Primer on whiskies

It may come as a surprise but whisky, for so long seen as an "old man's" drink and less fashionable than say, wine or gin, is now becoming fashionable among women.

What's more, this increasing popularity with the fairer sex has contributed to record sales in recent years.

Despite the growing interest, many are still not fully versed in what whisky is made from and its different forms.

One problem is that whisky classification is complicated by different rules of production and bottle labelling by each whisky-producing country.

Typically, the longer the country's whisky industry has been organised and legalised, the more stringent these rules.

One striking example from traditional producers Scotland, Ireland, the US and Canada is that they categorically forbid mixing whiskies from other countries into their own blends.

This is reasonable as consumers assume the origin of the product by its label; hence it's worth noting that several whiskies from Japan have traditionally been bottled with a blend of malts from Scotland.

Making things worse for the consumer is that rules governing whisky production in India, Thailand and Taiwan are so ambiguous that some of these spirits cannot be imported into the EU as whiskies.

Scottish grade

It's best to start one's understanding with the Scottish classification, since these whiskies are probably the most familiar and have the added advantage of being governed by a very robust system.

In Scotland, whisky was made primarily from malt until the 1860s, after which other grains such as corn, wheat and rye were permitted as ingredients.

This trend of mixing other grains with malt whiskies continued to the 1950s where whiskies made solely from malt were reintroduced.

Technically, malts are simply the germinated state of whole grains. However in the context of whisky it is only the malt of the barley grain that defines malt whiskies as we know them today.

When we speak of malt whiskies many inevitably jump to the term "Single Malt" on the assumption that this means better quality.

The truth is that the word "single" merely means the whisky comes from one distillery which is not necessarily a hallmark or benchmark of quality. It does however indicate a certain style of whisky to be expected as it comes from only one distillery.

Single malt whiskies may come from a variety of barrel types, all of which impart distinct flavours. As long as blends are above three years old, they can be mixed and on top of this, some distilleries use peat smoke to dry their malts which gives a smoky nose and palate loved by some but loathed by others.

From the heavily peated whisky to that which is totally unpeated, there is a whole range of smoke flavour intensities that can define a distillery's house style.

However, these distinct styles are today becoming increasing clouded in a highly commercialised environment and in particular, the Travel Retail industry.

The classic styles are now sitting alongside a proliferation of limited or special releases that are constantly being generated to show variety.

Many whisky aficionados fear that marketers rather than distillers and blenders are now playing too big a role in directing style and quality.

Distinct from malt whiskies are blended whiskies which are a mix of malt whiskies with grain whiskies. Grain whiskies can be a confusing concoction of ingredients best left to another article.

Suffice to say, without understanding grain whiskies one will not appreciate how the ubiquitous blends such as Black Label or Chivas are made.


This article was first published on Dec 19, 2014.
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