution of the look, smell, feel and taste of Scotch malt whisky. It is the bedrock through which the water rises, and the vegetable matter over which it courses. It is the air washing across the rugged land from sea to sea. It is the soil so conducive to growing barleycorn and sweet, fragrant heather. It is the peat bed slowly accumulating a foot each thousand years. It is the isolation of small farming communities, where illicit distillers could set up operations long enough to develop tradition and expertise. And it is even the political climate that granted them licensed legitimacy just in time for the Industrial Revolution, opening up far-flung markets, leading to the capital necessary to reserve large quantities of whisky for 10, or 20 or even 50 years, and introducing used, but flavorful casks from foreign lands in which to age the spirit that could have come from nowhere else. It is the spirit of Scotland, which may now be savored, enjoyed, and raised in celebratory toasts around the world.
And that is one man’s word on Scotch malt whisky.
List of Recommended Single Malts for newcomers and explorers seeking good examples of the craft at reasonable prices:
Best all arounders: Highland Park 12, with its balanced combination of malty sweetness, fruity sherry, and a touch of Orkney peat, and Talisker 10, equally rich, but with bourbon-derived spice nestled in a blanket of prominent peat. And for a taste of the Highlands, try Glen Garioch 12, with its spicy, woody, fruity, floral profile enriched by a juicy yet judicious infusion of sherry.
Sherried refinement: Macallan 12, Glenfarclas 12, Glendronach 12, none of these distillers currently use peated malt for their core product line, and all use first fill sherry casks for their entry level label. Like Guinness or Murphy’s, Coke or Pepsi, any one of these sherried classics could become your personal favorite.
The sweet and spicy influence of bourbon: Glenmorangie 10, Balvenie Doublewood 12, Glenfiddich 12, with little or no peat influences, the standard Glenmorangie is aged only in American bourbon barrels, while the Balvenie Doublewood is further aged in sherry barrels, and Glenfiddich is single malt aged in bourbon vatted together with a portion aged in sherry. I believe Glenmorangie to be the most popular single malt in Scotland, while the lightly peated Glenfiddich is the most popular single malt in the world.
Peat and re-peat: Springbank 10, for when you are ready to dive into the Campbeltown style, and from up the west coast, Oban 14 has a peat influence less dry and a bit smokier, but nothing as pronounced as Talisker or the Islay whiskies.
Islay Adventure in order of peat smoke: Bowmore 12 is smoky and malty, Laphroig 10 is smokier as well as drier, and Ardbeg 10 is smokiest of all yet wonderfully balanced with a vanilla sweetness.
Steals – remarkably good whisky for the least amount of money include: Bowmore Legend – sold under $25 (7 or 8 years old, no longer made but still available.) Otherwise, Ardbeg 10, Highland Park 12, and Macallan 12 are found at $40 and are simply superior to many single malts or blends costing considerably more.
Heavy Hitters – for those ready to pay for the privilege:
Speyside Sherry: Glenfarclas 17 has a complex heart of plump fruit and spicy dry oak that embodies the essence of traditional distilling and sherry cask aging, perfected by one of the original and still independent family businesses that invented the art form. Aberlour a’Bunadh is released at cask strength in numbered batches, as an attempt to reproduce a bottle of Aberlour from 1898 that was found during renovations at the distillery. Originally a vatting of older and younger malts, recent versions have been single cask expressions. Succulent Oloroso stone fruit are complimented by exotic spices and a nip of mature oak.
Bourbony pedigree: Balvenie Single Barrel 15 yo, limited to 350 bottles per barrel, each batch is unique while retaining the peatless Balvenie style of sweet vanilla, dry, clean oak, and a sprinkling of spice and tropical fruit.
Lush Sherry and Smokey Peat: Ardbeg Uigeadail, Springbank 15, Talisker Distillers Edition. Aging notably peated scotch in sherry barrels does not always result in an integrated and cohesive flavor profile. But these particular whiskies are hugely successful in that regard.
Angels and Demons: Highland Park 18 is heavenly and a superb introduction to Premiere League scotch. Lagavulin 12 Cask Strength is outrageous; an explosive heavyweight of a maritime Islay beast, it will smack you in the chops, but make you ask for more.
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