Now that I’ve broken down some old myths about Scotch whisky and given you some practical recommendations for starting points, let’s take a step back and get down to brass tacks for a minute here. Crowing about what whisky isn’t without telling you more explicitly what it is, and then giving you buying recommendations without any sort of guidepost about what exactly you’re supposed to do with these mysterious bottles once you get your hands on them, seems counterintuitive at best, potentially negligent at worst. Rest assured, as in all cases there is at least some method to my madness. Today I’ll be covering the first question What Is Whisky? In my next post, I’ll dive into the second, How Do You Drink It?
What Is Whisky?
The name whisky comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning water of life. At the heart of it, whisky (or whiskey as it’s spelled in Ireland and America) is distilled liquid made from barley, or other grains, which has been aged in oak barrels. Almost every country in the world that produces whisky (Scotland, Ireland, America, Canada & Japan being some of the most notable) has a codified set of rules that determines what can and cannot legally be called whisky. Scotland in particular has an incredibly stringent and strictly enforced set of laws to determine what can be sold to the public as “Scotch Whisky”. The Scotch Whisky Association is the governing body that oversees and polices the industry, and they rule their domain with an iron fist. The SWA identifies five distinct categories of Scotch Whisky, but for now I’d like to keep it simple and stick to the two most ubiquitous of these: Single Malt Scotch Whisky & Blended Scotch Whisky.
Single Malt Scotch Whisky is made at a single distillery from exactly three ingredients: water, malted barley, and yeast. I’m not going to get incredibly technical at this stage of the game, both because it’s too early to start hitting you over the head with alien terms like “worm tub condensers”, and also because my grasp on the more science-y ins and outs of distillation is admittedly rudimentary at best. The basic process however, is to take milled barley which has been malted (forced to germinate and then dried in order to begin converting starch into sugar) and steep it in hot water to release these sugars (known as mashing). The resulting sugary liquid (called wort) is then fermented with the addition of yeast to produce alcohol. If you’re at all familiar with the process of beer making, this will all seem incredibly familiar to you (apart from the addition of hops you’d find in beer, the process is in fact identical). The finished beer-like liquid (called wash) is then distilled twice (or sometimes thrice!) in copper pot stills, further concentrating the alcohol content to 60-70% ABV (alcohol by volume). The finished product is known as “new make spirit”, but cannot be called whisky until it has spent a minimum of three years aging in oak casks (this aging must also take place within the borders of Scotland itself).
Blended Scotch Whisky on the other hand, is a blend of single malt whisky (made the same way as above), from one or more distilleries, with grain whisky from one or more distilleries. Grain whisky is produced in a relatively similar way to malt whisky, but in addition to malted barley being used in the mash, unmalted grains like wheat or corn are also added. The other primary difference in production is the use of large, industrial looking “column stills” to efficiently and continuously distill the wash into spirit, without the need for double or triple distillation. The finished spirit is once again required to be aged for a minimum three years in oak before it can be sold or blended as grain whisky. Blending malt and grain whisky together can be an art unto itself. Johnnie Walker Black for example, is composed of upwards of forty different grain and malt whiskies which need to be married together to produce a consistent product, batch after batch, year after year.
Malts Versus Blends
The fundamental difference between single malt whisky and blended whisky comes down primarily to the effect that grain whisky has on the smell and taste of the finished product. Lighter and sweeter than the generally heavier, richer and more intense malt whisky, grain whisky imparts its more delicate, sweet character on a blended whisky to provide some degree of balance. The easygoing drinkablility of blended whisky (paired with decades of aggressive marketing) means that 9 in every 10 bottles of Scotch whisky sold worldwide are blends. Conversely, single malts have only been marketed outside of Scotland since 1963, with the now famous Glenfiddich being the first such product introduced on a world stage. In that relatively short span of time however (and particularly over the last two decades or so) single malt whisky has become the choice for discerning consumers looking for a more singular, more characterful, and potentially more intense drinking experience. This spike in the popularity of single malts has led to the rise of the blanket statement from some that, “malts are better than blends”. This argument is both a gross oversimplification, and a fallacy that one should do their best to avoid repeating. There are some truly wonderful blended whiskies on the market that hold their own (and in some cases rival or surpass) a great many single malts. There are also some truly terrible blends out there, most of which are designed and marketed to be mixed with cola or buried in cocktails, and it’s mostly these culprits that tend to give blended whisky a bad name. Even still, it’s unwise and unfair to write off blended whisky as a whole; there’s an entire galaxy of fantastic experiences to be had on the blendy end of the spectrum for those of you willing to keep an open mind.